The first time golfer Michelle Wie ever drove a car, she took a Hummer up a 60-degree ramp, rocked it over some felled logs and punched it through a mud flat – all with her parents sitting in the back seat.
"My parents were freaking out; they thought they were going to die. I loved it!" laughs Wie, who has earned more than $1.2 million since she turned pro in 2005, at the age of 17. Since then, the self-proclaimed car fanatic has acquired some considerably smoother rides. When she's attending classes at Stanford University, she drives a black-on-black BMW X5; at home in Florida, she buys groceries – her favorite non-golf pastime – in a diamond-white Mercedes-Benz GL550.
Wie is not alone in her love of cars; it seems to come with the territory of being a pro athlete. Florida Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez owns six, including a Bentley Continental and Mercedes S63 AMG. He parks four at his home in Florida and the other two in the Dominican Republic.
Professional sports lends itself to a love of cars. After all, what's one to do with ample downtime in the off-season and a generous salary? While not every pro athlete owns a flashy ride – Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones drives a Ford F-150 – one could argue that, in general, their cars tend to augment these celebrities' already-established reputation.
Just look at LeBron James. His customized Ferrari F430 Spider is indeed fit for a king.
Part pleasure, part business
Seven-figure partnerships – sponsorships and endorsement deals between car companies and celebrity athletes – also contribute the car-sports connection. To wit: Tennis star Maria Sharapova landed a multi-year $2 million endorsement deal with Land Rover in 2006, and Tiger Woods earned a reported $7 million to represent Buick (though the deal was severed in 2008 due to cost-cutting at General Motors).
Professional sports generated $213 billion last year, according to Street & Smith's Sports Group. Sports advertising alone is a $27 billion industry, media broadcast rights bring in an additional $7 billion, and spectators spend more than $26 billion each year on tickets, concessions and parking.
Still, there's a powerful emotional element as well, one that extends from the on-the-field action all the way to the vehicles parked in the athletes' driveways.
"Sports is not only the physical games themselves and people watching those games, but it's also all of the Monday-morning quarterbacking, the conversations through the week," says Audi CMO Scott Keogh (Audi just became the official sponsor of the New York Yankees). "Everyone can identify with it, whether they play a marginal amount of sports or whether their father played sports. That cultural thing resonates with cars as well."
In other words, cars help athletes establish an image with fans, potential sponsors and teammates. One of the first things Atlanta Braves pitcher Kenshin Kawakami did when he moved from Japan was buy a black Maserati Grand Turismo S. He already owned a Lamborghini Murcielago, but he needed something more understated for driving in the U.S. The Maserati costs $135,000; the Lambo costs $219,000 more.
"My favorite thing about the car is how it looks, how it's really luxurious but not too flashy," Kawakami says. "It's got a really refined, elegant look."
Rising star, same car
Tom Brady, on the other hand, probably wouldn't make such a change. He drives a $51,400 Audi S5, which has an athletically smooth styling that echoes the quarterback's agile prowess on the field.
Sure, he also drives a rare $114,200 R8, which matches his celebrity status as the MVP of two Super Bowls (winner of three) and husband of Gisele Bundchen, the highest-paid model in the world. But even though Brady currently has an endorsement deal with the German automaker, he owned Audi vehicles long before Audi approached him. It's a match made in heaven, Keogh says.
"He's very successful, he's very passionate," he says. "Most importantly, from a driving image, he's just not your central casting star and all the negative baggage that sort of comes along with that."
Wie, on the other hand, doesn't have a partnership with an automaker; she drives the Benz and Beemer because she loves them. For those automakers – and Wie's fans – that might be worth more than a formal endorsement anyway.
Five to note:
1. Chipper Jones: Ford F-150
2. Cristiano Ronaldo: Bentley Continental GT Speed
3. Greg Norman: Land Rover Range Rover Sport
4. Hanley Ramirez: Mercedes-Benz S36 AMG (and five others)
5. Kenshin Kawakami: Maserati Grand Turismo S, Lamborghini Murcielago
• See more cars of the stars – including those belonging to LeBron James, Maria Sharapova and Michelle Wie