Behind The Shadowy Billion Dollar Payouts Of F1, NASCAR, And IndyCar

"What money?" would be what approximately 30 percent of the grid would say when asked that question. Reporting reveals that top drivers on top teams can make a decent living (although they're still severely underpaid compared to other athletes), that some drivers earn an "ok" six-figure salary thanks to sponsors, and that about 30 percent of the field doesn't make a dime—they're simply hoping for a breakthrough. Most shockingly, there are still others who have gone into debt in order to buy a seat, hoping that any prize money or sponsorship money they earn during the year will repay the loan.

This is a glimpse into the top open-wheel racing series in the United States. 

Sponsorship and team salaries aside (if any), this is what drivers could receive from IndyCar each race should they finish in the top 12.

  • $30,000 first place
  • $20,000 second
  • $15,000 third
  • $11,000 fourth 
  • $10,000 fifth
  • $9,000 sixth
  • $8,000 seventh
  • $6,000 eighth
  • $5,000 ninth
  • $4,000 10th
  • $3,000 11th
  • $2,000 12th

Think that's not so bad? Think again. Not only are these anemic numbers considerably smaller than what Champ Car and CART drivers used to make in the 1990s, but what most people don't know is that drivers' contracts state that anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of the prize money goes to the team—without exception. These clauses typically feature sliding percentages, in which a driver who finishes 15th and below might keep 30 percent of the prize money, 10th to 15th place keeps 35 percent, the top nine 40 percent, top five 45 percent, and a winning driver gets to keep half of the prize money.

So let's build a hypothetical season for a hypothetical driver with that specific prize money breakdown. If said driver were to win half of the races in the 2018 season (not counting the Indy 500)—and that would be quite the feat—he would only net $120,000 in prize money at the end of the year. Because drivers are considered self-employed and these monies would be earned in several states and under different tax laws, it's safe to assume that our driver would have a tax burden of around 35 percent, which means that if no other income is earned that year, our hypothetical all-star driver would've risked his life at 230 miles per hour for an entire year in exchange for roughly $85,800, after taxes. However, our made-up driver would earn even less if he opted for the minimum life and health insurance plans offered to high-risk athletes.

"Drivers all have to be self-insured," an active IndyCar driver told me. "Nothing is offered from the series. Justin Wilson didn’t have life insurance when he was killed."

This is why drivers with decent reputations must spend their entire racing season selling car, suit, and helmet advertising space. If they don't win half the season's races, and they don't race for a team who pays them a decent salary, and they don't have hefty sponsors—they couldn't afford to rent a decent apartment in suburban Indiana.

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