PRUETT: So, you want to be a pro driver. How much will you earn?

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PRUETT: So, you want to be a pro driver. How much will you earn?

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PRUETT: So, you want to be a pro driver. How much will you earn?

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A message to aspiring professional drivers from a prominent driver manager: “If you want to be a race car driver, don’t do it for money!”

That piece of advice was offered among the various calls I recently made to managers, team owners, and even a few drivers who know the financial landscape they play within each season.

One of the most frequent questions I get from the parents of talented sons and daughters is whether a sizable investment into karting, the Road to Indy, the Road to Sebring, or something similar could result in their kids eventually earning real salaries as professional drivers. Thanks to some help from the folks who hire or place pro drivers, we have some interesting answers that might prove insightful or amusing for the moms and dads with important decisions to make.

Before we get to the NTT IndyCar Series, let’s focus first on IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and its five classes, with three that pair pros with amateurs (GT Daytona, LMP2, and LMP3) and two that are havens for pro drivers in factory or high-level independent programs (DPi and GTD Pro).

Speaking under the condition that their names would be withheld, we’ll open with the bottom category in IMSA which boasts the biggest car counts, and thus, the most paying seats for pros to chase.

“In GTD, there are always going to be outliers, but I’ve seen $80,000 on the low end to $225,000,” one team owner said. “The average is in the middle, more in the $150,000-160,000 range.”

Another contributor said: “Not many are over $250,000. There are some bigger rates for maybe two or three of the pros with ambassador roles for a manufacturer, so that might take them to $325,000, maybe $350,000.”

On the topic of GTD salary outliers, one person who negotiates driver salaries in the class said, “I’ve heard the top is $400,000 to $450,000 with a guy that’s really valuable to their team.”

IMSA’s GTD category makes use of production-based race cars built to GT3 regulations and sold by various auto manufacturers — Acura, Audi, BMW, Lamborghini, Porsche, etc. — for Pro-Am competition. In a new twist that starts in 2022, IMSA has retired its all-pro GT Le Mans class, which conformed to different GTE regulations, and replaced it with GTD Pro. It will use the same GT3 cars found in GTD, but features factory teams, privateers, and continues the all-pro driver construct that GTLM offered.

IMSA’s Pro-Am GTD class offers a relatively high number of opportunities for pros to get paid – albeit at relatively low rates in most cases. Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images

Where this use of identical GT3 cars in both Pro-Pro and Pro-Am classes gets interesting is in the salary department. During GTLM’s strongest years from 2014-19, pros in the big factory GT teams were IMSA’s top earners. With the comparative downgrade from the exquisite GTLM cars to less exotic GT3/GTD machinery, that’s no longer the case in many — but not all — instances.

“It’s still factory racing with GTD Pro, but I don’t foresee many of the drivers making the same amount,” said one negotiator. “Do I think some of the best-known drivers have taken a haircut? Probably not, but they bring a lot to their manufacturers with promotions they do away from the racetrack. But in general, we’re talking $350,000 to $400,000 — about $100 to $150 grand higher than a pro in GTD.”

Another person said, “GTLM drivers were the leading salary guys, but now it’s DPi. And LMDh is going to change that again.”

In LMP3, and frankly every class and series on the planet, there are outliers who make less or more than the majority of the paid drivers. For the grand season opener at Daytona where some higher-profile drivers might be added to the 24-hour roster, receiving a check for “$20,000, maybe up to $25,000” was suggested as a solid payday. Spanning the entire seven-race LMP3 calendar, one knowledgeable person says pros are looking at earning $10,000 to $12,000 per race, and another moved the range up to $10,000 to $15,000, which still doesn’t seem like much for the skills and risks involved. Among the outliers, a very small percentage of pros in LMP3 are known to be close to or slightly over $200,000 for a season, according to someone with intimate knowledge of the rates being paid.

In LMP2 — the top Pro-Am prototype class — most pros are reported to be within a $200,000 to $300,000 average, according to one person who drives in the class, and another who has signed a lot of pro drivers to LMP2 contracts.

