NASCAR is experiencing a transformation. Banning Confederate imagery and the display of solidarity behind driver Bubba Wallace has created a lot of buzz. There’s also the benefit of being one of the few sports up and running amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
The focus on NASCAR brings renewed attention to its size. Endorsements for top drivers are incredibly valuable. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story of making top dollars in the sport. Driver Kyle Busch, for example, didn’t break into NASCAR with a blockbuster contract the way a top NFL or NBA draft pick might.
The difficult path to NASCAR fame and fortune
NASCAR’s top 12 drivers made $155 million collectively in 2017 alone, according to Forbes. These are the most visible drivers, funded by those countless logos from major brands all over their car, gear, any surface imaginable. That’s how NASCAR looks from top to bottom, which might give the impression that being a professional driver is big money from the word “go.”
That couldn’t be further from the truth. Not all brands are created equal, and running a race team is exorbitantly expensive. When those endorsements come from smaller brands, or big brands only offering small contracts, that money goes into the team. NBC News notes that the average spend rate is around $400,000 per week.
Only consistently great placement can put that endorsement revenue up. Then the driver sees a bigger cut. Until they pull that off, even drivers one can see regularly on TV are making solidly working-class level salaries.
How Kyle Busch spent his first NASCAR paycheck
Busch, who is worth $50 million today according to Alt-Driver, is not an exception to the usual breaking-into-NASCAR story. His record, including an amazing 56 Cup wins as seen on his official NASCAR profile, is what makes him so valuable as a driver. Before that, he had to earn his way, placement by placement.
He used his first paycheck to put a down payment on a used truck. “My first paycheck wasn’t even that big,” he told CNBC Make It. “So I went out and bought a […]five-year-old used vehicle from Papa Joe Hendrick, who was one of my previous bosses.”
Busch revealed that he considered taking on $65,000 to be true success. That’s a respectable salary, but not one fans intuitively associate with even a burgeoning NASCAR driver. Having a team at all requires a huge upfront and ongoing investment, and unfortunately that doesn’t go to the drivers directly until later in their careers. And that’s only if the driver places well enough times to get there.
How other NASCAR drivers spent their initial paycheck
NASCAR drivers Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick also shared their early paycheck stories with CNBC. Their stories were much like Busch’s. The life of your average pro driver is not a glamorous one until you prove yourself beyond a reasonable doubt.
Logano is worth $24 million today as estimated by Celebrity Net Worth. He doesn’t recall his first big paycheck. He says it wasn’t big, though, and that he immediately put it in the bank.
Harvick, the fifth-highest paid driver in all of NASCAR in 2018 according to Forbes, also started small. He started driving young, but in his personal life had to share a car with his father. By the time he was 21, he could barely afford to buy his own used truck.
Sometimes, drivers prove themselves very quickly and take on big earnings at a young age. Chase Elliott, according to Alt Driver, is only 24 and already worth $2 million. It all comes down to how fast a driver can call attention to their personal skill, proving how invaluable they are to their team.