Nextel Cup driver Jeff Burton is driving down the road, headed for a race and considering his future. Retirement looms at any moment. Had he chosen to be a bank teller - or any of a thousand other professions - he could plan for his retirement like "normal" people do.
"Most people plan for retirement at age 63 or 65," Burton said. "But if you're a sports figure, you don't know when the end is coming. How do I find the answers to: What do I need to do?
"You're around people who make so much money. What is normal to the people you hang out with isn't normal in real life. It takes a great amount of discipline. ... I live in a huge house I don't need. It's an awesome house. I drive a Jaguar. It's the coolest car. A $70,000 car. You don't need it."
And Burton, 37, sees his days of conspicuous consumption coming to an end.
"I am thinking about those things now. ... Three years ago, I didn't care. I wanted it. I bought it. ... It's like, 'Man, there is no end.' But there is an end and it's there and it's coming."
Nextel Cup drivers are unlike the top players in baseball, basketball, football and hockey. Yes, drivers can make hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. But they are independent contractors. They are not members of unions that have forged agreements with owners for solid retirement packages when their careers are finished.
"This business has never been job secure," said driver Ricky Rudd, 47.
Racecar drivers, like a growing number of other people in today's economy, have to fend for themselves. And that's drivers in every arena of the sport.
Last week, Al Unser Jr., 42, retired from open-wheel racing. Fortunately for Unser, not only did he win two Indianapolis 500s and collect nearly $19 million in Champ Car winnings, but he also invested his share of that money wisely.
He has been able to absorb the expenses of a divorce, a sudden, incurable illness that has left his daughter, Cody, paralyzed from the chest down and treatment for his own alcohol abuse.
Now, Unser will continue to work as a consultant to Pat Patrick Racing, but only because he wants to be close to his son, Al Unser III, 21, whose racing career is just beginning.
Other drivers may not have totaled Unser's winnings, but they can bring home big money. Cup drivers take home from 30 to 60 percent of their winnings each week, plus bonuses, commercial fees and a share of the memorabilia market. Some owners even set them up in businesses, like the car dealerships for Rick Hendrick's drivers.
But drivers need a healthy cushion for retirement. Most know little of the world beyond their game. And planning for the day a driver quits seems nearly antithetical to his sport.
In the driver's world, denial is a necessity. He must be fearless. He will not get hurt. He will always have a sponsor. He will drive successfully into the clear blue yonder.
"You know, great athletes always think tomorrow will be better than today," Burton said. "For them, life is full of contradictions."
Jerry Nadeau ran smack into that contradiction last year, suffering a near-fatal accident in Richmond, Va.
"I certainly wasn't ready for what happened to me," said Nadeau, 34. "Race car drivers make good money, but you need five to 10 years to live comfortably the rest of your life. I was in it six years. I wasn't able to save enough to retire the rest of my life."
Nadeau had disability insurance and medical insurance to make sure he'd be taken care of in case of injury, but he realizes now that making ends meet without a full-time job won't be possible.
"If I get better, I'll definitely need to go back to racing or to some other job to pay off my house and bills," said Nadeau, who suffered severe head injuries in the Richmond accident and is still unable to race in competition. "The sad thing is you never know in our business when something bad is going to happen.
"Most of us race on the ragged edge every week. We make our money and go home. You don't want to think about getting hurt or killed, stuff like that. I had people tell me to invest and have my own insurance. But ... I can't sit back and relax for the next 40 or 50 years. I haven't thought about what I'll do if I have to look outside of racing."
Since the accident, Nadeau has had to make changes. He is no longer given a new car free for his personal use. He now drives a Chevrolet truck that he paid for. He has sold his million-dollar home and moved into what he calls "a normal house" - a standard three-bedroom with a garage in Davidson, N.C.
"It's a roof over our heads," he said. "It's something I can afford to make the payments on. I'm watching my pennies now."
And he's looking for ways to make ends meet.
"I'm teaching at a race school in Connecticut next week," Nadeau said recently. "I'm going to make a couple hundred a day instructing. I have a child and a wife to support, and one way or another I feel I have to support my family. The racing school, I enjoy it a lot, but it's not like racing and making $10,000 to $30,000 a week."
Big money, big bills
In Greensboro, N.C., Kent Dewey of Dewey & Company specializes in business and tax planning, advising clients about how to prepare for retirement. Among his clients are competitors in the Nextel Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck series.
Over the years, he has learned drivers have special needs and expenses.
Drivers spend as much as $200,000 a year for disability insurance and more for health care.
They also face monthly bills that include upward of $3,000 to $4,000 on their mortgages, $3,000 to $4,000 on their motor homes and $10,000 on their aircraft, plus the costs of day-to-day living.
