INDIANAPOLIS – Relaxing in the middle seat of a red Chevy Suburban frenetically weaving through traffic while sirens wailed, Jeff Gordon downshifted into a reflection on slower times.
The SUV’s destination was Pittsboro, Ind., the adopted hometown of the four-time NASCAR champion that was punctuating its celebration of Jeff Gordon Day with a parade.
It had Gordon thinking of the last time he partook in a Pittsboro processional — a senior prank 26 years ago at Tri-West High School.
“We decided we were all going to meet in town, and we were going to drive 5 mph all the way to school, which is about 5 miles,” Gordon said. “And we were all going to be late for school. One student showed up in a combine tractor, and he led the way. And we’re all just sitting there riding along.
“People were screaming, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ Honking at us and everything. We just come cruising into school thinking we’re the coolest people on the planet. And man, were they pissed.”
The story was interrupted as the Suburban entered Pittsboro and hung a left onto Main Street, where it seemed every denizen from the town of roughly 3,000 lined the primary drag in support of its most famous resident.
Gordon was distracted by a boy waving from a pedal car painted with the No. 24 and paint scheme he’s made famous in the Sprint Cup Series.
“That’s so cool,” he said. “This is a big deal, man, around here in Pittsboro.”
“It might not be a big deal anywhere outside of Pittsboro,” he laughs.
The dull roar of two news helicopters circling overhead prove he’s wrong, of course.
Anywhere the Hendrick Motorsports driver goes in these waning days of an illustrious career is a happening because it marks such a generational break in modern-day NASCAR. Tracks are proffering up lavish gifts – a Bandolero car for his kids, a blackjack table for his spare time and 96 bottles of bourbon for, uh, his sanity – and even going so far as to rename themselves (as Phoenix International Raceway will in November) to commemorate the occasion.
But of all the farewell tributes, none will pack the emotional wallop of this week – and not just because of ties to the Hoosier State.
WATCH LIVE: JEFF KYLE 400 AT THE BRICKYARD SUNDAY ON NBCSN (2:00 P.M. ET)
On Sunday, Gordon will make his final start in the race most commonly known as the Brickyard 400, which he has won a record five times. IMS officials are expecting a crowd bigger than last year – ending a seven-year streak of declining attendance since the 2008 race was marred by a tire debacle – and track president Doug Boles said ticket sales have been up year-over-year every week since Gordon made his debut.
When he cuts off the engine to his No. 24 Chevrolet after the checkered flag, the Hendrick Motorsports star will sever a link to a watershed event from the sport’s halcyon era.
Gordon, who won the inaugural Brickyard in 1994, will be the only driver to have started the first 22editions of Cup at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the 2.5-mile oval where he once bought Valvoline oil for his sprint car and dreamed of racing in the Indy 500.
That was shortly after he’d moved to Pittsboro as a 14-year-old to pursue a career.
“This is a great little town,” he said. “It made all my dreams come true. I’m winding down this amazing career that started right here. It didn’t materialize until here. To drive down Main Street and see that reaction … ”
Thursday was full of such George Bailey-type moments for Gordon, who made a special lap around the Indianapolis region before his last ride around its fabled track.
With NBC Sports tagging along, here’s how it unfolded:
10:02 a.m. – With driver Archie Kennedy and PR rep Jon Edwards aboard, the Suburban leaves the motor home lot at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Indianapolis International Airport’s FBO (or “fixed base operation,” which is private aviation jargon for the area of the airport where those unencumbered with the woes of commercial air travel can stash their planes).
10:23 – Chevrolet is playing host to a golf tournament at the speedway a day before cars hit the track, so the activity on the tarmac is ratcheting up early this weekend. As Kennedy pulls up to a chain-link gate, Kurt Busch is driving past in an SVU, and a contingent of Richard Childress Racing executives and crew chiefs are lugging their clubs to waiting vehicles.
The Speedway, Ind., police department consults with Kennedy to map out the routes for escorts to Pittsboro and a visit to the Riley Hospital for Children. Edwards asks about the parade crowd and is told people began gathering hours ago.
Passing the time until Gordon lands, Kennedy rattles off play by play of the planes from the arriving NASCAR jet set, many of which are identifiable via initials and car numbers. “Harvick. … Menard. … McMurray?”
MORE: A social media look at ‘Jeff Gordon Day’ in Indiana
10:53 – Gordon and his nephew, Mattiece Hansen (whose family hails from Belgium just like Gordon’s wife, Ingrid), hop into the Suburban, which roars into formation behind a Dodge Charger and two motorcycles (Kennedy leaves a trailing distance of maybe 10 feet).
“Pittsboro bound,” Gordon exults.
10:58 – Rounding a crest near the Crawfordsville Road exit near the speedway, one of the motorcycle cops ahead throws a hand out at two dozen cars in the right three lanes.
Police escorts in Indianapolis apparently are a special breed.
“I’m telling you, these guys are serious,” Gordon says. “They have this coordination that will blow your mind. It’s like synchronized riding.”
