Commentary

Motor homes and private jets? Old-timers raced for 10 bucks and a case of beer

Let's put this money thing in perspective. Richard Petty earned $8.5 million over a 35-year career that produced seven Cup championships. Yet The King trails Scott Wimmer -- yes, Scott Wimmer -- on the career earnings list.

Originally Published: September 27, 2007
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Lee PettyAP PhotoPioneer Lee Petty banked $25 for finishing 17th in the first NASCAR-sanctioned stock car race in '49.

As the honorable Mr. David Newton has just taught us, NASCAR and money go together like ice cream and chocolate syrup. You can have one without the other, but you would always know that something was missing.

As much as we'd like to think that stock car racing's earliest heroes showed up to race simply to see who had the fastest car, the truth is no one would have shown up at all if there hadn't been some cash on the line.

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"Don't get me wrong," says 30-year Cup vet Sterling Marlin, "we race hard all the time. But if you put up 10 bucks for the winner, I'll promise you we'll all race a little harder."

Good thing. Because back in the day, 10 bucks was about all they got (although $10 back then could buy a lot more than it could today). For his efforts in NASCAR's original Strictly Stock (eventually Nextel Cup) race on June 19, 1949 in Charlotte, Lee Petty received $25 for finishing 17th, barely enough to replace a tire, let alone the entirety of the '46 Buick Roadmaster that he rolled over like a Joie Chitwood Thrill Show car before landing it on its roof.

"Back then, everyone had a day job," says Richard Petty, who helped his dad get that Buick race-ready on the drive down from Randleman, N.C. "No one made a living as a racer. You couldn't do it even if you won every race every week. There just wasn't enough money waiting for you at the end."

And that's assuming that the guy with the money had even stuck around for the end. It was a common practice of the day for a race promoter to head for the hills with the box office take tucked under his arm before the race had reached halfway.

[+] EnlargeRichard Petty
Peter Biro/Time Life Pictures/Getty ImagesRichard Petty topped $8.5 million in earnings over his stellar 35-year career; Chase leader Jimmie Johnson has topped $7.2 million in 2007 alone.

"The places that we raced, even after NASCAR took over the business end of the sport, man, they were run by some shady characters," recalls Tiger Tom Pistone, who started 130 races between 1955-68. "It was like the Old West. A lot of drivers and car owners would be wearing guns, and it was so common for the promoters to take off with the money they'd have someone following him around to make sure he didn't take off with the money!"

These days drivers like to complain about the race purses (yes, I'm talking about the same drivers who each own half-million dollar motor homes, at least one plane, multiple houses, and more grown-up toys than a Sharper Image warehouse). But the next time they start to whine about the too-recent year stamped on their $1,500 bottle of wine, perhaps they should take a look back. And perhaps they can get a little purse perspective from these old-school oddities of stock car cha-ching:

• In that inaugural '49 Charlotte race, winner Jim Roper took home $3,000, the lion's share of a record-breaking $5,000 purse. Only 20 of the 33 racers entered won any money at all and 10 of those received 50 bucks or less.

We're not exactly comparing apples to apples here, so to help put things in perspective, a simple calculation is in order. That $3,000 Roper won in '49 would have the same buying power as $26,280 in today's market, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Still, it's a far cry from the $1.5 million Kevin Harvick pocketed for winning this year's Daytona 500.

• NASCAR's first champion (and World War II flying hero) Red Byron was awarded $5,800 for his crown, roughly one-quarter of a current Cup team's tire bill during a typical race weekend.

• Richard Petty won 200 races and seven championships during his 35-year career, earning $8,541,210. When he retired at the end of the 1992 season he was fourth on the all-time earnings list. By 2000, he was 23rd, and entering the '07 season, he'd fallen to 59th, 11 spots behind Scott Riggs, nine behind Kyle Busch, and seven behind Scott Wimmer.

• This season The King will fall out of the top 60, passed up by Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., and Tony Raines.

• Petty started 1,184 races in his career, averaging a paycheck of $7,213 per race. Hamlin has made 77 starts, averaging $152,533.

• Hamlin's per-race average is more than any Cup champion made for an entire season from 1949-1968.

• 1971 marked the first season of title sponsorship for Cup, when R.J. Reynolds kicked in an extra $100,000 for an end-of-the-year points fund. Petty earned a $40,000 bonus for winning the inaugural Winston Cup title, bringing his total take to $351,071. Last December Jimmie Johnson was awarded a $6,785,982 bonus from Nextel to bring his single-season total to $15,952,125, a little more than $1 million short of doubling the cash flow of Petty's entire career.

• Over the course of the 48-race 1971 season, no less than 177 different drivers took the green flag. Those men combined to win a total of $2,520,520 -- which this season would put them 36th on this year's money list with two races remaining, between Riggs and Joe Nemechek.

• For winning the 2007 Daytona 500, Kevin Harvick was handed a check for $1,510,469, roughly 16 grand less than the combined take of the first 22 NASCAR champions, from Byron in '49 to Bobby Isaac in '70.

• Issac's take-home pay that year was $199,600 -- about 50 grand less than the smallest payout from this year's Daytona 500, the $248,050 earned by Kyle Petty for finishing 42nd.

But don't feel too bad for the good old boys who got out before the money got good. Sure, some are still bitter (paging David Pearson and Fast Freddy Lorenzen), but in the end everyone managed to bank at least a little coin and more than likely had a hell of time in the process.

Legend has it that a Winston Cup star of the late 1980s was flying home after a win at Dover where he was awarded a tidy little sum of 65 large and change. Throughout the flight, the driver's wife raised a ruckus, complaining that racers should make much more than that for risking life and limb every Sunday afternoon, not to mention all the sponsor and TV revenue they helped to stuff into the pockets of others.

In the midst of her tirade, the driver interrupted: "Honey, shut up! You're flying home in your own private plane, aren't you?"

Point well-taken. Now fire up that calculator -- it's time to go racing.

Ryan McGee, the editor-in-chief at NASCAR Images and a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History."

Ryan McGee | email

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