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Fourth Turn – Jeff Gordon, An Appreciation

Jeff Gordon during qualifying for his final Brickyard 400 race. [John Wiedemann Photo]

Jeff Gordon during qualifying for his final Brickyard 400 race.  [John Wiedemann Photo]

 

As intense as ever, Jeff Gordon during a break in practice for the Brickyard 400. [Father Dale Grubba Photo]

As intense as ever, Jeff Gordon during a break in practice for the Brickyard 400. [Father Dale Grubba Photo]

Once or twice in a generation drivers come along who become legends, heroes and the ones you followed religiously week after week.

Mario, AJ and Rick in Indy cars, Earnhardt, Petty and Kulwicki in NASCAR were the guys that you personally, or fans collectively, rallied around and cheered for. You bought their die-cast cars, wore their hats, joined their fan clubs and had their car number stickers in the window of your auto. You probably waited in line for hours to get their signature on a collectible that cost you way too much money.

Jeff Gordon is one of those guys and he’ll be leaving the fold at the end of this season. Retiring before he had to, but better now than “too late” later.

Why did we like him? Why did we boo him for winning? And what is there about him that we’ll miss most when he’s not there on the entry list?

After a brief childhood in California racing quarter midgets and go karts, his family moved east to Pittsboro, Indiana so he could drive sprint cars before he was 18-years-old.

Racing sprint cars at age 15 caught the attention of race fans in the mid-1980’s; a practice that’s become more common-place today, but was quite unusual back then.

The national spotlight hit Gordon hard when ESPN’s popular Thursday Night Thunder television broadcasts featured his exploits each week at Indianapolis Raceway Park, where he raced, and seemed to beat, the veterans of USAC sprints and midgets regularly.

The Hut Hundred, Belleville, and the Night Before the 500 midget classics fell to him and he captured championships in USAC’s Silver Crown and Midget divisions.

Open-wheel fans couldn’t wait until Jeff was old enough to go to “The Speedway” just down the road from IRP and mix it up with Foyt, Andretti and Mears.

But, as happens too often today, open-wheel champs drift south and the allure of stock cars, with their sponsorship $$ and factory involvement, are often too much to resist.

The early 1990’s were Gordon’s first contact with the world of NASCAR’s Busch Grand National wars. And despite showing a Hoosier’s interest in Indy cars, a meeting with Hugh Connerty who owned some Hooters and Outback Steakhouse properties put the Indiana transplant into a Pontiac sponsored by Outback with a young crew chief named Ray Evernham in the pits. And so it was at Rockingham, NC, on a cool October Saturday afternoon in 1990 that he started second, but crashed during the race; a trait that would be a mark of his early stock car career.

Veteran car owner Bill Davis put him in the iconic Carolina Ford Dealers (later Baby Ruth) Thunderbird where he was Rookie of the Year in 1991 and won the pole spot 11 times in 1992.

The ’92 fall Hooters 500 in Atlanta was the magical race that launched the Gordon name into the world of Winston Cup racing. The stars aligned that November day as Richard Petty competed in his final race, Alan Kulwicki won his only NASCAR championship and Gordon qualified for his first Cup event, crashing to a 31st-place finish in a then-unknown No. 24, Rick Hendrick Chevrolet.

Jack Roush had wanted him to sign to drive a Ford, but a disagreement over whether Ray Evernham would become the new team’s crew chief, and who should make that decision, ended that discussion. Gordon stayed with Hendrick Motorsports for the next 24 years; one of the longest-running relationships in racing history.

Races early in his Cup career were marked by learning-curve crashes, prompting fellow competitor Darrell Waltrip to note that Gordon would likely “hit everything but the pace car.”

Gordon admitted recently that those 24 years with his now close friend/owner Rick Hendrick became a blur of championships (4), wins (92) and poles (80) over the years, with a hand-full of races remaining in 2015.

But Gordon will be remembered as much for his off-track life as he will for being Jeff the racer.

He has hosted TV shows like Regis and Kathie Lee and Saturday Night Live, appeared in movies and documentaries, represented charities and continues as a spokesperson for multiple commercial products.

He has lived a celebrity’s life in public view, with the tabloids scrutinizing everything he’s said and done, including victory lane religious witnesses and family issues resulting in two marriages and a messy divorce. That second marriage, to Ingrid Vandebosch, has brought him and his wife into the world of parenthood as they raise Ella Sofia (8) and Leo Benjamin (4).

Gordon will still be around NASCAR tracks as he signed a contract in May to be a full-time analyst for Fox Sports’ Sprint Cup coverage which begins in February, 2016 at Daytona Speedweeks.

But with most of his racing activity now behind him, we wonder just what it was that caused so many to like him so much.

Some have said that he changed the sport by making it okay to race in NASCAR and not be from North Carolina or Alabama. He also led the way for the likes of Stewart, Johnson, Larson and Newman to be open wheel racers who left that world for the grits and glamor of NASCAR.

But more-so he’ll be remembered as the guy who stepped out of the cockpit and into your living room and movie theater. Who wasn’t afraid to share his faith or cry when he won a race.

He appeared on a Wheaties box with Dale Earnhardt and “The Intimidator” gave him the nick-name “Wonder Boy.”

He tested Juan Pablo Montoya’s Williams F1 machine at Indy while JPM jumped into the Hendrick Chevrolet. Some wanted Jeff to run Indy cars or take his talents to Europe but he said there were “too many steps” to full time F1.

All of his fans will miss the boy who grew up before their eyes and the man who became a champion, the one who will always be in their hearts and minds.

This Sunday he probably raced in his final Brickyard 400 at Indy, the race that the hometown boy won from the pole in its inaugural running.

I had the pleasure of covering that race and his first regular Winston Cup win at Charlotte in 1994.

Thanks for the memories Jeff; we’re all happy for you.

 

 

 

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Paul Gohde
Paul Gohde heard the sound of race cars early in his life. Growing up in suburban Milwaukee, just north of Wisconsin State Fair Park in the 1950's, Paul had no idea what "that noise" was all about that he heard several times a year. Finally, through prodding by friends of his parents, he was taken to several Thursday night modified stock car races on the old quarter-mile dirt track that was in the infield of the one-mile oval -and he was hooked. The first Milwaukee Mile event that he attended was the 1959 Rex Mays Classic won by Johnny Thomson in the pink Racing Associates lay-down Offy built by the legendary Lujie Lesovsky. After the 100-miler Gohde got the winner's autograph in the pits, something he couldn't do when he saw Hank Aaron hit a home run at County Stadium, and, again, he was hooked. Paul began attending the Indianapolis 500 in 1961, and saw A. J. Foyt's first Indy win. He began covering races in 1965 for Racing Wheels newspaper in Vancouver, WA as a reporter/photographer and his first credentialed race was Jim Clark's historic Indy win.Paul has also done reporting, columns and photography for Midwest Racing News since the mid-sixties, with the 1967 Hoosier 100 being his first big race to report for them. He is a retired middle-grade teacher, an avid collector of vintage racing memorabilia, and a tour guide at Miller Park. Paul loves to explore abandoned race tracks both here and in Europe, with the Brooklands track in Weybridge England being his favorite. Married to Paula, they have three adult children and two cats. Paul loves the diversity of all types of racing, "a factor that got me hooked in the first place."
Paul Gohde

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