There are many things in life that cannot be explained, and one of the most perplexing is the way the prize money is distributed in NASCAR. It would seem like the simplest of things: Give the most money to the guy who finishes first, a bunch less to the guy in second, even less for the person in third, and then gradually less until you get to the person who finished last. There isn’t anything that could be farther from the truth. And while some of the variances are explainable, others make no sense whatsoever.
This observation was prompted by a glance at the point standings after this past weekend’s race at Las Vegas. In the far right column of the listing was a breakdown of the purse money that each driver had secured through their hard work over the first three weekends of racing this season. To no one’s surprise, Jamie McMurray has won the most money this season with $1,823,420. After all, he won the Daytona 500, which is the biggest purse of the year and the winner should take home the lion’s share of that booty.
However, second in the winnings category is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has garnered $1,331,880 this season. Earnhardt has finished second, 32nd and 16th in the first three races this year. By contrast, Jimmie Johnson struggled at Daytona with a 35th-place finish before rebounding with two consecutive wins. The reward for winning 67% of the races so far this season? $1,128,420. McMurray’s check for Daytona was $1,508,450 while Earnhardt scored $1,096,990. Winning the Daytona 500 should certainly bring with it a fat payday, but coming in second should not be worth near as much.
Another anomaly of the Daytona prize sheet is that the reward Johnson landed for coming home 35th was $351,858. Searching up through the final standings, everyone from 11th to 34th took home less money than Johnson did. How can it be that a driver who winds up in the last 20% of the field takes home more money than 32 other drivers in the race? It comes down to the prize money distribution system that is more difficult to decipher than the Internal Revenue Code.
Prize money comes from several sources and is paid out in different ways. The first source for prize money is put up by the race promoter. They pay the biggest portion of the money on a race weekend and their monies are paid on a declining scale, so the race winner is awarded the largest part of the promoter’s purse. Secondly, part of the TV revenue is redistributed to the drivers through an amount that is allocated to each race equally, also on a declining scale. After that is where things get very convoluted.
NASCAR has four different programs that owners/drivers can be included in when it comes to additional prize money. There is a Cup Series owner/champion program which rewards the owners and drivers of championship teams. Plan 1 and Plan 1c reward drivers and owners based on the number of points they’ve scored, the time they’ve been in the sport and the success they’ve achieved in the past. The plans are designed for the drivers in the top 30 and the top 40 who are not in the Winner’s Circle program. Plan 1 pays $8,000 to teams who show up for each race and Plan 1c pays out its funds based on how the drivers finish in relation to each other.
Also, there is the Winner’s Circle program which rewards the top-10 winningest drivers from the previous season and the first two winners in the current season who are not already in the program. The Winner’s Circle program splits $130,000 among the participants for each race in exchange for appearances they make on behalf of the track each race weekend.
Interestingly, some drivers seem to be tiring of the rigors of the Winner’s Circle program and the different things they’re asked to do on behalf of the tracks. During his weekly media visit, Johnson sounded off about the effectiveness of the program.
HAVE YOUR WINNER’S CIRCLE APPEARANCES CHANGED OVER THE YEARS? DOES IT SEEM LIKE TRACKS TRY TO GET YOU MORE INVOLVED WITH FANS AND HAVE YOU DO SOME CRAZY THINGS?
“They are crazy. In the end, I’m not sure that the whole Winner’s Circle program is working as it needs to. There are some tracks that are a pleasure to work with and other tracks that are not. In the end, I think the goal of the Winner’s Circle program is to sell tickets. And if somebody can show me how a paintball fight is going to sell tickets and fill the grandstands, I’ll gladly be a part of that paintball fight. I don’t believe that’s the case though. Do hot dogs really sell tickets? There are a lot of questions out there that don’t make sense in a lot of ways. At the end of the day we need people in the grandstands and we need to figure out how we do that.”
“I think there has been a lot of pressure put on the garage area to fill the grandstands. And if you really look at what’s gone on in the garage area, the teams have had to step up and build new cars; all the money that it took to build new cars and to develop them and Goodyear has built a new tire. You look at the competition side of NASCAR and the field is closer than it’s ever been. Drivers are being encouraged to speak their minds. You look at everything that goes on in this fenced off area and we’re tapped out in there. We’re doing everything we can to put on a great show. People may think that we race for points, which is absolute crap. We’re out there to win races. So everything in that garage area is tapped out. What happens over here in filling those stands, that responsibility needs to go back on the tracks and the promoters and they need to understand what it takes to sell tickets and put people in the stands.”
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS THEY’VE HAD YOU DO?
“There is everything from we’ve held events on, I’m trying to keep from making a complete ass of myself in slamming people which is just what you (the media) want, so needless to say there is a lot of stuff that doesn’t drive grandstand sales. There is a lot of stuff that improves the position maybe with the track and the local market and the local media and favors that seem to be taking place, but I really find it hard to believe that we actually are impacting the people that are going to be at the ticket counters buying the tickets. That’s where the shift needs to take place.”
Additionally, the final source of prize money is contingency awards. Drivers have various stickers on the quarterpanels of their cars, and when they finish well in a race, different sponsors pay different amounts of money to the drivers if they have their decal on the car. For example a driver who has a Mobil 1 sticker on their car and wins will get a bonus from Mobil 1, but if the Mobil 1 drivers fail to visit victory lane, the highest-finishing driver with the Mobil 1 sticker will get a reward. It might not be as much as if they won, or it might be, depending on the contingency program.
While it might seem that it would be easy to calculate how the monies are distributed, it is about as complicated as rocket science and is one of the lasting mysteries of Cup racing. The bottom line is that NASCAR rewards the teams who perform the best week in and week out. They know that having those teams on the track every week will provide them the best show, so they fork over the bucks to ensure that happens.