The bikes part the seas to help the Charger and Gordon’s car dodge orange barrels through a construction zone on the left. “I hope you didn’t wash this thing before you came over,” Gordon playfully says to Kennedy. “It looked really good at the airport.”
11:14 – A trip that usually takes roughly 30 minutes is over in about 20 as the caravan reaches the Pittsboro Fire Department. Gordon has time for a round of photo ops before the parade begins at noon. The first poses are with the three officers who provided the escort.
He then moves to the family of the late Larry Sparks, Gordon’s former driver education teacher who was killed with his wife when their RV crashed last October in Tennessee on the way home to Indiana from race weekend at Martinsville Speedway. Some are wearing neon green shirts with Jeff Gordon Day logos; those adoring toddlers say, “We might be small, but we’re Jeff’s biggest 24 fans.”
In a fitted grey dress shirt, designer jeans and brown shoes, Gordon stands out only because of his attire, incessantly chatting with everyone before it’s time to climb into the white convertible Camaro sporting his yellow No. 24 on the hood.
12:02 p.m. – Gordon is surrounded by familiar faces as his car begins the one-mile route behind the Tri-West High School marching band, state soccer champions and a boy scout troop. Behind the wheel is Jason Love, Pittsboro’s town manager who once scraped mud off Gordon’s sprint car as a member of the team.
Sitting alongside Gordon is Bruce Pfeifer, a high school buddy wearing camouflage shorts and a Steelers hat. Gordon introduced Pfeifer to his wife, Jodi, and the couple still lives in Pittsboro.
Bringing up the rear of the parade is Gordon’s Sprint Cup hauler, which draws as many cheers as any of the participants. Heath Edler pulls a few blasts of the horn, and a flurry of handmade signs lettered in crayon wave in response.
Dean Mozingo, who co-drives the hauler with Edler, smiles as a guy chases after Gordon’s Camaro with a quarter panel tucked under each arm. Another pushes race tires up the street on a dolly.
“We’re going to win this race for them,” says Mozingo, better known as “Squirrel” in the NASCAR garage. “We don’t care what it takes. Ain’t nobody better here than Jeff Gordon. He gets that look, you know he’s not playing around.”
[parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2015/07/150725-jeff-gordon-1000.jpg” height=600 (Getty Images)”]
12:30: After a right on Scamahorn Drive and another on Osborne Ave., the parade dwindles to just Gordon’s Camaro as it arrives at the community park in the center of Pittsboro.
Over the next 30 minutes, Gordon is honored at a lively ceremony that includes Gov. Mike Pence (who presents the Sagamore of the Wabash, the highest honor for an Indiana civilian), IMS historian Donald Davidson (who recalls the first Brickyard ending with the winner ordering a pineapple and pepperoni pizza and advising that traffic was clear for delivery) and a replica of his high school diploma.
He saves his most enthusiastic response for a badge presented by Pittsboro police chief Christi Patterson, making him an honorary officer. Gordon thrusts the piece of silver skyward.
“They better rethink this badge,” he says. “And the friends of mine that are here better rethink some things. How far back can I go on some citizen arrests? Of course, I’d be pulling myself into that as well.”
“We’re glad you’re excited, we need you to cover a shift on Monday,” Patterson cracks.
Gordon seems ready, breaking into an eloquent and grateful speech saluting his mother and stepdad, Carol and John Bickford, for moving to Pittsboro. “I never would have accomplished what I did in racing without the town of Pittsboro. This to me today has been one of the best days of my life. I say that sincerely in every way because I get to see what Pittsboro not only meant to me, but to you guys.”
1:20: During a lunch of catered chicken inside a town hall meeting room, Gordon decompresses while debriefing about everything Pittsboro inside a room filled with No. 24-themed memorabilia (including a photo of the starting lineup from the inaugural Brickyard). On a shelf sits a 1/24th scale model of Gordon’s yellow No. 16 sprint car (1 of 5,000).
Gordon, who hasn’t visited in at least a decade, notes that Frank and Mary’s, a fried catfish restaurant frequently mentioned in his interviews, is now a Dollar General (since closing four years ago after a 66-year run). He asks about his family’s former house (Davidson, the IMS historian, says it’s owned by a sprint car driver who raced against Gordon) and old friends and neighbors.
His mother has a question, too: “Was that your real race car in that hauler?”
MORE: Is Gordon in victory lane at the Jeff Kyle 400 a distinct possibility?
1:50: With Edwards and PR counterpart Suzi Elliott of Indianapolis Motor Speedway slightly fretting over the schedule, Gordon blasts through interviews by 11 media outlets, graciously answering every question with aplomb for 35 minutes.
One is about the alleged existence of a speeding ticket that hangs in a frame somewhere in the police station.
“That is not true; I’ve never had a speeding ticket in this town,” he laughs. “But if it is, I’ve got this badge right here, so I’m pretty sure that’ll get me out of any trouble that may exist.”
2:30: On the dot, per the track-prepared schedule, Gordon makes his way through a throng of autograph-seekers and climbs back into the Suburban. In formation with its police escort again, the vehicle whips around a cornfield and past a group of honking cars and screaming fans while merging onto I-74 in a cacophony of sirens.
