NASCAR: Here’s Why Drivers Are Making Less Than Years Past

by Matthew Memrick

Love NASCAR? Pro racing could be headed toward a strike soon if NASCAR’s drivers can’t negotiate a better pay structure.

Pro baseball and NFL have had their share of labor issues. Soon, NASCAR may be no different, according to Frontstretch. Salaries have gone down in the past 15 years, while costs and inflations have soared.

Drivers and race teams work within the NASCAR universe as independent contractors. Conversely, NFL players are employees. Race teams can work up driver contracts with no salary cap limitations. Some top teams lure the best drivers while others struggle to get by.

Another NASCAR issue includes no minimum salaries for the driver. These strange rules could mean that some drivers can win and not share in the winner’s purse. Case in point, Ross Chastain drove three 2018 races for Chip Ganassi Racing for free.

Sorry NASCAR Drivers, Sponsors Still King 

Other NASCAR stars like Dale Earnhardt Jr. got paid through sponsorship money. The Hall of Famer’s contract had millions coming to him through sponsor Budweiser without using any DEI money.

Overall, there’s no consistency for the drivers as inflation rises, and that issue could rear its ugly head soon.

The job website Comparably broke NASCAR drivers into three groups, getting paid between $21,364 and $577,977 annually. The median salary was $103,858. If you drove in the middle of the pack, you’d make between $104,000 and $260,000. 

That may not be enough for some drivers who have to do everything for their teams.

Top Drivers Get All The Money 

In NASCAR’s recent prime, stars like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Junior ruled the day. Today’s NASCAR racers struggle to get any social media clout or fanfare. For example, two past Cup champions don’t have a million Twitter followers.

Maybe that’s how teams can pay drivers little and can cap salaries. Cup champion Matt Kenseth could still be competitive, but teams may go with a lesser-known driver to pay him less.

For many stars, it’s all about bringing in the sponsorship money, just like Earnhardt Jr. did.

Drivers Want Leverage To Negotiate Contracts

Last month, former driver and current broadcaster Jeff Burton agreed to lead a Drivers Advisory Council. The independent group could turn into a driver’s union down the road.

The ball is totally in that group’s court. A union attempt in 1961 turned into bans for Curtis Turner and Tim Flock. The 1969 Talladega 500 was another dubious NASCAR moment. The league brought in scabs when drivers boycotted that track’s inaugural race (NASCAR’s first strike ever). Sure, the union and boycott ended, but many dubbed the race “The Worst NASCAR Race Ever.”

The most recent attempt in 2014 saw now-owner Denny Hamlin and every driver sign up for a possible union. However, former NASCAR CEO Brian France invited Hamiln and Jeff Gordon to a meet that ended the plan.

Hamlin has gone on record saying NASCAR didn’t “want a drivers union” then and still doesn’t want one now. Now, France is gone, and NASCAR’s leaders may be more receptive to a union.

All it takes now would be something big to happen, like a new TV deal. The league’s new TV package negotiation starts next year. You know how that goes. More NASCAR money may mean more teams getting richer. But drivers may not.

NASCAR, teams, and drivers could be angling for a bigger piece of the pie. Some, like 23XI Racing, already want the money picture changed.

If that happens without the drivers, expect the drivers to do something. Fans will lose big if that happens.