Race car drivers face a premium when it comes to life insurance

Oct 22, 2011

By: Matt Baker, Times Staff Writer

Race car drivers know the risk of death follows them every time they strap on a helmet.

That's why most turn to specialized insurance brokers for life, medical and disability coverage to protect them and their families in case of accidents, like the 15-car wreck that killed St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon on Sunday in Las Vegas.

While most insurance companies won't cover drivers thanks to the hazards of racing at 225 mph, a handful of specialists such as Gregory & Appel Insurance do. The Indianapolis-based insurance firm works with IndyCar and covers about 30 teams and 20 drivers.

"Dan's death is an absolute tragedy," said Darren Hickey, the firm's vice president for motor­sports. "It's also kind of a slap in the face and a stark reminder that motorsports is very dangerous."

Racing teams have insurance to cover employees, such as a pit crew member who is struck by an errant tire. But drivers are independent contractors, so they're responsible for finding their own insurance plans. It's unclear whether Wheldon carried a policy.

Most IndyCar or NASCAR drivers are athletic and in good shape, so their base premiums are low. From there, drivers fill out a hazard form, and the extra costs vary based on how many races they run and the speed and type of cars driven. The charge goes up if drivers also participate in other risky activities such as skydiving or piloting planes.

A typical $1 million policy costs a few thousand dollars, Hickey said.

"It's not a prohibitive amount of money," Hickey said.

Many states allow drivers to get workers' compensation insurance, which pays for drivers' medical bills if they're hurt in a wreck. Florida does not, Hickey said, so many drivers buy accident coverage, which pays a fixed amount toward hospital bills or visits to the doctor.

Hickey said he also encourages drivers to buy disability insurance to provide options in case injuries end their careers early.

"Most of these young men and women, all they've ever done their entire life is race a car," Hickey said.

Many drivers' contracts call for them to get a stipend from teams in case they're hurt and can't race. Others take short-term disability insurance in case of injuries such as broken legs that might keep them out of a car for weeks. After, say, 30 days, drivers are eligible to collect funds for up to a year or two until doctors clear them to return to racing.

Permanent disability coverage pays a lump sum to help drivers move on with their lives if they're paralyzed or sustain other career-ending injuries.

"It's a lot less dangerous than it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago thanks to all the safety innovations and technological advances," Hickey said, "but it's still a very risky (vocation)."