And we’ve reached the end of IMSA with its manufacturer-rich DPi category, which transitions into the new hybrid LMDh class in 2023.

“You’re staring at $300,000, on the low, and $400,000 on the high in a lot of situations,” said one person who negotiates DPi contracts. “To do more than that, it’s going to be a pretty serious ‘name’ driver, somebody everyone’s chasing after hard, and that could take you out to $500,000.

The financial difference between racing a DPi for a factory and a privateer can be significant. Where one manufacturer set its base salary — before incentives — at $250,000, and another brand is known to have the same structure, albeit with a starting base of $350,000, driving for an independent team might not be the most lucrative proposition. One insider put the numbers of $130,000 and $150,000 out for two 2022 DPi contracts that were signed as an indicator of the pay gap some drivers accept in the hope of being recognized and hired by the factories in the future.

“And when LMDh gets here, the average salary is probably going up $200,000 to maybe $300,000 on what the best DPi drivers are getting now,” another person suggested.

There aren’t many secrets in the IndyCar paddock, but the salaries of the top drivers is one of the exceptions. Motorsport Images

Where most of the pros in IMSA knows what each other makes, IndyCar is a bastion of curiosity among team owners and drivers. “What do you think (Team X) is paying (Driver X)” is a question asked on a surprisingly regular basis, which speaks to the relative stability in IndyCar’s paddock.

By the numbers, IMSA has far more entries and job opportunities for pros to explore. IndyCar, with 24-26 full-time seats, and maybe 15 of those involving teams paying their drivers with no strings attached to bringing sponsorship, is a harder nut to crack, and with many of its leading drivers racing well into their 40s, vacancies with salaries attached are hard to land.

“There are three phases of contracts,” said one owner. “There’s the rookie contract, the journeyman, and then someone that’s a recognizable star, possibly a champion. For the rookies, probably coming in from Indy Lights, they’d get $250,000 to $300,000, and might even bring a sponsor and make some money off the deal. The journeyman is $800,000 to $1,000,000. And then at the top, there are about eight drivers who make over $2,000,000. Maybe one or two of them are over $3,000,000.”

Another negotiator thought the middle ground should be positioned slightly lower. “$500,000 up to $750,000 is where you’ll get most of them,” they said. “Then if you do well and get hired by a big team, I know one of them starts you off at $1,500,000 and you can build on that if you get some wins or a championship. And if you can win the Indy 500, that can easily add $1,000,000 to that salary.”

Do the math on that elite DPi driver’s income divided by their 10-race calendar, and we’re looking at approximately $50,000 per event. Take IndyCar’s 17-race season for the one or two top earners, and they’re receiving somewhere around $175,000 per race, all before taxes. Step down to the mid-tier IndyCar salary, and they’re on par with a leading DPi ace in the $45,000 to $50,000 range.

And for the IndyCar rookies on modest multi-year contracts, they are precariously close to what a pro in LMP3 will make per race at $17,500 or so.

Being a professional race car driver definitely pays more than most jobs, but with the risks involved, the healthy slice taken by the government, all of the expenses incurred with specialized training, nutrition, insurance, and more, only the upper echelon clear enough to be considered wealthy. Where the elite in Formula 1 and NASCAR fly to the races in their own jets, the best in IndyCar and IMSA rent them, or hope to get a travel invitation in the one belonging to their team owner.

Times were different when the CART IndyCar Series was at its peak and select salaries neared eight figures per year, but like the tobacco, alcohol and big-box store money that fueled the era, those kinds of contracts are long gone.

So if your son or daughter has the talent and receives the right breaks to get signed by a front-running team or auto manufacturer, your investment will be rewarded, but don’t be upset if it takes a while before they can buy you a house or car as a token of appreciation for the sacrifices you’ve made.

 

MX-5 CUP | ROUND 9 – ROAD AMERICA

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