Richard Petty chomped cigars, sounded like Sheriff Andy Taylor and, even years after his seventh NASCAR championship in 1979, still lacked patience with slowpokes. Bumping one out of the fast lane on Interstate 85 near Concord cost the Randleman Rocket a reckless driving ticket. By contrast, after Jimmie Johnson tied the NASCAR seven-championship record that Petty shared with Dale Earnhardt Sr., the California native was back home in Charlotte, scrubbed, polished and speaking evening-anchorman English, handing out some of the $9 million he has distributed from his family’s charitable foundation.
But there’s more distance between the two seven-time champions than the shade-tree, down-home Randolph County where Petty greased his fingernails and Johnson’s $14.5 million apartment in Manhattan. Industry analysts say his November championship will likely double the more than $22 million he pocketed after finishing 10th in the points race in 2015, a relatively bad year for him. The take underscores the stratospheric financial realm the championship and NASCAR have achieved since Petty earned iconic status. In his 200-win, 35-year career, Petty won $8.5 million. Johnson, 41, has won 80 races and more than $150 million.
UNC Charlotte sports economist Craig Depken II estimates a typical top race team burns through $15 million to $20 million a year, most from its primary sponsor. In Johnson’s case, that is Lowe’s Cos., which refused comment on financial aspects of Johnson’s sponsorship. A championship can give team owners such as Johnson’s, Hendrick Motorsports Inc., a lofty position from which to negotiate with sponsors the next year.
However, unlike the days when drivers were sometimes paid on the spot from ticket proceeds — if the race promoter didn’t abscond with the cash first — the worth of Johnson’s 2016 championship is hidden in the financial morass that NASCAR has become. Plagued by empty grandstands and declining television viewership, the circuit in 2016 clamped additional secrecy over its operations, refusing to divulge race purses or the total championship payout pool. Johnson’s PR firm declined to return calls to discuss the driver’s finances.
“We’re a private company and do not disclose financials,” says NASCAR spokeswoman Gina Mazzone on the same day that the circuit announced soft-drink seller Monster Energy would replace Sprint Corp. as its primary sponsor.
Advertising-industry sources say Sprint predecessor Nextel paid about $75 million a year when it took over sponsorship in 2004. Sprint acquired Nextel a year later, stepped in as sponsor in 2008 and, eight years later, was paying 50% less, or about $50 milliona year. The naming-rights deal with Monster is reportedly worth about $20 million, reflecting the declining value of NASCAR’s brand.
Johnson’s championship boosts his personal finances but does little to advance NASCAR’s. Critics, such as Humpy Wheeler, former president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, say NASCAR has strayed from its roots and become too homogeneous in its attempts to appeal to a wider national audience. In contrast to the era of irreverent champions who achieved Southern hero status, Johnson is viewed as typical of the new generation of button-downed professionals that Lowe’s, NASCAR and others believe necessary to woo national fandom.
“If one team or driver is dominant over many years — the so-called dynasty effect — it does have a negative effect overall on interest in the sport,” Depken says. “Of course, it doesn’t hurt Jimmie Johnson fans or Hendrick fans. They’re happy.”
Photo courtesy of Bertho RF1