Let’s go back to 1982, when I drove for Cliff Stewart, my first full-time ride. He had his own company, so he sponsored the team.
There were very few teams that had company sponsors on their cars, other than their own. It made it difficult, and it was a tight budget, but Stewart had the funds to buy the tires, engines and hire the team.
Of course, back then, drivers weren’t being paid like how they are today. We had our expenses covered, but our pay was based on the purse money and how we finished in the race. The incentive was to finish as well as you could. We respected our equipment, our cars, because wrecking would reduce our pay.
The second year, we ended up with Gatorade as a sponsor. That added some more money, but it helped Cliff with not having to spend his money.
When I drove for Rick Hendrick, in the beginning, he paid for everything out of his own pocket. When I won at Martinsville, sponsorship started to come in. The second year, we were able to land more sponsorship, funding that brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars.
As time went on, and we won more races, the sponsorship money started to grow to a million, and then a few million dollars a year.
In those days, drivers were starting to be paid a salary, as well as a percentage of the purse, and that’s probably because sponsors were stepping up their financial backing. For drivers, it was getting better, as well as for everyone involved with the team. The cost of racing was going up, but so was the sponsorship dollars—and it evened out.
When I had my own team, the budget the first full-time year was about $3.5 million, and had sponsorship. There were bonuses and incentives with the sponsor. Believe me; we spent it all on the money. We gave our crew a raise; we gave incentives and Christmas bonuses.
We had Exide Batteries for a few seasons, and they continued to stay a part of NASCAR after their tenure with my team, because they realized the value of marketing their brand in NASCAR.
In today’s world, I wish I was still an owner, but the budget is likely $15 to $20+ million. Money buys speed; the old adage still applies. It buys technology, better engines, opportunities for testing, and much more. Some NASCAR teams are probably operating with a few million dollars and some under a million.
The dynamics of pitching to a potential partner has changed as well. Back in the day, the owner would go to a prospective company and talk about who the driver is and talk about accomplishments, and that’s good enough. But back then, television wasn’t as prominent with NASCAR as it is today.
Levi Garrett used us in commercials, and of course, the tobacco laws changed. Budweiser used us as well, but that was very limited because of the law. But today, the current drivers are being used more in advertising and on TV. You’ll see NASCAR drivers in commercials that you wouldn’t expect to see them, like during the Super Bowl.
So nowadays, sponsors may not necessarily look at statistics or on-track accomplishment, but they are looking more at age, how good looking they are, how well of a command they have of the English language and if they’re good in front of people. Drivers will accompany owners during a sponsorship pitch, and the company will ultimately see how marketable a driver is.
You can never win a race but have a large company still backing you because of what is done off of the racetrack. That wouldn’t be the case back in the day. If you didn’t perform, or wrecked a lot, you would typically not have a sponsor.
However, sponsors DO gain from misfortune on the racetrack, that’s a way they can measure the value of their sponsorship. If someone wrecks, the replays will show the car with the logos over and over, and likely be mentioned on-air by the analysts, and the photos of the wreckage published after the event.
The bottom line is that sponsorship is expensive, no matter the state of the economy, and it’s the reason why you’ll see some of today’s superstars with multiple Fortune 500 companies on their car over the course of a season. The owner has to go find other sponsors to fill in some gaps. Smaller teams will have an even harder time selling sponsorship.
At one time, corporations and sponsorship dollars were running to race teams and wanting to sponsor a team and driver, and now it’s the owner running to the corporations.
With my team, I was willing to invest all of the money the team made right back into it; I took little money from the team. That works as long as you’re going to keep the team.
A lot of drivers today in the Sprint Cup Series have taken pay cuts because of the less sponsorship dollars coming in. They love the sport they race in, and care about the greater interest of the team, instead of going on strike.
Unlike other forms of professional sports in the United States, NASCAR drivers have never been ones to disclose how much they make, and when the figures are released, it’s out of their control, and legal issues can bring the salary numbers into the public eye.
It really is no on else’s business, really, what a driver makes. It really isn’t anyone’s business, except your own, on what you make, no matter your job or industry you are involved in. It’s not necessary or relevant for anyone to hear those figures anyway.
There’s a big disparity in salary; the top guys get a lot of money, and the others, not so much. That’s normal and how business works.
Racing is dangerous—anything can happen in the blink of an eye. People need to realize a lot of work goes into putting those racecars on the racetrack, and there’s a lot of trust with drivers strapping into those cars.
We appreciate everyone that comes and spectates, watches on TV and listens on the radio, we really do. But we just hope most fans realize it isn’t as easy as it looks.