Kurt Busch move is on the money as drivers finally cash in on worth

OTHER VOICES

August 11, 2005|By ED HINTON

THE BINDING agreement between a NASCAR driver and a car owner used to be a handshake.

I do not pine for those days.

Drivers usually got the short end of everything. They worked for percentages of purses. If they were badly injured, tough. They were out of a job, without pay, if they couldn't drive.

Driver Jody Ridley once was seriously injured at Dover. He would recall that his team didn't visit him in the hospital and that the transporter rolled out of town carrying Ridley's street clothes and his wallet. He found himself alone, with nothing but the hospital gown he was wearing, until Bobby Allison brought him some clothes, signed him out and flew him home.

Allison drove for 16 teams and was credited with 84 wins. He is unable to retire at age 67 because he has nothing to show for all those gentlemen's agreements. Where did all that money go? Much went to paying his own hospital bills for career-ending injuries in 1988, but a lot of it went into his secretive one-man charitable effort toward ill-treated and/or disabled drivers and their families.

David Pearson, still widely considered the best NASCAR driver ever, ran seven years for the Wood Brothers on a handshake. They won 40 races in 146 starts together. Then, one little squabble over one botched pit stop in 1979, and Pearson was gone. The career that included 105 wins, second only to Richard Petty's 200, never recovered.

So, all this considered, good for Kurt Busch.

Don't call Busch greedy, and don't call him disloyal, over the move he revealed this week. Just call him wise - especially so for age 27.

He will jump from Roush Racing to Roger Penske no later than 2007, and may well move next year, to replace Rusty Wallace. Penske people won't discuss the terms, but an educated ballpark guess is $10 million annually for 10 years.

Busch isn't the first driver to seek lifetime security. But as reigning Nextel Cup champion, with the highest-profile move, Busch breaks the new trend wide open for the public to see.

Last week, Kasey Kahne felt free to sign a long-term - something approaching a decade - contract extension with Dodge team owner Ray Evernham after a federal judge threw out Ford Motor Co.'s claim of breach of contract by Kahne.

Earlier this season, the Roush team Busch is leaving signed Jamie McMurray to a long-term contract beginning in 2007, and they're hoping McMurray will be released from his 2006 obligation to Chip Ganassi.

If, as speculated, Busch's annual base salary will be the highest ever in NASCAR, it would be somewhere north of what is believed to be $8 million a year for Tony Stewart.

Jeff Gordon has found lifetime security in a different kind of deal, wherein owner Rick Hendrick has given Gordon a piece of the team action for life.

It's about time NASCAR drivers started looking out for themselves and started catching up with baseball, football and basketball players, who may risk injury but seldom if ever risk their lives in the normal performance of their jobs.

Much of the massive fan migration to NASCAR from other sports has been based on the notion of supposedly overpaid athletes, so I already can hear the groans complaining that NASCAR drivers are turning greedy.

I would submit that if you take all of the above-mentioned contract maneuvering, and all those millions, then double it all, then - and only then - would NASCAR drivers receive a fair share of the enormous revenues rolling into the sport.

If you long for the good old days of handshakes and rugged independence, then you weren't around to know just how bad those old days really were.

Ed Hinton covers auto racing for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing Newspaper.

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