Feature Story

Je ne sais quoi

By Spencer Lang

(June 30, 1998)- - 'Je ne sais quoi' is a French term for which we have no English equivalent. The French explain it as an indescribable quality. It was not long ago the name Jeff Gordon was not synonymous with NASCAR, that his photo did not adorn racing magazines, TV Guide, and in fact, many people did not know that NASCAR was not a southern good ole boy sport. It wasn’t that NASCAR was a forbidden in the New York Times, it just didn’t know the word existed save for the Daytona 500.

In Indianapolis, far from the heart of NASCAR, John Bickford, Jeff’s stepfather hired Andy Graves to be Jeff’s chief mechanic on his sprint car. Andy moved in with the Bickfords. Late in 1990, Jeff opted to take the Buck Baker Driving school after a season of running sprints, midgets and dirt cars. When Jeff decided on moving to stockcars, Andy landed a job in R&D with Hendrick Motorsports. Leaving Indianapolis, they purchased a home in the Charlotte area to be close to the home of NASCAR.

Jeff Gordon's first BGN car in 1990 Jeff Gordon's first BGN car in 1990
The owner of Outback Steakhouse Pontiac, Hugh Connery, spotted Gordon and recognized the talent. Ray Evernham had only a fleeting connection to NASCAR via Andy Petree when he helped prepare a car for Phil Barkdoll’s 1990 Daytona 500 race. A quick deal was put together by Petree and Barkdoll for Evernham to lead a team that would bring Jeff Gordon to the Busch Grand National Series. The all business Evernham first met Gordon with Jeff carrying a cell phone and a Game Boy. But something clicked between them. The deal lasted only a few races but Evernham spotted the ‘je ne sais quoi’. Perhaps someday Ray will write his book and let us know if he had any inkling of the future that was in store for him.

Bill Davis offered Jeff a ride in the Carolina Ford, a ride that had proved successful for Mark Martin previously. Davis felt Gordon was much like Martin in driving ability. Ray had returned to New Jersey until he was offered a position with Alan Kulwicki. They were like oil and water, with Kulwicki and Ray almost coming to blows before the Daytona 500. Preston Miller, Ford’s field representative, spotted Ray leaving and told him to see Bill Davis. Davis put Evernham and Gordon back together and they clicked. Three BGN wins and eleven poles. People had begun to notice. Ford, for whatever reason chose to keep a distant watchful eye and made no overtures to Jeff.

The Baby Ruth Ford in 1992 Jeff Gordon in the Baby Ruth car in 1992
At the BGN race in Atlanta in 1992, Rick Hendrick was going through the tunnel to his suite. It was unusual for Rick to stop at the track on a Saturday. He noticed the white Baby Ruth Thunderbird driving too hard into the corner and expected the driver to lose it. The white car came through the tire smoke and continued to roar down the track. He watched as the driver continued to drive the car. Rick recalls muttering, "He’s going to kill himself!" Rick continued to watch as he came to realize the driver was really driving the car. He hadn’t seen driving like this since the late Tim Richmond had driven for him. When he asked, he learned that it was the "Gordon kid" driving the car. The picture became firmly implanted in his mind.

Jeff and Ray were happy with Bill Davis but the stars were aligning themselves to bring shock to the racing community.

Rick Hendrick, a self made millionaire with car dealerships throughout the United States had entered into NASCAR racing with what would become Hendrick Motorsports in 1984. As a racer of speedboats himself and Papa Joe Hendrick, an avid fan and racer of modifieds, it was a likely procession. The old Ford philosophy of win on Sunday, sell on Monday was certainly a consideration for entering racing, but racing also requires a passion. Although Rick was not the first multi-car team, he was the one to stay the course and prove it a success. Today, multicar teams dominate Winston Cup.

The general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, Jimmy Johnson was engaged in a conversation with Rick after the 92 race in Atlanta. Rick lamented that it was too bad that Gordon had a contract with Ford. Andy Graves was within earshot. No one knew he was Jeff’s roommate. Many would have been happier if Jimmy and Rick had done their talking in the privacy of their offices. Andy is quoted in Winston Cup Illustrated [July 1997] as having uttered five words that changed racing history: "He doesn’t have a contract."

No one can presume what went through Rick’s mind at that moment. Perhaps a comparison with Tim Richmond, once expected to deliver the Winston Cup Championship to Hendrick Motorsports, a championship that remained elusive to his multi team concept. Perhaps a flash back to the Baby Ruth car moving about the track at Atlanta like no other. He had still never met Jeff Gordon. For Jimmy Johnson it was possibly the same. He still marked the date of Tim Richmond’s death on his calendar each year.

Uncharacteristically, or as some have surmised of all great leaders, the ability to seize the opportunity, Rick told Jimmy to get Gordon and sign a deal. He would supply car, garage and find a sponsor or underwrite it himself. His two car multi-car team would become three teams. Hendrick's Folly as some termed it was about to begin.

