Mapping out the end of a career's road

As independent operators in a dangerous sport, racecar drivers face unique obstacles when it comes to planning for their retirement

July 10, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Nextel Cup driver Jeff Burton is driving down the road, headed for a race and considering his future. Retirement looms at any moment. Had he chosen to be a bank teller - or any of a thousand other professions - he could plan for his retirement like "normal" people do.

"Most people plan for retirement at age 63 or 65," Burton said. "But if you're a sports figure, you don't know when the end is coming. How do I find the answers to: What do I need to do?

"You're around people who make so much money. What is normal to the people you hang out with isn't normal in real life. It takes a great amount of discipline. ... I live in a huge house I don't need. It's an awesome house. I drive a Jaguar. It's the coolest car. A $70,000 car. You don't need it."

And Burton, 37, sees his days of conspicuous consumption coming to an end.

"I am thinking about those things now. ... Three years ago, I didn't care. I wanted it. I bought it. ... It's like, `Man, there is no end.' But there is an end and it's there and it's coming."

Nextel Cup drivers are unlike the top players in baseball, basketball, football and hockey. Yes, drivers can make hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. But they are independent contractors. They are not members of unions that have forged agreements with owners for solid retirement packages when their careers are finished.

"This business has never been job secure," said driver Ricky Rudd, 47.

Racecar drivers, like a growing number of other people in today's economy, have to fend for themselves. And that's drivers in every arena of the sport.

Last week, Al Unser Jr., 42, retired from open-wheel racing. Fortunately for Unser, not only did he win two Indianapolis 500s and collect nearly $19 million in Champ Car winnings, but he also invested his share of that money wisely.

He has been able to absorb the expenses of a divorce, a sudden, incurable illness that has left his daughter, Cody, paralyzed from the chest down and treatment for his own alcohol abuse.

Now, Unser will continue to work as a consultant to Pat Patrick Racing, but only because he wants to be close to his son, Al Unser III, 21, whose racing career is just beginning.

Other drivers may not have totaled Unser's winnings, but they can bring home big money. Cup drivers take home from 30 to 60 percent of their winnings each week, plus bonuses, commercial fees and a share of the memorabilia market. Some owners even set them up in businesses, like the car dealerships for Rick Hendrick's drivers.

But drivers need a healthy cushion for retirement. Most know little of the world beyond their game. And planning for the day a driver quits seems nearly antithetical to his sport.

In the driver's world, denial is a necessity. He must be fearless. He will not get hurt. He will always have a sponsor. He will drive successfully into the clear blue yonder.

"You know, great athletes always think tomorrow will be better than today," Burton said. "For them, life is full of contradictions."

Jerry Nadeau ran smack into that contradiction last year, suffering a near-fatal accident in Richmond, Va.

"I certainly wasn't ready for what happened to me," said Nadeau, 34. "Race car drivers make good money, but you need five to 10 years to live comfortably the rest of your life. I was in it six years. I wasn't able to save enough to retire the rest of my life."

Lifestyle changes

Nadeau had disability insurance and medical insurance to make sure he'd be taken care of in case of injury, but he realizes now that making ends meet without a full-time job won't be possible.

"If I get better, I'll definitely need to go back to racing or to some other job to pay off my house and bills," said Nadeau, who suffered severe head injuries in the Richmond accident and is still unable to race in competition. "The sad thing is you never know in our business when something bad is going to happen.

"Most of us race on the ragged edge every week. We make our money and go home. You don't want to think about getting hurt or killed, stuff like that. I had people tell me to invest and have my own insurance. But ... I can't sit back and relax for the next 40 or 50 years. I haven't thought about what I'll do if I have to look outside of racing."

Since the accident, Nadeau has had to make changes. He is no longer given a new car free for his personal use. He now drives a Chevrolet truck that he paid for. He has sold his million-dollar home and moved into what he calls "a normal house" - a standard three-bedroom with a garage in Davidson, N.C.

"It's a roof over our heads," he said. "It's something I can afford to make the payments on. I'm watching my pennies now."

And he's looking for ways to make ends meet.

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