Life after the race

The man who forever changed NASCAR takes his victory lap

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“I figured out why a lot NASCAR fans don’t like Jeff Gordon, and it’s not because Gordon wins every other week. A lot of NASCAR fans don’t like Jeff Gordon because Jeff Gordon enunciates. And there really ain’t a place for that kind of stuff in NASCAR.”

— Jeff Foxworthy

The man who changed NASCAR is sinking into one of those comfy chairs they have in the corners of his favorite Starbucks. Jeff Gordon likes this Starbucks because they know him by name, and it’s pretty quiet in here, and also it’s close to the hospital that works on his back every week. His back, you should know, always hurts. That’s one of the stark realities of his 44-year-old life.

“Right now, it hasn’t sunk in,” he says. He is talking about the end of his driving career, which happens in less than two months at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Gordon gets annoyed when people call it “retirement.” He’s not retiring. He will be working as hard as ever as a team owner and a NASCAR broadcaster for FOX and a businessman and a dad. He’s not retiring at all. He just won’t drive a race car anymore.

“I think at Homestead it will sink in,” he says. “Then again, it might not be until this time next year. I don’t know. Right now I’m excited about next year. I’m very content with the decision. It’s time for me.”

He shrugs. A man in the comfy chair next to him is working on a computer, and he keeps glancing over, perhaps in a “Oh, wow, that’s Jeff Gordon, four-time Cup Champion” way or possibly in a “Hey, keep it down, I’m doing some work here” way. It’s hard to tell. Gordon doesn’t seem to notice.

“I might say something completely different at this time next year or two years from now,” Gordon continues. “I might say, ‘You know what? I was a fool. I should have drove that car for another 10 years.’”

“Do you do that often?” I ask him. “Do you make a decision and then a year later regret it?”

He looks up and smiles a little. “No,” he admits. “It’s time.”

We get up from the comfy chairs, and Gordon tells me that his chair actually wasn’t comfortable at all, that the entire time he sat there his back was barking like seals off the Norfolk coast. The back pain is constant now, so much so that even his children know not to jump on him when he isn’t expecting it. This is a big reason why he’s leaving racing. “I don’t want to live a life where I can’t play with my kids,” he says. We begin to walk out to his car, but before we do, Gordon turns to the other man sitting in the Starbucks.

“Sorry if we disturbed you at all,” he says, and the man looks up at Gordon in a surprised way, and he undoubtedly thinks one of the two things people have been thinking about Jeff Gordon ever since he was a kid driving a rainbow-colored race car. The man could be thinking, “Wow, what a nice guy.” He also could be thinking, “I liked it when Earnhardt put you in the wall.”

* * *

“I drive fast, call me Jeff Gordon
In a black SS with navigation.”

— Nelly, “E.I.”

NASCAR had outsiders before Jeff Gordon. Tim Richmond. Darrell Waltrip. Junior Johnson was certainly an outlaw, if not an outsider. But, from the start, there was something different about Gordon, something about his personality and charisma and background and overwhelming talent that made him cut deeper into the passions of stock car fans than any race car driver before. Professional wrestlers will tell you — it’s easy to be the heel. You hit someone with a folding chair, you gouge their eyes when the referee’s back is turned, you scream threats into the camera with gusto and, voila, you’re a heel. But being the hero — the baby, in wrestling terms — takes qualities that are harder to describe.

Jeff Gordon never intended to become NASCAR’s baby. He just wanted to drive a race car. That’s all he ever wanted to do after his stepfather, John Bickford, brought home a quarter-midget. Jeff was 4. Bickford actually brought two cars home, one for Jeff to try and another for his older sister, Kim. As it turned out, Kim would not even get in the car for fear that it would just take off.

“Kim,” Bickford said. “There’s no engine in the car. It can’t go anywhere.” She didn’t quite believe him. Jeff, meanwhile, jumped into his car the second he saw it.

He was a driving prodigy. Within two years, he had already won dozens of races and set five track records. A lot of people thought his success had less to do with driving skill and more to do with the ingenuity of Bickford, a tinkerer who loved building special parts for Jeff’s cars. This insinuation irritated John Bickford so much that he began making the parts available to anyone who wanted to buy them at cost. “And Jeff,” he says, “kept on kicking their (butts).”

Jeff kept on winning races until California wasn’t big enough anymore. The family moved to Indiana to aid Jeff’s blossoming racing career — he started racing sprint cars when he was just 16. He drove midget cars. The family had the Indianapolis 500 on their minds — at that point, none of them knew a thing about NASCAR. “I’d heard of Richard Petty and the Daytona 500,” Bickford says. “That’s about it. It was the Indianapolis 500 or bust.”

