NASCAR’s Payday Milestones
by Tom Jensen August 27, 2021
Once Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, race purse records immediately began to fall. And they continued to fall.
Racers get rewarded in a lot of different ways, including trophies, points and bragging rights.
Arguably the most important form of recognition – and the only one that pays the bills – is money. When Darlington Raceway opened in 1950, the Southern 500 was the richest race of the season, and for most of the rest of the decade, it continued to be the highest-paying race.
Once Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, all that changed. From the first year on, the Daytona 500 paid more money than any other race on the calendar.
Here are 10 NASCAR milestone paydays:
First $25,000 purse
The inaugural Southern 500, run in 1950, featured a 75-car field and a $25,325 purse, the largest in NASCAR’s brief history at that point. It took winner Johnny Mantz 6 hours, 38 minutes and 40 seconds before he took the checkered flag at Darlington Raceway. But the long day was worth it: Mantz won $10,510, which was more than the total money paid out in any of the other 18 races that year.
First $50,000 purse
One of the most important races in NASCAR history was the inaugural Daytona 500, won by Hall of Famer Lee Petty (2011) on February 22, 1959 after a photo finish with Johnny Beauchamp that took three days to finalize. NASCAR paid out $53,050, with Petty’s winner’s share coming in at a cool $19,050.
First $100,000 purse
Hall of Famer Richard Petty (2010) won his first of a record seven Daytona 500s in 1964, the same year he won the first of his seven championships, another record and one later equaled by Dale Earnhardt (2010) and Jimmie Johnson. The ’64 Daytona 500 barely inched into six figures with a purse of $100,750, including $33,300 for the race winner.
First $250,000 purse
Another Daytona 500, another Petty victory, another record purse. In 1974, Richard Petty won his second consecutive Daytona 500 and fifth overall, pocketing $39,650 of the total prize money of $252,440.
First $500,000 purse
One of the most famous races in NASCAR ended in controversy when leaders Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the last lap of the 1979 Daytona 500, the first 500-mile NASCAR race with live flag-to-flag television coverage. The last-lap crash opened the door for Richard Petty to win the Great American race for the sixth time and take home $73,900 of the $538,330 purse.
First $1 million purse
One of Bill Elliott’s nicknames is “Million-Dollar Bill,” so it’s fitting the 2015 Hall of Fame inductee won NASCAR’s first million-dollar race, the 1985 Daytona 500, which paid the field $1,097,925, including $185,500 for Elliott, who won the race from the pole in his Ford Thunderbird.
First $2 million purse
Davey Allison (2019) excelled on superspeedways, including Daytona International Speedway, where he won the 1992 Daytona 500 in a Ford owned by fellow Hall of Famer Robert Yates (2018). The total purse was $2,008,710, with the driver and team owner splitting $244,050.
First $5 million purse
When Dale Earnhardt (2010) ended 20 years of frustration by capturing the 1998 Daytona, the payout to the field was a whopping $6,379,965, nearly double the $3,441,145 that the ’97 race paid. The winner’s cut for Earnhardt and team owner Richard Childress (2017) was $1,059,985.
First $10 million purse
The $10 million mark was cracked in the 2002 Daytona 500, won by Ward Burton in his Bill Davis Racing Dodge. Total payout that afternoon in Central Florida was $10,573,184, including $1,409,017 for Burton and Davis.
Richest purse ever
NASCAR quit reporting race winnings after the 2015 season, but the single richest race up to that point was the 2014 Daytona 500, which was worth a staggering $18,092,441, including $1,505.363 for race-winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2021). The 500 purse fell by about $50,000 when Joey Logano won the 2015 edition of the Great American Race.