By JENNA FRYER | AP Auto Racing
Writer | Posted: February 7, 2007
PAMPLICO, S.C. --
The living room of Sam Ard's
brown doublewide trailer speaks to his short but
successful NASCAR career. Trophies surround the
fireplace and crowd its mantel. Plaques and pictures dot
the living room walls.
What's not there
speaks to Ard's life after NASCAR, the two championship
rings and a handful of grandfather clocks from
Martinsville Speedway that he sold because "we was
running short on cash."
Unlike veterans of
other sports, Ard has no pension to fall back on.
As the booming
stock-car series built by men such as Sam Ard heads to
Daytona International Speedway this week to kick off its
59th season, NASCAR remains the only major-league sport
without a pension plan.
"You can drive for
NASCAR, but when it's over, it's over. You get nothing,"
Ard said. "When you fall out of racing or something
happens to you, it seems like NASCAR just forgets about
you. It's your friends and the people around the race
track who have to remember you and keep you going."
Other leagues have
pensions. Today's 10-year veterans in baseball will
receive a six-figure annual payout beginning at age 62.
middle-of-the-road professional golfers can pile up
millions under the PGA Tour's deferred-compensation
plan, which puts money away for players based on
An NFL player with
six seasons between 1998 and 2003 will get about $2,500
a month beginning at age 55, and the NBA has a similar
plan. The NHL contributes about $45,000 per year to
retirement accounts for veterans. The ATP and WTA tours
make annual contributions averaging between $7,500 and
$9,500 to retirement accounts for each tennis player.
always has been that its drivers are "independent
contractors" who bear full responsibility for their
finances, health care, retirement and life insurance.
Few in NASCAR are
arguing for a fund to help today's drivers, who make
millions from team contracts and even more from race
purses and merchandise sales. Jeff Gordon, the sport's
all-time money leader, has won a record $82,366,716
through 14 full seasons and isn't sure what the
responsibility should be.
"We don't want to
make NASCAR go broke like some other companies out there
with pension plans have done," said the four-time Nextel
Cup champion. "We all need to be responsible for our
But if NASCAR
wants to argue it rivals other sports in popularity,
Gordon said officials shouldn't be surprised when
drivers ask for similar benefits.
"We are now
competing with the NFL, basketball, the NHL," Gordon
said. "And so, should we be compared to them on every
level? And when it comes to this subject, there is no
comparison. I mean, I don't even think we are on the
lobbied for years for some sort of fund to help repay
the men, like Ard, who contributed to the sport and now
are struggling to make ends meet.
"It would almost
cost nothing," said Jack Ingram, the 1985 Busch
champion. "It wouldn't be many people that's not wealthy
that contributed a lot to this sport, but they're ...
destitute. (Ard's) a NASCAR champion; he's living in a
trailer house. It shouldn't be that way.
Busch Series champion, has Alzheimer's. Jo, his wife of
46 years, has a degenerative eye disease that's slowly
stealing her sight.
Security, Sam's veterans benefits and what Jo picks up
cleaning houses, the Ards bring in roughly $1,600 a
After the mortgage
payment of $426.96, car insurance on Ard's 1993 Ford
Ranger, utilities, phone and cable, there's only about
$123 left. They don't advertise their problems or
complain. Even so, individual members of the NASCAR
community have stepped up to help.
From the desk near
the fireplace Jo Ard pulls out a letter from Dale
Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick that
circulated through the NASCAR community late last year
and recently was forwarded to her. She's a proud woman,
so showing it to a stranger isn't easy.
"To All: Many of you
may not be aware that one of NASCAR's pioneers and
champion, Sam Ard, is in very poor health and dire
straits. ... If it wasn't for men like Sam, none of us
would be able to enjoy the lifestyle we live today. We
all do charity work and give back to the community, this
time it's one of our own."
If Jo Ard had her
way, the letter wouldn't exist, and she and her beloved
"Sammy" wouldn't need handouts. Although some
inside NASCAR -- specifically president Mike Helton
and spokesman Jim Hunter -- have given financial
assistance on a case-by-case basis, they aren't prepared
to fund a pension. "I think the
biggest detriment to a pension plan, aside from the fact
that they are not NASCAR employees, is trying to decide
who would pay for it and what the eligibility factors
would be," Hunter said.
"How many years
would you go back? To 1948? Or would you start in the
50s? Or the 60s? Or the 70s? There's a lot of issues
that would need to be figured out." Tony Stewart, a
two-time Cup champion who routinely dips into his own
pocket to quietly support the old-timers, believes
NASCAR could do more to help. "I'm not going to
say they have the responsibility, but it'd sure be
nice," Stewart said. Part of the
problem is there's no way to gauge how many drivers are
in need, or who would be eligible if a plan existed.
independent-contractor model isn't unique to NASCAR and
is followed in almost every form of motorsports. Unlike
crew members who work for teams that provide full
benefits and 401(k)s, drivers are on their own.