Play the Grid Challenge and win a year’s worth of mortgage payments

But times were changing for the Indianapolis 500 — and for open-wheel racing in America. As part of midget cars, Jeff started racing on ESPN’s “Saturday Night Thunder” show and he became friends with announcer Larry Nuber. After seeing the family push for Indianapolis, Nuber finally said: “Listen, I know you’re interested in the Indy car thing, but they’re focused on road courses over there, it’s not about the Indy 500 anymore. They’re not looking for sprint car and midget drivers anymore. … But, tell you what, with the way you drive, have you ever considered NASCAR? That might be a good fit for you.”

There it was again: NASCAR. The family didn’t have any money to spare, but Bickford worked out a deal to send Gordon to the Buck Baker Racing School, which had opened in 1980 to train young drivers. Gordon was 19 years old, and he remembers the first time he drove a stock car he felt this, “Hey, where have you been all my life?” kind of feeling. Everything about the car felt natural. The oval tracks perfectly fit his eye. Buck Baker had a friend named Hugh Connerty, who owned some Hooters restaurants and Outback Steakhouses, and he wanted to get into racing. He watched Gordon drive and knew right away. “Hey kid,” Connerty said. “How about you drive for me?”

Like that, Jeff Gordon was racing stock cars. He began in what was then called the “Busch Series” and at first he had no idea what he was doing. Bickford remembers that in one of Gordon’s first television interviews he was asked, “What is your goal in racing?” And Gordon said, “To not be the first yellow caution flag of every race.” But he learned quickly. He won rookie of the year and, the next year, he captured a record 11 pole positions. That’s when Rick Hendrick signed Gordon to race in the Cup.

And that’s when stock car racing broke loose.

* * *

“Normally when I work, I’m wearing a fire-retardant suit, going 200 mph in a tin can filled with explosive liquids, every time I get in the car there’s a chance I could crash and burn in front of millions of people. So I guess I am prepared for this show.”

— Jeff Gordon, opening monologue, Saturday Night Live

In 1993, when Jeff Gordon began racing at the top level of NASCAR, the series was called the Winston Cup after the cigarette brand. It was an almost exclusively Southern sport, with more than two-thirds of the races happening in the South and almost all of the big drivers from the South. Richard Petty, the one name that pierced through America’s consciousness, had just retired.

And so the sport belonged to a 42-year-old force of nature from a small town in North Carolina — Dale Earnhardt. They called him “Man in Black” (for the color of his car) and “The Intimidator” (for his menacing driving style) and “Darth Vader” (no explanation necessary) and he represented the sport’s roots. Stock car racing had begun on the dirt roads, sheriffs chasing moonshiners. That’s how Dale Earnhardt drove. He was a big star in the South, but nationally he had a pretty small following. He was Vader without Skywalker. He was a great racing heel without a baby to wrestle. Then Jeff Gordon came along.

“We didn’t speak Southern,” is how Bickford explains those first few years. Gordon came into the sport unapologetically himself. He was laid back and a nice guy (two things nobody ever said about Dale Earnhardt). He had a cool haircut, and he wore trendy clothes, and he didn’t chew tobacco. He was a sponsor’s dream — “Jeff Gordon enunciates,” as Foxworthy said. But that didn’t mean racin’ fans were going to like him.

He remembers: “I wasn’t coming in saying, ‘OK, I’m going to change my image. I’m going to wear a belt buckle and cowboy boots and hat and start listening exclusively to country music.’ It wasn’t just where I was from or the way I looked.”

At first, he recalls, the fans were pretty benign about him. He didn’t win any races that first year, though he did win the rookie of the year. Then in 1994, at first, it was fantastic. He won his first race in Charlotte. He won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis, fulfilling at least part of those dreams he had grown up with. And people cheered him. They liked the way he drove. They admired his skill. But in 1995, everything blew up. That was the year that Jeff Gordon started winning too much and started challenging Dale Earnhardt for the points championship.

“When we moved ahead of Earnhardt in points,” Gordon says, “that’s when it changed. Then it was like, ‘Nu-uh!’ They may have been neutral about me for a while, like, ‘Who is this new guy? What’s he about?’ But then it was like, ‘Nuh-uh, we’re done with him. He’s beating Earnhardt.’”

