In today's high stakes, big money world of NASCAR stock car racing, it is easy to overlook how quickly driver winnings have grown. Race purses are at an all-time-high and the elite teams have budgets well over six million dollars each year. It's easy to cast aside the teams that don't operate on multi-million dollar budgets or drivers that retired before racing became the capitalistic enterprise it has turned into. There will always be more to take their place.
Race fans watch the talents of Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, and Jeff Gordon today. They marvel at their abilities inside the race car and consider their favorite driver to be "the best ever." Junior Johnson won fifty NASCAR races and is considered to be one of the toughest short track racers of all time. However, most fans only know of Junior as a former car owner for Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, and Neil Bonnett among others. Where is Fred Lorenzen's place in NASCAR history? Will he just be an obscure name that Jeff Gordon will eventually pass on the career victory list? Gordon may pass him on the career victory list in the future but let me assure you, he'd never be able to pass him on the track. Not too many could; sadly, many fans have never heard of Lorenzen or many of the drivers who raced when NASCAR was not a multi-million dollar corporate empire.
Along the same lines is the issue of driver retirement. Obviously, not every driver earns $10 million on the track and has countless endorsements off the track after they retire like Richard Petty had. Often, drivers aren't able to retire. They continue to race in hopes of a big payday to be able to retire in comfort. NASCAR has no pension plan for its drivers and the indirect results of that have been disheartening. J.D. McDuffie ran his team on a shoestring budget for almost his entire career. As the stakes in NASCAR grew toward the late 80's, McDuffie was unable to find permenant sponsorship to compete in the sport he loved. He couldn't afford to pay his bills and mortgage because the cost of competing was greater than his earnings. He knew he would never be able to retire in comfort if he ever retired. J.D. died in a crash at Watkins Glen in 1991.
What can be done? Well, for starters, NASCAR Inc. will likely continue with the same policies it has advocated throughout its history; it will move on no matter who drives the cars on the track. However, an effort by the drivers, sponsors, and teams might provide some support to the drivers who don't win millions of dollars on the track or are forced to pay their own medical bills after their career ends. NASCAR Inc. has stated that they 'don't like to get involved in personal economic affairs.' A more accurate description is that 'the past means nothing to NASCAR Inc. However, if an opportunity came along to profit on it, like building a theme park in Daytona Beach, then they would acknowledge that there were indeed other drivers besides Richard Petty before 1975.'
NASCAR embarks on another season in 1997. The drivers will compete for record winnings at tracks from California to Florida to New Hampshire. Earnhardt will try for a record eighth championship, Gordon will attempt to win his second title and so forth. However, away from the high priced luxury boxes of the newly built Texas Motor Speedway and California Speedway, lies some issues for the sport to deal with. The race will always go on, no matter who drives the moving billboards at 200 miles per hour.
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