"Those are the
rules going in, and we all know it," said two-time
Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip. "I don't
think you can find any driver that, if you put a NASCAR
ride in front of him, would say, 'Wait, this doesn't
come with a pension plan? No retirement fund? No
insurance? No thanks. I'm not interested.' "No driver in
their right mind would walk away."
That includes Ard.Like so many
drivers from NASCAR's early days, Ard didn't get rich
racing. His three seasons netted $378,765, and Ard got
only 25 percent of it. He also was responsible for
paying his crew and their food and lodging expenses on
"Them boys don't
know what it's all about," Ard said. "Shoot, I used to
build my cars, haul 'em to the race track, race 'em,
then haul 'em back home. Now all they do is show up and
sit in a hauler until it's time to get in the car, then
they go out on the race track and make a boatload of
money along the way. "I'd like to go racing again like
Ard hasn't raced
since suffering severe head trauma in a 1984 accident at
North Carolina Speedway. He had to learn how to walk and
talk and feed himself, and did much of his therapy on an
old sawdust pile near the woods behind his house.
"That's where I
learned how to walk again, I'd run up and down that
sawdust pile because if I fell, it didn't hurt," he
said. "I about wore that sawdust pile out." Before the
accident, Ard seemingly had the perfect life. A job as a
Ford mechanic and a four-year Air Force stint gave him
the financial security to quit the 9-to-5 grind and
focus strictly on racing.
In his early 40s,
he had enough money put away for all four children to
attend college and had the talent for a successful
NASCAR career. It ended the moment he hit the wall at
Rockingham. Race car drivers
had a hard time getting insurance back then, and car
owner Howard Thomas wasn't on the hook for
anything. NASCAR covered all of Ard's medical bills, but
he never again had a consistent income.
First, the Ards
used the college funds to pay everyday living expenses.
Then they went into debt. Ard tried to run his own race
team, but with so-so results. "I hear people all
the time say Sammy wasn't right, he didn't know what he
was doing," Jo Ard said. "Of course he wasn't right. He
had major head trauma; his brain was broken. He was
never going to be right again."
Now Ard spends
most of his days sitting in the recliner next to the
front window of his trailer. He watches NASCAR -- Dale
Jr. is his favorite -- and spends a lot of time with his
beloved dog, Putt-Putt, a fiercely protective mix of
boxer and pit bull. Although Ard can
remember details from his career -- like beating the
late Dale Earnhardt to the finish at Charlotte
Motor Speedway while Earnhardt Jr. was at the
track celebrating his 9th birthday -- Jo can't send him
to the grocery store without an explicit list. Even
then, she has to cross her fingers and hope he hasn't
forgotten where he put the list.
With a short Busch
career and only one Cup start, Sam Ard never was
considered one of NASCAR's superstars. But his three
seasons as a full-time racer were stellar. He finished
second in the 1982 Busch standings and then won
consecutive championships in 1983 and 1984. He earned
his first title by winning 10 races -- a record that
chased Ard's record last season. He fell one win short,
but brought attention to Ard's plight in the process. After the Ards
wrote NASCAR asking for $24,000 to help pay off their
trailer, NASCAR and Richmond International Raceway
held an auction that raised $36,000 before taxes ate up
a chunk of the money. But Harvick,
who has never met Ard but knows about his legacy because
his wife, DeLana, grew up rooting for him,
couldn't shake the need to do more. So he got together
with Earnhardt Jr. to raise money from other
drivers. Neither told Ard they were responsible -- even
after anonymously dropping "a good amount" of money into
the Sam Ard Care Fund.
"You look at a lot
of these guys who have raced and made our sport what it
is today, and they don't have anything," Harvick said.
"We are reaping the benefits from their aches and pains,
the things that they did several years ago, and it's
really not fair to leave them hanging. It just kind of
rubs me the wrong way."
A lot of drivers
feel a responsibility to the men who came before them
and would welcome a system to honor and aid them. "Jack Ingram,
Sam Ard, Bobby Allison -- those guys created an
excitement about our sport that has made it wonderful,
and I think we have to be careful as a generation to
make sure we don't forget that," said Jeff Burton.
"One of the things that I think should fall on the
shoulders of all the current drivers is that we need to
leave the sport better than it was when we got here.
Because they damn sure did.
ARD WINSTON & BUSCH SERIES