Every once in a while, NASCAR fans get a glimpse behind the curtain into a decidedly wizard-free zone as of late at how things really work. No less an authority than Dale Earnhardt Jr., retiring as a driver after this season to start a career as a sports journalist, said in the brave new world of NASCAR drivers now earning their way up to the Cup level are going to have to accept making much less money than the sport’s current generation of stars. As per Junior, if a team is “only” getting 10 million dollars from its sponsors it can’t afford to pay a driver eight million of that and still expect to be competitive. They guy should know after all. While Earnhardt doesn’t own any Cup teams (yet) he does run a bunch of XFINITY Series teams. With a little help from his current boss of course.
Perhaps it was unrelated (though the timing was certainly more than coincidental) but Kevin Harvick said this week that Earnhardt’s popularity has stunted NASCAR’s growth. Harvick noted that Earnhardt’s popularity is out of proportion to any actual success he’s enjoyed, statistically speaking. (Junior stunting NASCAR’s growth? It simply can’t be. Recall NASCAR’s Cup series was smoking Winstons even in its infancy.) Obviously Harvick plans to keep racing a few years and he likely resents a fellow driver saying he and the rest of the current field are probably going to have to accept pay cuts to remain active or lose their jobs to up and comers with a better grip on financial realities.
As far as success in his era, Earnhardt Jr. has logged 26 wins. Harvick managed to win 36 Cup races (and a title) in the same period. That’s a significant but not overwhelming difference. The most successful driver in that period is doubtlessly Jimmie Johnson, who scored seven championships and 83 wins in a couple years’ less time. (Johnson started Cup racing full time in 2002, Harvick in 2001 and Earnhardt Jr. in 2000.) Kyle Busch, who started full time in the Cup series in 2005 has won a title and 39 Cup races though he remains as popular as sandpaper toilet tissue as a treatment for hemorrhoids. Harvick conveniently overlooks the fact that Bill Elliott won 16 Most Popular Driver awards, most of them long after his salad days as a racer. Somehow Elliott’s popularity didn’t stunt NASCAR’s growth so much there wasn’t a way for Harvick to cash in getting the big bucks to drive a stock car.
Certainly Junior’s comments shed some light on the current status of Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch. Busch and Kenseth are former Cup champions. Kahne’s been plugging away at this Cup thing for 13 years and has won 18 points-paying Cup races along the way. Which is more wins than Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, David Suarez and William Byron combined. Busch won this year’s Daytona 500 and Kahne this year’s Brickyard 400. In the good old days, either of those wins would have been big enough to secure a driver’s seat for at least another season. But apparently the “what have you done for me lately” attitude in the Cup series is narrowing its focus.
In addition to Kenseth, Kahne and Busch all currently seeking employment, over the last few years we’ve seen three-time champion Tony Stewart, four-time champion Jeff Gordon and perennial contender Carl Edwards all hang up their spurs voluntarily rather than face another round on the Beaches of Cheyenne. One has to wonder if a possible impending pay cut made any of the three of them decide it was time to leave the circus (he said, shamelessly mixing metaphors). There could even have been an altruistic component to the decision (especially in the case of Gordon and team owner Tony Stewart) having to consider if in an era of dwindling sponsorship dollars if the team wouldn’t be just as or more competitive with a cheaper driver at the helm.
Perhaps the poster-girl for the new financial realities of Cup racing is Danica Patrick. Say what you wish about her level of talent and determination when it comes to racing, but it’s practically inarguable that any male driver who had the limited success she has had to date driving for a big team would have been out of a ride a long time ago. Sponsorship from GoDaddy bought Patrick into the sport and kept her front and center in NASCAR TV coverage. As long as GoDaddy kept buying (insanely bad) commercials during NBC and FOX race broadcasts they were going to keep interviewing the 23rd-place finisher after the race even if it meant ignoring the runner-up. But when GoDaddy decided to drop their soft core porn marketing strategy (as did Hardees and Five-hour Energy, oddly enough. A sign of the graying NASCAR fandom they’re marketing to?), Ms. Patrick was left outside looking in. She signed on with the healthy snack folks, but that blew up quickly and gave highlight to the one truth that nobody in NASCAR dared discuss for decades: sometimes a NASCAR sponsorship marketing strategy just doesn’t work. We’ve had hints that was the case by the number of major sponsors fleeing the sport but not hard figures expressed in dollar, cents and market penetration percentages. Back when sponsoring a successful NASCAR team was still a six figures proposition sponsors could elect to test the waters. But over the last decade sponsorship amounts went to the moon and even a big box home improvement warehouse had to wonder if their millions of marketing dollars would be better spent with a “buy one, get one free” lawn tractor sale. (As an aside, I have found that most consumers but NASCAR fans in particular will never switch brands when it comes to two things; beer and pickup trucks.)
