What Do Dirt Drivers Make?

Matthew Nance

By Jonathon Masters

In the past week we heard from some voices in the world of professional motorsports regarding what a race car driver should make in regard to income. It raised a bit of a stir when a NASCAR driver shared a thought that Cup drivers should be making more.

The funny thing about the ordeal was the rage toward those opinions did not come from people who dislike motorsports. The scoffing and ridicule wasn’t from the stick-and-ball sports world that normally downplays the athleticism or appeal of motorsports.

No, it came from the greater motorsports community itself.

While much can be said regarding the state of the NASCAR community and what compensation drivers should be receiving, the topic stirred up a lively debate and conversation. What do drivers make and what should be expected in terms of wages for race car drivers? We are going to focus this conversation in the realm of dirt racing and how it compares to the topic of NASCAR driver wages.

We will be doing this list based on hired drivers -- and for good reason. A lot of drivers in dirt oval own their own equipment, and any comparison between it and NASCAR are unpresentable. Previously, we discussed the costs of running a professional dirt team. Take the cost of running the weekly race and then factor in winnings and sponsorship and that’s what the owner/driver can make.

The case of the hired driver is something completely different.

The standard rate for most hired drivers is 30-40 percent of winnings. Many drivers race for a 30 percent cut and a 5 percent bonus for a win. There are some variations on this, but for dirt oval this is the most common way of doing things. So, if your team is having a landmark year and is going to end the season between the $200,000-300,000 mark, you’ll be looking at between $70,000-110,000 for the season. On the reverse side if the year is bad, drivers might find themselves in the $25,000-35,000 range.

The important thing to remember is that in the end, it’s performance-based compensation. In NASCARland drivers are on a salary with bonuses coming from performance, private sponsorship commitments, and any other forms of revenue than can squeeze out. There is a bonus to perform but their standard of living is maintained. If they have a bad year here and there, the bills are still getting paid.

In dirt, performance is everything to a driver. It can mean the difference between where you live, what you drive daily, what you can afford to buy your kids for Christmas, and whether you eat steak or hamburger over the weekend. Winning matters, and the fans know and appreciate that.

A lot of dirt oval fans have turned their backs on NASCAR because some of the drivers have detached themselves from the usual racing work ethic. If one of the big stars has a few bad seasons, it’s OK because at the end of the day they can still go home to their McMansion house on Lake Norman.

This is because of salary contracts. While that format does exist in dirt racing for some, it is very rare and far from the seven- or eight-digit contracts we see in NASCAR. In other words, for the Cup crowd it doesn’t really matter if they win Daytona or finish 30th, they are still going to be financially comfortable. Every racer wants to win, but it takes some of the joy and emotion out of the win — for the fans at least — when in the long run it doesn’t really matter.

Race fans want to see the tears of joy from a driver who's been living on a shoestring budget while pursuing his passion when he finally hits his big score. That’s the drama of dirt racing that Cup, IndyCar, or Grand Am has lost over the past 30 years. Without the incentive to win it’s just a bunch of millionaires driving in circles.

We’ve answered the general question of what race drivers make. The question remains of what SHOULD a driver make. Next time we’ll tackle how a dynamic industry like racing works and how that should translate to driver earnings.

- Jonathon Masters has a lifelong connection with dirt racing. His family has owned and operated MasterSbilt Race Cars manufacturing dirt late model chassis for 35 years. He attended college in North Carolina for motor sports management and has written for various industry publications. Jonathon was an account executive at The International Motorsports Industry Show, founder of the Heartland Auto Racing Show, and has been a racing industry professional for over a decade.

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