Sam Ard and his wife, Jo, have been the topic of considerable discussion on some of the internet message boards lately. As you may recall, Ard was the 1983 and 1984 NASCAR Busch Series champion. He began his Busch Series career in 1982 -- at the relatively ripe age of 42 -- and in a short, three-year career, won 22 times in 92 starts, with an incredible 67 top-five finishes.
His career ended when a crash at Rockingham left him with short-term memory loss and issues that impacted his balance and speech. He overcame many of those deficits, only to be diagnosed last year with Alzheimer’s Disease. Ard now lives in a mobile home on land owned by his sister in South Carolina. He and Jo live off Social Security, as well as the meager wages she earns by cleaning houses. She has lost much of the vision in her right eye, and could lose her vision entirely.
The Ards face some major financial issues, and there have been a handful of charity events held for them. NASCAR, despite having no benevolent fund for former racers, has helped pay some of their medical bills, as well. But there are those who wonder if NASCAR should do more.
It’s a complicated question, for many reasons.
NASCAR is not the only sport without a benevolent fund for its former athletes. In fact, very few professional sports leagues have anything of that kind. Legally, NASCAR is not obligated to assist former drivers who fall onto hard times, since they did not employ those drivers. Morally, the debate becomes more clouded.
Ard commented today ont he discussion, saying, "You can drive for NASCAR, but when it's over, it's over. You get nothing. 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 sports do have pensions for former athletes, though some are overseen by players’ unions, not by the leagues themselves.
In Major League Baseball, 10-year veterans receive a six-figure annual payout, beginning at age 62. The PGA Tour has a deferred-compensation plan, which puts money away for golfers based on their past performance. After six years in the league, an NFL player receives approximately $2,500 per month beginning at age 55. The NBA has a plan very much like the NFL's, with payments to qualified former players. The National Hockey League contributes about $45,000 per year to retirement accounts for its veterans. The ATP and WTA tennis tours contribute $7,500 to $9,500 per year to player retirement accounts.
NASCAR has resisted the implementation of such a program, correctly stating that drivers are "independent contractors," and not employees of the sanctioning body. As such, NASCAR believes racers are resp[onsible for their own health care, insurance, and retirement monies.
Jeff Gordon, who ranks as NASCAR’s all-time money leader, says it is overly simplistic to say that NASCAR should look after its former drivers. “We don't want to make NASCAR go broke like some other companies out there with pension plans have done," he said. "We all need to be responsible for our actions. You've got to plan.”
Jeff Burton said he also believes it is up to individual drivers to plan for their futures, saying, "You really have to plan for things you don't think are going to happen. You have to paint a worst-case scenario.”
1985 Busch Series champion Jack Ingram, a contemporary of Ard’s, disagreed, saying he is convinced hat NASCAR can – and should – do more.
"It would almost cost nothing," said Ingram. "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, and he's living in a trailer. It shouldn't be that way."
Two-time Series champion Tony Stewart says he would gladly contribute to any program NASCAR sets up to assist former drivers. In fact, he has frequently given money to racers who fell on hard times in the past, saying he feels he owes it to the sport. "There are no health benefits,” he said. “If you get hurt, you're done. A $5,000 hospital bill for one of these guys, it could take (them) three weeks to make that. To me, it's just doing what's right. When somebody needs help, it's nice…to be able to give something back. It kind of helps complete the circle."
Perhaps the best answer is for the fans who enjoyed Ard in his heyday to step forward and help him now, in his time of need. Contributions to Sam and Jo Ard may be sent to The Sam Ard Care Fund, c/o Wachovia Bank, PO Box 1089, Lake City, South Carolina, 29560