JG Online

Editorials


'The Bickford Effect'
Spring 2004


The first time Jeff Gordon got a glimpse of his future was on Labor Day weekend in 1972. He had celebrated his first birthday one month earlier and his "pit crew" in those days consisted of his mother, Carol, changing his diaper as quickly as possible. As a single mother raising two children in Northern California, Carol had taken a job at a hospital supply company to make ends meet. One day at work she met a man who would alter her life and the lives of her children forever. Like Carol, John Bickford was also a divorced parent. For their first date, he took Carol and her two children to a local race. Carol's son probably doesn't remember that event today, but it was the first time he entered the environment that would eventually define his life.

Shortly thereafter, John and Carol were married. By the time he was three years old, Jeff had learned to ride a bicycle. By four he was competing against 8-year-olds in BMX races. Those early races laid the groundwork for his career. John and Jeff discussed racing strategy almost religiously. After witnessing a few accidents involving her son, Carol expressed her concerns to her husband. She surely wasn't prepared for what came next.

Bickford came home one day in the mid-1970's with two quarter midget race cars for Jeff and his sister Kim. With seat belts and a roll cage, Bickford rationalized that the race car was safer than a BMX bicycle. But where to drive it? After all, the streets of Vallejo, California couldn't accommodate a four-year-old in a quarter midget. With the help of his stepson, Bickford built a makeshift track near the fairgrounds. Every night Jeff would be out there turning laps in a 2.8-horsepower open wheel car. It was only a matter of time before his first race. By the time he was five years old, he was traveling throughout California to compete in quarter midget races. A year later he was traveling the country to compete nearly every weekend.

Gordon's success was a by-product of hard work and determination. After he aced the quarter midget circuit, a sprint car career soon followed. Due to California's age restrictions, the family uprooted and moved to Indiana to allow Gordon to race the more powerful car at a younger age. Bickford guided his stepson's career throughout his ascension to the elite level of motorsports.

A career crossroads came when Gordon was 19 years old. He was a champion sprint car driver and the darling of ESPN's "Thunder" series. But after taking a few laps at a stock car driving school, Gordon called Bickford. When he reached his stepfather, he said something that would forever alter the landscape of motorsports: "Sell everything. We're going stock car racing."

Moderate success in the Grand National division followed. After Gordon won at Atlanta in 1992, a call from one of the more prominent car owners in Cup racing followed. Rick Hendrick wanted to hire Jeff Gordon. As part of the deal, Bickford insisted that Gordon's crew chief in Grand National racing be promoted to the same role with the Hendrick team. Hendrick could have easily said no. After all, rival car owner Jack Roush told Bickford that the car owner-- not the driver-- selects the crew chief. During the course of negotiations, Hendrick relented. Gordon could have his crew chief-- a relatively unknown former modified driver from New Jersey named Ray Evernham.

In his rookie season, Gordon captured the Rookie of the Year award, though his only victory was during a preliminary sprint race at Daytona. Throughout that season he had begun cultivating a relationship with Brooke Sealey who would eventually become his wife. The couple was married in November 1994. Following a Caribbean honeymoon, they began their life together in a residential community just north of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Gordon was married and eager for a sense of independence. He hired Bob Brannan, a longtime Carolina banker, to run his business affairs. After guiding his stepson's career from the time he could walk, Bickford had an adjustment to make. No longer did he have the final say on which products his stepson endorsed or which companies he promoted. A job with Action Performance soon followed. The relationship between Gordon and his parents was never as bad as some had believed it to be. Numerous reports had claimed that Gordon had "fired" his parents and that a rift had developed. It was simply the case of natural progression.

Over the years the family would get together for holidays and other gatherings. But their relationship was different. After all, Bickford wasn't guiding his stepson's career any longer. Gordon was the most successful race car driver in America in the late-90's. Everybody wanted a piece of his time. Jeff and Brooke moved to South Florida in part to escape the "bubble" of Charlotte. However, the relationship soured late in 2001 and the couple separated early in 2002. Their divorce was finalized a year later.

Besides Rick Hendrick, the two people most responsible for Jeff Gordon's success in the late-90's were his wife Brooke, and his crew chief Ray Evernham. After the departure of his wife as well as his crew chief, Gordon was able to get in touch with someone he had been neglecting for far too long: Jeff Gordon. He spent time in New York City, dated a model, and focused on the things that made him happy outside of the racetrack. A new circle of friends emerged, including some in the racing world. As a child, Bickford had asked Gordon to avoid his peers in racing. As an adult, he dedicated himself to his marriage. At the age of 31, he was able to pursue the relationships that he wanted. A business relationship with Jimmie Johnson soon became a close friendship. He got to know Casey Mears, Elliott Sadler, and Tony Stewart outside of the racing world. Racing was a part of his life-- a huge part of his life. However, his life was not a race. The things that mattered most were his family and friends.

"Blood is thicker than water
But love is thicker than blood"

He reconnected with his parents on a level that he hadn't experienced since he was a teenager. In 2004, with his business empire thriving, Gordon decided to make another change. One that would take him "back to the future." Brannan had guided JG Inc for nearly a decade. But Gordon felt that somebody else should be running things. He called John Bickford. For the past seven years, his stepfather had served as a vice president with Action Performance. When Gordon called, Bickford didn't have to think about whether to accept the job. All Jeff had to do was ask.

Besides working at Action, Bickford also continued to help young racers learn the ropes. He acted as a mentor to Boston Reid, a sprint car phenom from Indiana. Reid's career path has nearly mirrored that of Jeff Gordon. Within days of the announcement that Bickford had rejoined JG Inc, it was announced that Reid had signed a developmental contract with Hendrick Motorsports. Coincidence?

Gordon is at a point in his career where he has nothing left to prove. He's won the biggest races in his sport ad nauseum, he's captured the championship four times, and he's accumulated wealth beyond his wildest expectations. Some had suggested that he wasn't driving on the edge any longer. Suggesting that perhaps his outside interests had become a distraction. That younger, hungrier drivers had eclipsed Gordon as the face of NASCAR. After struggling to contend for victories earlier in the 2004 season, Gordon moved back into the high rent district. He came agonizingly close to victories at Texas and Martinsville before scoring consecutive wins at Talladega and California. On Monday morning, Bickford will be back in the office making decisions with the best interests of his stepson in mind. Both Gordon and Bickford approach things with a newfound energy and purpose. Once again, they're working together with the same goals in mind. Just like old times.



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