MILLER: Where's the payday?

Image by Jake Galstad/LAT

MILLER: Where's the payday?

Insights & Analysis

MILLER: Where's the payday?

The news that LeBron James is taking his tremendous talents to Los Angeles for four years and $153 million had a lot of people shaking their heads, but probably none more so than IndyCar drivers.

In a comparison that truly is hard to fathom, check these next statistics:

The $35.65 million that James will earn in 2019 (or $38 million average over the next four years) is more than the 2018 Indianapolis 500 purse and all the full-time IndyCar drivers’ salaries added together.

Yep, this year’s payout at Indianapolis was $13,078,065 and, doing my best educated guessing, the salaries for the 20 full-time drivers in the Verizon series is south of $20 million.

Fans are always clamoring to know what IndyCar drivers make in a season, and to show how woefully underpaid they are compared to NASCAR and F1 stars, feast your eyes on these numbers:

Top five earners by series (in millions):

F1

NASCAR

IndyCar

$40M – Lewis Hamilton $4-6M – Kevin Harvick $2.5-3M – Scott Dixon
$35-40M – Sebastian Vettel $4-6M – Kyle Busch $2M – Ryan Hunter-Reay
$25M – Fernando Alonso $2-3M – Kyle Larson $1.5M – Will Power
$25M – Max Verstappen $2M – Martin Truex Jr. $1.5M – Graham Rahal
$15M – Kimi Raikkonen $2M – Kurt Busch $1M – Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe, Tony Kanaan, Takuma Sato, Marco Andretti

Now let’s get one thing clear right away: The F1 and NASCAR numbers are pretty well documented (thank you fellow journos), but the IndyCar drivers’ salaries are purely an educated guess from what I’ve been able to decipher using past performance, experience and sponsorship dollars.

Nobody in the IndyCar paddock gives up any information about what they make and that’s cool, but it’s a topic that merits discussion. So let’s try to go behind the scenes and break down why IndyCar drivers are so far down the payroll totem poll and what else they can pocket besides their base salaries.

In terms of Dixon, to think he’s only 10 victories away from passing Mario Andretti and taking over as IndyCar’s No. 2 winner behind A.J. Foyt, it seems criminal he “only” makes an eighth of the 20-year-old Max Verstappen’s pay.

But of course it’s the disparity in the money raised and earned by F1 teams through sponsorships and television that drives these huge numbers, and Dixie was lucky enough to be part of the engine wars when he made $4 million to $5 million a year and was still No. 1 when driving for Target at $3m to $4m.

There was a time in the ’90s during CART’s heyday that Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. were raking in $6 million to $7 million in retainers with big bucks from Kmart, Texas and Marlboro but, obviously, those days are long gone. Kenny Brack might have been the last to reap the $4 million windfall when CART had Honda, Toyota and Ford battling for power.

By the same token, NASCAR’s Kurt Busch was believed to be making $6 million in 2010 when NASCAR was taking names and kicking ass.

Will Power earned $2,525,454 for his Indy 500 win. (Image by LePage/LAT)

Today’s Team Penske trio might seem woefully underpaid in salary until you dig a little deeper. Sources say the contracts of Power, Joseph Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud are heavily loaded with incentives for wins, poles, podiums and rankings in the standings. Newgarden has three wins in 2018 and Power swept the month of May, so one would imagine their final numbers would easily rival Dixon, who also has incentives.

And incentives are also huge in F1 (check out all the decals on drivers’ suits) while NASCAR stars reap the benefits of big merchandise sales as well as their personal sponsor deals and percentages of purses, which dwarf IndyCar’s. When NASCAR still published its weekly and yearly earnings, the 30th-place Cup driver made more from purses than the IndyCar champion and NASCAR’s champ collected $8 million compared to IndyCar’s $1 million prize.

The anemic purses at Indy and in the rest of IndyCar races ($30,000 to win) make it imperative for a driver to make his money up front and/or make the most of appearances and incentives.

Hunter-Reay has a national TV commercial with Butterball while Graham Rahal has one with United Rentals. They’ve also got incentive clauses for performance, as do most of the top names.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, with sponsors DHL and Butterball, team up to distribute 500 turkeys prior to Thanksgiving. (Image by IMS Photo)

It’s tough to gauge 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato because he’s likely paid by Honda of Japan and Panasonic, so he could be over $1 million to $2 million easily, while Tony Kanaan is likely around $1 million with A.J. Foyt and still has some sweetheart personal service deals. James Hinchcliffe is hooked up with Honda of Canada; his national Honda commercials in the USA have been a hit and Arrow loves him,, so his total take has to be over $1 million.

The two most interesting names not in IndyCar’s top five are Alexander Rossi and Robert Wickens. The 2016 Indy 500 winner is in his third year with Andretti Autosport and is reportedly signed up for a few more years. Considering his meteoric rise to the top of the pack, one would assume Rossi’s 2018 estimated salary of $500,000 to $700,000 is going to double or triple by 2019.

Wickens had nothing going until Hinchcliffe stepped in and convinced Sam Schmidt to hire his old Canadian pal. And Hinch reportedly took a pay cut to make it happen.

If Wickens is making $500,000 then you would have to say he was pretty well compensated considering he was pretty much an unknown rookie (except to a few people who paid attention). Sam claims he’s got him locked up for five years so one can only hope Robert has raises and bonuses built into the next four years or the ability to renegotiate, because obviously he’s going to be a major player for a long time. And if Roger Penske is interested, even SPM likely has a price.

Another puzzler is Sebastien Bourdais. Dale Coyne usually takes money from drivers but is thought to be paying the resilient French veteran $500,000 in salary plus incentives for wins, poles, podiums and where he finishes in the standings. Clearly he’s still as good as anyone on street and road courses and has made huge strides on ovals so it’s kinda crazy to think one of the best drivers in the series is one of the lowest paid.

IndyCar sophomore Ed Jones should be in the $250,000 range with NTT Data as his sponsor for Ganassi, while Spencer Pigot is thought to be at $200,000 for ECR and Gabby Chaves likely somewhere in between those two at Harding Racing.

What about guys like Zach Veach, Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton?

Group One Thousand One sponsors rookie Zach Veach. (Image by LAT)

One would hope Zach is taking a cut for his salary from his three-year backer Group One Thousand One, while we believe Kimball has always been compensated from his long and successful association with Novo Nordisk, and Chilton’s father helped bankroll the Carlin Racing effort so I’m sure he gets a decent allowance.

Then there’s Conor Daly. He drove for free with Coyne a couple years ago just to get a full-time ride and actually lost money in this year’s Indy 500 (he would have had to finish fourth to make anything) because he actually borrowed money to make his deal work.

Here’s the bottom line: F1 and NASCAR have billion-dollar TV deals (although the latter will likely take a sharp decrease when the current contract expires) that fuel the big money, along with strong sponsorships (although not as strong as a few years ago) while IndyCar sits a distant third in those two categories.

Yeah, yeah, nobody makes anybody drive a race car for a living and IndyCar drivers lead a pretty good life compared to most. But in their profession, the risk-versus-reward factor is very skewered. IndyCar racing is 10 times more dangerous on an oval than NASCAR and F1 drivers are in the safest environment on four wheels.

IndyCar is the best racing of the Big 3, the most risky and least compensated. But to quote our old buddy Tony Stewart, “It beats working for a living.”

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