Four-time Sprint Cup series champion Jeff Gordon announced on Thursday that he would be retiring from NASCAR's top circuit at the end of the 2015 season. He would end his career after 23 full-time seasons, while his rise as a superstar matched the massive growth in popularity for the overall sport itself. The simplest way to look at it is through the lens of on-track prize winnings.
When Gordon competed in his first race in Atlanta in November 1992, the winner that day took home a relatively measly $93,600. The entire total payout for that race, for ALL drivers combined, was just $641,000.
That pales in comparison to the numbers seen in NASCAR's most recent race, the 2014 season-finale two months ago at Homestead. In that race, the winning car by itself took home nearly $350,000, while the entire field was paid almost $5 million. That's an average growth rate of ten percent per year—better than the stock market's performance during that time.
The growth in the industry's revenues can be seen another way: By focusing on Gordon's individual performance in that range. His career on-track earnings have totaled over $146 million in the past 23 years, which doesn't even include his off-track endorsement deals.
In the early years, the money just wasn't there as it is now. His 1995 championship brought him just over $4 million for the season. Now it would be impossible for him to make such a small amount. He hasn't made under $6 million in one year since 2000.
As the sport has grown, Gordon's $146 million number, while probably unimaginable in 1992, has become anything but unique, as younger drivers have benefited from the influx of money. Plenty of drivers with less experience, worse race results, and smaller popularity have been approaching and surpassing $100 million in career earnings—simply because they started racing at a time when the sport has seen all-time peaks in popularity and paychecks.
With $100 million now breached by a few drivers, the next big figure to watch for is $200 million. Gordon won't make it there, but six-time champion Jimmie Johnson might. In a few years we'll be writing about his retirement too.