Obviously a driver’s salary is only part of a Cup team’s budget. But if drivers newer to the circuit are willing to “work” for less money it could be a good first step lowering the now-obscene cost of racing at the Cup level. Other steps in that direction should be forthcoming, though they are likely to be difficult given that no other series, even amateur class racing with little to no prize money on the line, has never been able to enforce any successful spending limits. There’s always some individual or outfit that is willing to spend more than the rules stipulate to gain an advantage. Then other teams say they have no choice but to spend more money to keep up with that outfit.
Ideally, it’s in the best long-term interests of the sport to have a team be able to race competitively at about a tenth of today’s real costs. Finding sponsorship would be easier at that price point and as such there’d be enough fully competitive cars to fill the field weekly (perhaps with some even sent home after qualifying) and younger drivers looking to make their mark rather than their first million dollars before they’re old enough to legally buy a beer. Over the years NASCAR racing has been at its best when the drivers and teams focus on individual races rather than a season-long championship which may become an issue if NASCAR is once again forced to seek out a title sponsor. What the current title sponsor pays for series rights wouldn’t have covered a top ranked team a few years ago.
Team owners tend to stick around longer than drivers. While most drivers these days step aside by the time they are in their mid to late 40s, Roger Penske is 80, Joe Gibbs is 76, Jack Roush is 75, Richard Childress is 71 and Rick Hendrick is a boyish but still advanced 68. Not only do they qualify for “Senior Pricing” at the Olde Country Buffet, they can request early seating and a free treat for their service animals. Eventually these previous championship team owners are going to retire (one way or another) and all those decades of experience will leave the sport with them. I’m not sure any current fan who sticks around is going to be able to even recognize our sport within a decade, but perhaps that’s for the better.
In his highly visible position brought about by his popularity, Earnhardt Jr. has already seen at least one long-lasting change in the sport. With the HANS device and SAFER barriers now part of the NASCAR landscape the likelihood of a driver dying during a race weekend is greatly diminished though sadly that possibility can never be totally eliminated. But the fact drivers are now surviving impacts that might have been fatal back in 2000 means those same drivers are now suffering from the cumulative effect of multiple concussions over their careers. I doubt his father would have given any thought to the issue (Earnhardt Sr. was notoriously snarky about drivers’ concerns for safety saying that those complaining ought to tie kerosene-soaked rags around their ankles to keep the ants from eating their candy-asses) but Junior has bought the topic to the forefront with his announcement he was retiring after this season because of his concerns about future concussions and his health. Note that Earnhardt is hardly the first driver to retire due to multiple concussion syndrome (Irvan, Nadeau and Park come readily to mind) but given his high profile as a driver, for the first time the issue has been moved to the front burner. Many drivers facing retirement over the years have expressed a willingness to walk away and gratitude they’ve been able to leave the sport on their own terms and on their own two feet. Now they have to consider a health issue that may plague them the rest of their lives even after they hang up their helmets, and issues that could keep them from enjoying their retirement and time spent with the people they love as they occasionally pretend to glance at the “autobiography” someone else who knows all the big words is writing for them.
In his leveraging of his popularity to open discussion of cumulative concussion syndrome in NASCAR racing, Earnhardt Jr. has left his own indelible mark on the sport, a legacy that will doubtless alter the trajectories of championships and provide for better lives after racing for many future champions. All in all I’d say that’s a pretty credible legacy for Junior to leave behind when he retires. What’s your legacy going to be, Mr. Harvick?