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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.