DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — One of the oldest adages in racing is the easiest way to make a small fortune in the sport is to start with a big one.
Even for the most-successful teams, a single week at the race track has seemingly turned into a money pit with no bottom. The cost of doing business is mind-numbingly expensive – nearly $400,000 a week – and that makes even the most-wealthy of car owners cringe.
“It’s certainly not for the faint at heart,” said Brad Daugherty, a co-owner of Bobby Labonte’s No. 47 Toyota.
Salaries, equipment and travel aren’t cheap, especially when NASCAR takes its act on the road. The days of loading a car on a trailer and pulling it with a pickup to the race track are over. So are the days of loading up a van with the crew, packing brown-bag lunches and re-using old car parts.
It used to be easier to control costs, especially with so many races in the Southeast. But with the sport expanding to as far west as California, as far south as Homestead, Fla., and as far north as New Hampshire, there are no more shortcuts.
NASCAR has evolved into a prime time sport, and it has the expenses to go with it.
The two-biggest expenses each week are the two-most important ingredients to run up front – an engine and the driver.
The cost of a single engine is about $100,000. The primary sources for engines in NASCAR are Toyota Racing Development, Earnhardt Childress Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Yates Racing. Those companies will provide as many as 40 engines for the Feb. 26 Daytona 500.
Teams that lease those engines also have an engine specialist assigned to the car.
Daytona is the most-expensive race of the season since teams are allowed to use two engines – one for the 150-mile Gatorade Duel qualifying race, another one for the 500. And teams that participated in Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout exhibition race will use a third engine.
It’s a staggering cost that forces some of the smaller teams to use the same engine for two or three races in a row. Others are willing to pay for more horsepower.
“That’s the truth and that’s the way it is,” Kenny Wallace told NASCAR.com. “People just don’t get it.”
The switch to electronic fuel injection systems added about $10,000 a week to the engine bill.
The powerhouse teams – RCR, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing – also offer technical and mechanical assistance to the smaller teams for $100,000 a race.
The smaller teams, some that park early in the race to save money and collect last-place money, have to cut corners. But it’s still expensive.
“We don’t spend $400,000 a week,” said Bob Leavine, who will send a car to the track for 15 races this year. “We do it for less than half of that.”
His team doesn’t have sponsorship, so most of the cost comes from Leavine’s other businesses. To help make ends meet, a lot of the crew has two and three jobs. For example, the truck driver also is responsible for the tires.
“The average person has no clue what it costs,” Leavine said. “Maybe it’s a good thing they don’t.”
Driver salaries, much like the teams they represent, vary. The smaller teams generally pay 50-percent of their winnings to the driver. The elite teams use a formula of salary and commission. Some of the higher-profile drivers make about $185,000 a week.
The rest of the race team is next with an average payroll of $83,500. That takes care of the mechanics, pit crew, public relations team, truck driver and engineers.
Keeping a 200-mph race car at full speed costs about $50,000 a week for new parts and pieces.
Tires and travel are next at $32,000 a week. Teams don’t get a break on the cost of hotel rooms. In fact, they pay a premium price since hotels generally double and triple their rates during race week. Each team usually needs about 10 rooms.
Many teams own airplanes to shuttle crewman to the track, but the cost of fuel, pilots and insurance still creates a cost of about $500 a person.
At least all three series get their gasoline from Sunoco for free.