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Does Prize Money Matter?


hile surfing the Web recently I came across an impressive compilation by Steve Klemetti at that lists last year’s biggest drag racing money makers. To compile this list, Klemetti painstakingly went through the 2005 purse winnings for drivers in all four NHRA pro classes, along with Top Alcohol Dragster and Alky Funny Car competitors, as well as for IHRA Top Fuel and Alcohol Funny Car racers. In some drivers’ instances—Clay Millican, for example—monies won in both sanctioning bodies combined for their year-long total.

The list covers purse money only with no reference or relationship to sponsorship dollars or internal team bonuses or salaries, but still I was more than a little surprised to see that only NHRA POWERade Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher surpassed the magic million-dollar mark. And that’s for a 23-race season in which he won nine events and secured his second-straight and third career championship. By comparison, 2005 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart took home a whopping $13.6 million after winning five times in a 36-race season and you have to read all the way down to 42nd place to find a Cup driver with less than $1 million in prize money.

Regardless, though I do think professional drag racing’s purses are woefully and embarrassingly inadequate for the expense and risk taken, it’s not really fair or even particularly relevant to compare them to what’s available in NASCAR’s post-race coffers (the last-place finisher in this year’s Daytona 500 will receive a minimum $219,931!). There’s just so much more money to start with on the NASCAR side due to larger audiences both at the track and on TV, along with the proportionate sponsorship and advertising revenue they attract. Of course it also takes a much bigger budget to race at NASCAR’s top level, so the money available at least partially reflects that, too.

What I think Klemetti’s list clearly demonstrates is something we at DRO identified last summer after Millican picked up the $106,000 for winning and setting low ET in Top Fuel at George Howard’s eighth-mile Huntsville Dragway: that is, despite their grumblings, today’s top teams aren’t racing for the money, or at least not for the money that’s available at the tracks. Otherwise, how could Don Scumacher or John Force or Connie Kalitta possibly justify their annual racing expenditures when a “measly” $500,000 or less likely awards the annual effort for each of their entries when the tire smoke finally clears in November?

With only $50K or so paid for an average Top Fuel win last year, we figured more than a few NHRA regulars would make the trek to northern Alabama on an off week to take a shot at the $101,000-to-win special event. But Millican was the only real hitter to show up at Huntsville and as such he enjoyed a relatively unobstructed path to the pay window. As DRO editor Burk observed about the no shows at the time (several of whom promised to be there), “their egos determine where they race, not the money.”

Klemetti’s list certainly seems to back up the sentiment. In speaking with several touring pros last season, from premier team owners to struggling independents, it was clear to me that it costs tens of thousands of dollars in fuel, hotels and crew costs just to show up at an NHRA national event, plus who knows how much more for wear and tear and breakage over the course of each weekend?


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