"So they have to say, 'OK, if I quit racing next year, now what happens?' " Dewey said. "You can do the math. They have to be careful like everyone else. You don't want to have a big mortgage, credit card debt and car payments when you're looking at retirement. As one goes toward retirement, the question has to be asked, 'Do I have the sources of income to keep my assets?' "
Often, past generations of drivers didn't. Cup champion Bobby Allison, one of the most popular and successful drivers ever, had to sell everything he owned to cover his debts.
"I don't ever want to be in that position," said Rudd, who plans to race through 2005. "But it has happened to some very successful guys. Mark [Martin] came up the hard way, and like Bobby has been bankrupt a couple times.
"I'm very careful not to get in debt. We lived in a $43,000 brick house for a long time, paying our $300-a-month mortgage just to make sure we didn't get in debt. I don't have anything in the stock market. To me, that's like going to Las Vegas and rolling the dice, and I've never won in Las Vegas. I've put my money in commercial real estate in Chesapeake, Va., where I live. My partners and I have about 10 buildings, and they bring in a steady income. I've made a point of never getting attached to this [big-money] lifestyle, because I've always thought it is here today and gone when I retire."
Seven-time champion Richard Petty endured criticism of his eroding talents and his decision to drive into his mid-50s because he had to, not because he wanted to.
"I drove four, five years longer so I could be in position to retire," Petty said. "I kept putting everything I made back into the team, hoping to get it on the right track for Kyle [his son]. I never could get everything in line to where I really could retire, and now Kyle is putting everything he makes back into it.
"Bobby [Allison] was forced to retire because of his accident. Benny Parsons and Darrell Waltrip, none of them were financially able to quit. All of them had to look to see, 'What can I do to pay the monthly bills?'
"The next crowd, with Jeff Gordon, they're a little better off."
But even the "next crowd" can't just call it a day and expect everything to remain unchanged.
Kevin Harvick finished fifth in points last season with winnings of $6.2 million.
"We have a 10-year plan," Harvick said, "and every time we get a little ahead we invest that money and we think about everything we purchase. Everything we buy has to have meaning. When we built our house, we made sure it was in a market where we can sell it.
"You look around in here [the garage], and you see a lot of people who spend way over their means and are going to have to race a long time."
Even Gordon, who ranks No. 21 on Sports Illustrated's list of highest-paid athletes with an annual total income of $18.6 million, has to be careful.
"You have to understand," Gordon said, "when you move up in stature and start associating in different circles, you have to be very careful. I used to spend $25 for a pair of shoes. Now I spend $225. You don't buy a $500 suit; you buy a $2,500 suit. You've got to be very careful or you won't have anything.
"If I wanted to retire," he said, "my life would have to change dramatically."
Discipline and foresight
The way money flows through the Nextel Cup Series these days, said Burton, makes the need for discipline even more necessary.
"It's like people winning the lottery and you hear how they blow it all," Burton said. "You hear about great athletes who are penniless. Athletes make so much money. The checks come in the mail. The first few times, you can't believe the size of them. ... Now the check comes and you don't even look at it. You just put it in the bank."
Years ago, Cup champion drivers like Parsons, Allison, Waltrip and even Petty raced entire careers thinking about retirement as little more than a dream.
"Their thoughts were, 'I'll race as long as I can and then we'll see,' " Gordon said. "Maybe they didn't take it as professionally, I don't know. Ned Jarrett - that guy just decided to retire one day. How did he do that?
If you ask Jarrett's son, Dale, the answer is: "It wasn't easy. Dad had to work really hard. I hope when I get to retirement, I won't have to worry like Dad did. I was a little kid, and I remember how hard some of those times were."
Ned Jarrett won championships in 1961 and 1965, and retired from driving during the 1966 season at the age of 34.
"There was no security back then," Ned Jarrett said. "It was one of the things that led me to retire from driving. No one in those days, not Richard Petty or anyone else, could retire and live happily ever after."
Jarrett tried to sell business franchises and worked in a sawmill. He thought about returning to driving, but was asked to manage Hickory Speedway. He did that for nine years, then moved on to radio and television.
Now 71, Jarrett is nearly fully retired, thanks to a killing he made in the stock market on Action Performance stock.
"Drivers today are in better shape to retire," the elder Jarrett said, but even the best know it won't be easy.
Martin, 45, said he has a 401(k) retirement fund, deferred compensation from car owner Jack Roush "and quite a lot in stocks, probably 80 percent in conservative stocks.
"Everybody is different," he said. "Matt Kenseth is one of the tightest, most conservative people I know, and he blows me away in that area. Carl Edwards, he won't even get cable. Everybody is different."
But when it comes to ending a career, everyone is pretty much the same.
"You leave this sport hurt or you get squeezed out because of age or competitiveness and there's not much left for you," Martin said. "In terms of having money and earning power at 55, 45 ... it won't even buy your groceries."