“Just another day, right Mattiece?” Gordon says to his bemused-looking nephew, who has been helping his No. 24 crew on race weekends. “This is every day for Mattiece. When he’s not with me, this is how he lives.”
It seems a good time to wonder: Have the demands of the season-long farewell sometimes been a distraction for Gordon, who hasn’t won since last September and still hasn’t cemented a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup?
Gordon, who tried to backload some of the sendoffs for next year, says he has been able to focus by keeping his game-day schedule clear (his pre-race routine usually includes a mind-clearing workout).
“With the requests that have come in, we could have done a lot more,” he says. “There’s no doubt there were some things that were happening that we still had to be involved with some of the decision making and planning. That did become a distraction. And it didn’t help that we weren’t having a great start to the season. That made it a little more challenging. I would say that compared to what I think it could have been, I think we’ve done a good job.”
If it were up to him, he probably would skip the track tributes but, “I appreciate them recognizing me. I’m proud of what I’ve done in the sport. This is the challenge with trying to go out while you’re still competitive. Being competitive is so important, it’s hard to let go of that. If I wanted to go 180 degrees and just enjoy all those moments and do more for the tracks, the fans, I’d have to let go of what’s happening on the racetrack.”
“I’m not ready or willing to do that, nor is my team. That probably drives a lot of it. The team is capable of being competitive.”
Gordon says his biggest commitment of the farewell campaign has been a hospitality trailer he’s taking to eight events that necessitated a meticulous list of personal invites to friends he hadn’t entertained at races previously.
“In order to get that organized the way we want to have the experience we want for them to have, it took a little bit more of my time and involvement,” he said. “Those are things you can’t necessarily predict. Then when we were struggling on track, then it’s very easy to say, ‘OK, there’s too many distractions.’ If we’d won three of first six races, no one would even blink an eye at it, and we’d still be doing a lot more. I recognize that. When things are good, you can get away with a lot of things. When things aren’t going good, you have to refocus your energy and attention and give more. That’s what I’ve had to do.”
MORE: Gordon says Indy is an ‘event that matches the hype’
2:43: Zooming by the speedway again on 16th Street, Gordon unclips his badge and slams it in the center console between the front seats. “Archie did you see that? Unfortunately, it doesn’t say Indiana. It says Pittsboro. So it’s contained in a small area. But if you ever go through Pittsboro and need help, call me.”
Edwards hands over his cell phone – it’s time for a SiriusXM interview. Despite the wah-wah of the sirens in the background, Gordon hardly misses a beat.
2:58: Ushered into the lobby of the Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health by a contingent of executives and PR representatives, Gordon stops in his tracks upon seeing a small child wearing a mask and cradled by a nurse. “Not feeling well? Guess what, they’re going to make you feel all better.”
He spends the better part of the next hour boosting spirits in a cancer ward upstairs. There are 22 children in the activity center, many of them hooked to machines to receive treatment. Gordon gradually makes the rounds (“Hi, I’m Jeff. How are you?”) as they become comfortable enough with his presence for a group photo.
3:37: Gordon, who has worked with the hospital since 2001, meets a group of recovering kids who will appear at a news conference with him, and one already is aware of his day.
“So I guess you’re a police officer now?”
“If you come through Pittsboro, Ind., you need to see me.”
He focuses on three younger girls in a corner of the room, leading a room of administrative staff and nurses in a rendition of “Happy birthday” when he learns one is turning 13.
“I have a daughter that’s 8, and I’m trying to prepare myself for what happens when she’s 13,” he says.
4:00: The hospital announces Gordon’s 24th donation (this grant of $300,000 will benefit training oncology-focused pediatric physician scientists), bringing his total contributions to $3.8 million over the past 14 years. The hospital plays a 3-minute video honoring his accomplishments and presents a red wagon (which is used to offer kids a fun diversion while navigating the facility in treatment) with a Jeff Gordon license plate.
“I’m honored to be here,” he said. “You don’t have to do anything for me. But I still know you will.”
5:12: After a live remote on the sidewalk outside the hospital for SportsCenter, the suburban heads for its final stop of the day – a hotel parking lot on the east side of the city where Gordon will film a segment for a TV reality show.
It’s a top-secret shoot, but one detail that can be revealed is that every crew member is wearing black, which prompts laughter that the hotel guests might call the authorities about a suspicious group of characters crawling around the property.
“I’ve got my badge,” Gordon says. “I’ll tell them to clear all these people out!”
6:50: It’s rush-hour traffic back to IMS, and the police escort is gone. “Thank God for these roundabouts,” Gordon jokes as the SUV negotiates a tricky intersection on the way.
As the Suburban pulls into the infield, Gordon checks if there are any final questions from the embedded media. “I think we gave you a lot,” he said.
Indeed. The reporter mentions to Gordon that he is a few minutes short of having worked a full eight-hour day.
“Yes,” Gordon says. “It was a good one, though.”