Gordon won seven races in 1995, and he edged Earnhardt for the championship. And that was NASCAR’s cataclysmic event. All sorts of new fans flooded into the sport. All sorts of old fans resented the heck out of him. But Gordon did not stop. He won 10 races in both ’96 and ’97 and then 13 races in his amazing ’98 season. He won three championships in four years and was barely edged out by Terry Labonte in the other year (though he’d won 10 races to Labonte’s two). Gordon became a national phenomenon. He was a California kid driving a rainbow-colored car around the South, and he was beating Dale Earnhardt, and he was getting referenced in hip-hop songs, and he was appearing on all the talk shows, and he was leading NASCAR to a place it had never been. New tracks were being built. Television rating were skyrocketing. NASCAR was becoming one of America’s major sports.

And at the track, sure, he was getting some cheers but he was also getting booed like he was America’s most wanted criminal.

“I’ll be honest,” Gordon says. “At first, if people didn’t support me or like me, I was somewhat OK with it because, I was like, ‘They’re right. I am an outsider. I didn’t know anything about this sport five years ago.’ … But after a while, I did think, ‘Wait, they’re still booing me? What did I do?’ That’s just how much love they had for Dale.”

“The enthusiasm,” Bickford says. “It was over the top. It was incredible. People cheered for Richard Petty, but I don’t think the sport had ever seen anything like this. People were buying tickets to scream for their favorite person and boo the person they hated. And there were only two drivers. Yeah, they liked Bill Elliott and some of the other guys out there, but really in those days there was Jeff and there was Dale and there were a bunch of cars in their way.”

* * *

“I was the first MAN to win the Brickyard 400. Wonder Boy won the first one.”

— Dale Earnhardt

“I hated it,” Jeff Gordon is saying, as he is driving through traffic in downtown Charlotte. Unlike some other NASCAR drivers, like his friend Jimmie Johnson, he kind of likes city driving. He just likes the feeling of being behind the wheel of a vehicle. That’s always been there.

“I absolutely hated it,” he repeats. I had asked him if he loved racing against Dale Earnhardt.

“I hated racing against him,” he said. “Sure, you loved it at the end of the day if you finished ahead of him because you knew that you have just beaten one of the best. But no, racing wheel to wheel against him was excruciating. He lived up to every nickname he ever hard. He knew how the air worked around the car so well that he was the hardest guy to pass.”

Gordon’s eyes stay focused on the road ahead, but they seem to harden.

“Even if you weren’t passing him, it was terrible. Let’s say he was passing you, and you were going to make it easy on him. Say, ‘OK, Dale’s car is faster than mine right now, I’m not going to put up a fight. I’m going to let him go. It’s still early in the race.’ He’d hit you anyway. He’d hit you and you knew he was grinning and laughing inside of that car, inside of that open-faced helmet.”

He stops for a second, and I think he’s finished. He is not. “Hated it,” he says.

The two men defined each other. Earnhardt was the first to understand that. He came up with the nickname “Wonder Boy” — once, at a dinner, Gordon played along and toasted Earnhardt with a glass of milk — and he took every shot he could at Gordon both on and off the race track. Why not? It was great for business. It was great for the Earnhardt brand. Gordon’s great crew chief Ray Evernham had a rule: Don’t ever go anywhere near Dale during practice.

MORE: Gordon praises new member of his pit crew

“Yeah, even in practice he’d mess with you just to mess with you,” Gordon says. “It was something of a test. I remember one practice in Michigan, I got underneath him — I did exactly what I wasn’t supposed to to. I thought I had a much faster car than he did. Which I did. I thought, ‘I’m going to get by him fairly easy here.’ I got underneath him, and we went into (turn) three, and he stuck it right down my right shot and around I went. My head was ringing man, I tell you. You don’t want to hit the wall at Michigan. Destroyed the car.

“Ray was like, ‘I told you.’ I was like, ‘I know. You were right.’”

Earnhardt fans loved it, Gordon fans were furious, and that’s exactly what Earnhardt understood: They were ringing the cash register. Their rivalry, their battle of opposites, was captivating the country in a way that stock car racing — even during the Petty and Allison and Junior Johnson years — never did. Once, in a rare moment of openness, Gordon and Earnhardt were together when the boos started crashing down. “If they’re making noise,” Earnhardt said softly, “you’re doing something right.”

“Did I respect the heck out of him?” Gordon asks. “Yes, absolutely. Did I have moments where we got the best of him? Yes. Did he get the best of me at times. Yes.

“But you asked me what it was like racing with him. At Daytona or Talladega, where he was a master, I loved watching him and learning from him. Other than that, though, I didn’t want to race him unless I had to. Most of the time, I just gave in to him.”

* * *

“I’m Jeff Gordon in his heyday
Ridin’ like Tony Stewart smashin’ through a two-way.”

