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Gordon helped bring NASCAR to the masses

August 31, 2003|by JASON STEINWheelbase Communications

More than a decade later, he still doesn't look the part. Take a gander up close and you'll see.

The hair is still a little too perfect, more Southern California than North Carolina. What comes out of his mouth sounds polished and prepared, more diplomatic than good-ol'-boy drawl.

Look closely and Jeff Gordon still seems out of place in this greasy garage just off "Gasoline Alley," a cramped shop where a guttural engine rumble drowns out his squeaky voice.

"This year I think we're capable of winning the championship," Gordon says, his dark eyes hidden behind even darker shades. "And that's all that really matters, right?"

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Winning the championship? Sitting on top of the National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) mountain? This pretty-boy Gordon?

Still? Still.

The fact is, the California Kid, the boy who grew up taking the NASCAR Winston Cup scene by storm, might be the very reason for its amazing popularity. He brought the big machines to the masses. He brought the masses to the big tracks en masse. For a sport raised on dirt roads, greasy characters and limited ambition, Gordon helped turn it into suite-lined superspeedways run by corporate moguls who calculated the sky was the limit. All added together, he might go down as the poster boy for an entire movement. And he hasn't even hit his mid-30s.

"Life is good," Gordon said, "and I'm even more pleased with how everything is turning out."

Who would have known everything would turn out so good? Jeff was just 4 when his mother married John Bickford, a racing diehard who loved to live at the track. Bickford bought his stepson a BMX bicycle and then a Quarter Midget race car by the time the boy was 5. Speed and Gordon meshed well.

On weeknights, Bickford would get Jeff to practice driving his sprint car, running lap after lap around their Vallejo, Calif., home. On weekends they would head to the dirt tracks and Gordon would pull in the trophies. He was winning races before he could read or write.

By the time Jeff was 14, Bickford had to make a decision. His stepson's career was becoming more important than his own. Age restrictions in California meant Jeff couldn't race against adult drivers. Midwest restrictions were different. With his parent's consent, Jeff could legally race sprint cars in Indiana, so Bickford gave up his business, packed up and hauled the family to Pittsboro, Ind.

The move would prove monumental for Gordon's career. By the time he was 16, he would become the youngest driver to ever earn a United States Auto Club (USAC) license. By the time he was 18 he was the USAC Midget Rookie of the Year. A year later he was the circuit's outright champion. But 1991 would be the breakout year.

After racing from one end of the country to the other, Gordon won the USAC Silver Crown title and caught the eye of NASCAR Winston Cup team owner Rick Hendrick.

"Gordon," Hendrick told his manager at the time, "is going to be gold."

At 21, Gordon was driving for NASCAR's elite team, finishing as the rookie of the year in 1993 and winning the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis in 1994. What would follow would blow away everyone.

Over the next four years he would win three Winston Cup titles, earn more money than he could imagine and marry a Ms. Winston model.

He brought Pepsi into NASCAR. He brought NASCAR into Super Bowl ads. He made regular appearances on "The Late Show with David Letterman." He lived in a sprawling South Florida mansion, owned big boats and hired a private chef.

Gordon was on top of the world, building a following of lovers and haters along the way. His supporters said he was the best there ever was. Others said it made for boring racing. The sport was never bigger. Even with a new crew chief in 2000, Gordon slogged it out through a transition year and then came back to win another Winston Cup title - his fourth - in 2001. He was back on top, bigger than ever.

And then . . .

"I almost started believing I was (perfect)," Gordon said. "I kind of got stuck on that image and it brought me down a bit."

The last two years have been the most tumultuous in his racing career. Gordon has endured a very public divorce, a 30-race winless streak and the sense that maybe he was human after all. This year, refreshed, recharged and refocused on what's important in his life, Gordon is back for more, running stronger and surviving the ups and downs better.

"There's no doubt," said longtime NASCAR driver and announcer Darrell Waltrip, "that what he's done in 10 years has helped change the direction of this sport. No one can deny him of that."

"I am trying to be myself more now, trying to spend more time doing what I want," Gordon said, after more than $50 million in winnings. "And I'm not changing."




Jason Stein is a feature writer and the editor of Wheelbase Communications' RaceWEEK racing page. He can be reached at jstein@wheelbase.ws.

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