The first thing we need to establish in order to answer this question is that our subject is NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers. Asking “How much do NASCAR drivers make?” is like asking “How much do CEOs make?” The answer would depend on the size of the CEO’s company.
NASCAR’s three national tours are well-publicized and the work pays well. NASCAR also sanctions six regional tours and 86 grassroots-level short tracks in the United States, Canada and Mexico. There are literally thousands of drivers who don’t make money and actually spend money to race in NASCAR. As a whole, most drivers don’t make anything. Cup Series drivers are paid well, but they represent the smallest percentage of the NASCAR community. This piece addresses Cup Series drivers – the guys at the top.
Each driver’s contract is different, but there are a lot of industry standards and similarities. Common practices include a salary, a percentage of the car’s winnings, a souvenir sales percentage and performance bonuses. Extra money is often given for wins, poles, top fives and top 10s. Season-ending point championship dollars are also stated in most contracts.
Driver contract details are not usually made public, but lawsuits sometimes bring details to the media’s attention.
Mike Wallace’s recent lawsuit against Germain Racing revealed he was paid a $700,000-a-year salary plus half of the car’s earnings. Wallace also got a percentage of any souvenir sales.
Jimmy Spencer had a contractual dispute with Chip Ganassi after the 2002 Cup campaign. “Mr. Excitement” was replaced as one of Ganassi’s drivers with two years left on his contract. Media reports claimed Spencer’s salary was $1.1, $1.2 and $1.3 million for each season. Race winning percentages and performance bonuses were also part of that agreement.
A well-funded Cup team, even if it runs middle to rear of the pack, would pay a driver around a seven-figure mark for a base salary. Race purse money runs anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. A cut of all merchandise sold is factored in. And there are performance bonuses ranging from a few thousand dollars to a seven-figure amount for a championship.
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The Cup teams of the “start and park” variety do not pay anywhere near these numbers. Drivers will sometimes take a small cut of prize money earned or a small, flat salary per race. That said, even weekly last-place Cup finishers can become millionaires.
Upper-level teams like Hendrick Motorsports keep marquee drivers happy and under contract. The exact numbers are not known, but Ganassi’s $1 million-plus salary is probably standard for a mid-pack car. You can start adding to that number when talking about a Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon or Mark Martin, especially when you add in winnings. The top of the heap? Earlier this year Forbes reported that Earnhardt Jr., including endorsements, makes $34 million per year
(Patrick Reynolds is a professional racing mechanic who has worked for several NASCAR teams.)
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