Back in the early 1990s, California-born Jeff Gordon caught a wave.

The four-time Sprint Cup champion has ridden the surge of NASCAR's popularity to a 37th-place ranking in this year's Celebrity 100 as selected by Forbes magazine, which lists Gordon's annual income, including endorsements, at $32 million, a figure Gordon says is overblown.

"Don't pay attention to what Forbes puts in there," Gordon quipped after Friday night's formal Sprint Cup awards banquet at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. "They add a lot of extra numbers."

What happens, however, when the currents of fortune turn awry? What happens when a driver with Gordon's savoir faire, "Q" rating and crossover popularity can't sustain the upward trend line that has carried him throughout his career.

If you're Jeff Gordon, you embrace the notion of shared sacrifice, even if that means rebating part of your annual salary to keep your team competing at the highest level. In his willingness to entertain that idea, Gordon is not alone in the Cup garage.

Gordon, who drives the #24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, understands that the economic problems confronting big-time stock car racing are far more generalised than the specific troubles that have beset U.S. automakers General Motors, Ford and Chrysler and have forced the Big Three to go hat-in-hand to Congress.

"I'm taking a hit regardless of what happens with GM, through some other sponsors and personal endorsements," Gordon said. "It's affecting all of us in some way, somehow. ...

"This is not a laughing matter. It's tough times. It's something to be very serious about. We not only have to pay attention to raising money and finding companies out there to do that with, but we also have to watch our costs as well and not be exuberant."

Nicorette, which sponsored Gordon's car for eight of 36 Cup races, won't be back in 2009. National Guard, currently on teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s #88 Chevy, is rumoured to be moving to Gordon.

"We have replaced them," Gordon acknowledged in response to a question about Nicorette. "I still don't know why we haven't announced it yet."

So, is it National Guard?

"We have replaced them," Gordon deadpanned, ducking the direct question.

Gordon, however, hasn't replaced his lucrative endorsement deal with manufacturing giant Georgia Pacific, an indication that times are tough all over, even for the NASCAR millionaires who actor Kevin Costner said at the banquet should send a vote of thanks to Richard Petty, the seven-time champion who pioneered NASCAR's popularity.

"Georgia Pacific was a personal endorsement of mine, and they were on the car as well, but they were a big endorser, and they're not coming back," Gordon said. "I'm one of those millionaires that Kevin Costner talked about, so I'll thank Richard Petty. But ... it doesn't matter if you're making millions or making thousands - it's all perspective.

"When it's been escalating going up, and then you get to a year when it's going to take a dip, it gets your attention -- and it's going to get all of our attention."

Sponsors, clearly, are critical to the successful operation of a top-echelon Cup team. Gordon acknowledged Friday that his annual salary is roughly a third of the #24 team's annual budget. It takes somewhere near $30 million to operate a championship-caliber team for a year. Do the math.

Gordon is willing to sacrifice salary in lieu of sacrificing performance, if it comes to that.

"The way I look at is that I always say to (team owner) Rick Hendrick, 'I'll do whatever it takes for us to have the best team we can possibly have,' Gordon said. "If that means take part of my salary to keep certain people on or to hire certain people, I'll do it."

Gordon doesn't apologise for the lifestyle he has earned, but he does admit to pangs of guilt dating to his first purchase of an expensive motor home, an accessory that's almost a requirement in the Cup garage.

"It's stupid what we spend on motor homes and planes and all this," he said. "Do we need that? No. But things have been good for us. The sport's been good. I'm living this way because things have been very good. Now, obviously, we're having to cut back, and I have to cut back, too. ...

"If me and Rick Hendrick sit down and we talk about the position that we're in - obviously I'm not the only one - but I would be open to it. Listen, I never (got into) this to make millions of dollars. I never dreamed in a million years I was going to make this kind of money. This is ridiculous.

"But, at the same time, I've put myself in a financial position because I know my contract, that I have to make sure I take care of those things and I don't just find myself in debt and going to court trying to cover my debt. Would it happen immediately? Maybe not. But could it happen over time? Absolutely."

Kevin Harvick, who owns teams in NASCAR's Nationwide and Craftsman Truck series, says he went to his Cup owner, Richard Childress, to express his willingness to sacrifice.

"I brought it up," Harvick said. "From a driver's standpoint, the drivers have been on top of the world for the past several years, because there haven't been enough (marquee) drivers to go around, and teams have been doing whatever they had to do to get the drivers. The owners are back in charge, in my opinion."

Harvick knows he's not alone in placing performance issues above personal gain.

"I don't think I'm the only one that would be in that category," he said. "I think 90 per cent of the drivers are business-savvy enough, unlike other sports, to understand from a business standpoint where the world is, and sometimes you've got to tighten the belt and you've got to make sure everything is distributed so that everybody survives.

"If it's all about you, sometimes you get left on the boat."

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News



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