With no pension plan, NASCAR's first stars are easily forgotten
Wednesday, February 7th 2007, 6:21 am
News On 6
PAMPLICO, S.C. (AP) _ 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. Even 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 performance.
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.
NASCAR's policy 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 actions.''
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 board.''
Old-timers have 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.''
Ard, two-time Busch Series champion, has Alzheimer's. Jo, his wife of 46 years, has a degenerative eye disease that's slowly stealing her sight.
Between Social Security, Sam's veterans benefits and what Jo picks up cleaning houses, the Ards bring in roughly $1,600 a month. 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.
``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.
The 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 the road.
``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 that.''
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 stands today.
Harvick furiously 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,'' Jeff Burton said. ``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.''