— Clyde Carson (feat. The Team), “Slow Down”

Jeff Gordon goes into a meeting with crew chief Alan Gustafson to talk about how the car is doing. He talks with the other drivers at Hendrick about the upcoming race. He goes to do an interview to promote his foundation’s effort to end childhood cancer. He stops in another part of the office to sign several hundred autographs. Bickford, who now works for Jeff Gordon, Inc., says that every single autograph Gordon signs — other than the stuff he does at the track — is authenticated and tracked, so that people will know they’re getting an official signature. Gordon signs autographs constantly. I ask how many autographs he thinks Gordon has signed through the years.

“We don’t talk about that,” Bickford says. Apparently, a few years ago, they told Jeff how many autographs he had signed. He was so depressed by the hugeness of the number that he told them to never, ever give him that total again.

This has been the life for a long time — appearances, autographs, meetings, interviews, testing, qualifying, racing on Sundays. Gordon won his last championship in 2001, the year Dale died. He has won 34 races since then, and he has come close to the title some years (2007 in particular) and even this year, he’s still in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup, though he hasn’t yet won a race. Gordon believes they’re getting close to finding the right car rhythm and that he has a chance. Well, he has to believe that. It’s racing.

But he also says that his amazing early success, well, that was a long time ago. He admits it hasn’t been as enjoyable and satisfying the last few years. His back pain has been the worst part, but there have been other things too. “I’m not as competitive as I used to be,” he says. “My eyesight’s going. It has always been about three things for me: Being healthy, enjoying what I’m doing and being competitive. When I look at those three things, well, they’ve all taken a hit in the last several years. It hasn’t been as much fun.”

Gordon has thought a lot about that word: Fun. He got into racing because it was fun. He decided to make it a career because he thought it would be fun. He has lots of ideas about racing that he thinks could make it more fun for the fan — for instance, he thinks it would be great if the drivers would all wear heart monitors during races. “I think fans would love to see that, love to see how the heartbeat goes up and down during a race,” he says.

But, as he looks back on his life as a driver, that word fun isn’t really a part of it: “When I talk with young drivers — and I’ll have this talk with (replacement) Chase Elliott — I try to prepare them. I say, ‘Listen, one day you’re going to look back to when you drove that go-kart, when you drove that sprint car, when you drove on the dirt tracks, and you’re going to realize that was the most fun you’ll ever have as a driver. If you’re lucky, like I’ve been lucky, you will have some incredible moments of accomplishment and achievement in NASCAR. You’re going to be wowed by some things. You’re going to be amazed at some of the opportunities that will come along. You’re going to live a life that you never thought was possible. But fun isn’t going to be the word to describe it. Fun isn’t really what it is.’”

“What is it?” I ask him.

“You feel pride,” he says. “Tremendous pride. You feel this great sense of accomplishment, especially when you win. And you enjoy the challenge of working with a team and building something and trying to beat the best in the world. I know I’ll miss that challenge. But it’s not fun. Nobody ever gets that. If you’re a fan watching you think, ‘Oh man, that must be so much fun.’ But that’s just not the right word.”

* * *

“I’m scared all the time in a race car. Because in a race car, if you’re doing your job properly, you have to push the limits. You have to step to the edge and maybe a little bit over it. If you don’t, you’re going to get beat. So that split second, when you’re just over the edge, yeah, that’s fear. I guess it would not be a full experience without experiencing fear.”

— Jeff Gordon

We are now sitting in his car in the school parking lot where he will pick up his daughter Ella. He’s looking forward to spending some more time with her and his son Leo. He’s looking forward to seeing what kind of broadcaster he can be. He’s looking forward to seeing what he can get done about his back pain. He’s also looking forward to trying to win the championship one last time.

These days, there are no boos for Jeff Gordon. He’s beloved at 44 — if he could somehow win that last championship it would be the sport’s version of Nicklaus winning the Masters at 46 or John Elway winning that last Super Bowl. People keep asking him what his legacy will be, and he doesn’t really like that because he doesn’t think it’s his place to say. People keep asking him what he will miss, and he doesn’t particularly like that either because he doesn’t know yet. I ask him now, “In 1998, when you won 13 races, you were probably too young too appreciate it much. Would you appreciate that more now?”

He sits behind the steering wheel, with the engine off, and he thinks about it for a second.

“Actually,” he says, “It’d be exactly the same. I wouldn’t appreciate it near as much as I should. I’d be looking around, waiting for people to give me that dirty look. I’d be getting booed a lot more than I am now.”

He keeps looking out the window. “It would be awesome,” he says.