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How Much Do Race Car Drivers Get Paid?
Up until the 1980s, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing was televised only rarely -- on ABC's Wide World of Sports, according to global online compensation company PayScale. Drivers' salaries followed suit, with winners taking home $1,000 per race in 1969, or $6,030 in 2011 dollars. As of 2007, NASCAR was televised in 150 countries and represented the second highest-rated sport on television. Top drivers can earn millions of dollars from winnings and endorsements alone, just like professional athletes in other sports.
Not everyone can be a top race car driver and earn top dollar. Former race car driver Mac Demere in AutoMedia said salaries are very modest to start. "Entry-level" drivers make a name for themselves in the amateur or semi-pro circuits. To break into the industry, would-be drivers volunteer their time doing everything but driving for an amateur team that needs the help -- from washing parts to loading trailers, according to Demere.
The racing industry keeps driver salaries close to the vest, according to PayScale; however, the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics reports in 2009 athletes and sports competitors, which include stock car drivers, earned a median salary of $40,210. The bottom 10 percent of earners made $16,020, while the top 10 percent, with regard to earnings, made at least $166,400. These figures are in line with PayScale's figures, which found NASCAR team members, on average, earned $30,000 in 2007.
It may be a long shot, but some drivers can amass millions in a matter of a year. Sports Illustrated.com posts its annual "Fortunate 50" -- ranking the highest-paid athletes by pay. Following a series of golfers and basketball players, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was ranked the country's 14th highest-paid athlete -- and the top-ranked professional race car driver -- in 2010. He grossed more than $26 million. Jeff Gordon followed as the second highest-paid race car driver, 29th on the list, earning $21.4 million, while Jimmie Johnson ranked 44th, earning $17.3 million in 2010.
Top race car drivers' earnings come from three sources: base salary, winnings and endorsements. In the cases of both Gordon and Earnhardt, endorsements outpaced their salaries and winnings substantially. In fact, of Earnhardt's $26 million, $22 million was derived from endorsements, while $15 million of Gordon's total $21.4 million came from endorsements. On the other hand, drivers' winnings can "make up" for much smaller endorsement packages; Johnson, for one, derived $7.3 million of his total $17.3 million in earnings from salary/winnings.
Since 2000 reporting and writing has taken Michelle Leach to Michigan, Nebraska, Washington, D.C., Chicago, London and Sydney, Australia. Her stories have appeared in various media outlets including NBC's "The Today Show," Reuters, Chicagoland dailies and network affiliates across the United States. Leach has a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a bachelor's degree in journalism/politics from Lake Forest College.