Introductions took place and Jeff was now faced with a decision that would bring about bad press and hard feelings with his current car owner, Bill Davis. Rick and Jeff connected, and Jeff felt Rick was offering not only a chance of a lifetime to immediately start as a Winston Cup driver but the commitment and protection Hendrick Motorsports could offer him. Jeff would turn 21 in August. He only asked for one thing. He wanted Ray Evernham as his crew chief. Rookie drivers don’t ask self made millionaires for unknown crew chiefs. This is Winston Cup racing! This is the big league! Jeff had never even driven a Winston Cup car. Rick supposedly never blinked when he agreed to take Evernham as Jeff’s crew chief. Hendrick's Folly had now become Hendrick's Madness. John Bickford has said in interviews that other teams had approached Jeff but no one was willing to take the package of Jeff and Ray.

Bill Davis Bill Davis
For Bill Davis he probably knew that Hendrick wasn’t crazy. Davis still professes, "He’s (Jeff’s)just got everything. He is probably the greatest car driver to come along. Ever."[Richard Petty’s Stock Car magazine-premier issue] Davis would later make the jump to Winston Cup racing as a car owner for Bobby Labonte. Currently, Davis fields Pontiacs for Ward Burton.

Ford thought it ridiculous that a rookie would sign with a two car multi-car team that had never achieved success that was now going to attempt a three car multi car team. Unheard of! Can’t be done! Jeff Gordon is destined for failure. Who is Ray Evernham? How would Rick Hendrick even find a sponsor willing to step up to the plate considering the cost of a Winston Cup team for a relative unknown rookie? He had barely gotten tires hot in the BGN and now jumping into a Winston Cup ride was not normal NASCAR process. But that process and thinking was also about to change.

Jeff Gordon would drive in the last Winston Cup race of the 1992 season in a multi colored car with Dupont as the sponsor. Richard Petty, King of NASCAR, would drive his last Winston Cup race at the same time. One announcer would prophesize, "The torch is being passed." Both Gordon and Petty had a bad day at the track that day. No one thought much about Jeff Gordon over the winter season.

Luckily Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham didn’t have a long history with how things were done in NASCAR, but they knew that it takes focus and motivation to achieve success. The one thing that they knew was that the word team had to be more than just a word. They also were men who knew how to listen. When older, wiser crew chiefs and race drivers talked, they listened. Some older drivers have learned to be a bit wiser about passing on knowledge to rookies. The end of the 1993 season brought an admirable 14th place finish in overall points and Rookie of the Year. It should be noted that Jeff ended the season with many of the great Hendrick Chevy Luminas looking as if they had been in demolition derbies.

In a day where instant success is expected or you get the boot, an owner would not have been faulted for ousting the unknown crew chief. But Rick had seen something in the new team idea that Ray brought to Hendrick Motorsports. Ray knew what Rick had always understood but had never been able to achieve in Hendrick Motorsports. DuPont, a company with close ties to General Motors [The DuPonts held majority interest in GM and served as Chairman of GM for the longest period in GM’s history] showed no signs of feeling concerned. DuPont certainly didn’t need any advertising, but they spotted something in the team they were supporting. A company long known for its innovation and acceptance of new ideas didn’t take long to realize that their managers should get down to Hendrick Motorsports and see what Ray and Jeff had going with the Rainbow car. What could a NASCAR Winston Cup team teach a multi billion dollar international corporation? I don’t know what DuPont is learning, but as an old fan of NASCAR and many drivers, including the late Tim Richmond, I’m excited to be a NASCAR supporter and proud to be a fan of Jeff Gordon and that awesome team of Rainbow Warriors headed by Ray Evernham. DuPont still adorns the #24 car and you can expect to see it on the car well into the next millennium.

The first victory Jeff's first win in 1994
The march of the Rainbow Warriors through the record books of NASCAR did not start with the emotional win in Charlotte in May 1994; it started long before that. Jeff Gordon had given up weekends with friends before he knew Winston Cup racing existed within NASCAR. John Bickford recognized the talent early and was willing to make sacrifices for his son. Jeff learned early that you need the best equipment and the best people to be successful. Six hundred wins prior to Winston Cup did not fall in his lap. It has been Jeff’s ‘je ne sais quoi’, that indescribable quality that has attracted the best and the brightest to his side.

For the critics, nothing silences them more then turning left into Victory Lane. The question is not whether Jeff would be as great without Ray Evernham, without Rick Hendrick, without the money of DuPont, GM, Pepsi, Quaker State and so forth..the real question is when is your team going to learn that Jeff and Ray have rewritten the book, set the benchmark for the future and that they REALLY know what the word TEAM means. As for the booing, well Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt have had their share and it doesn’t seem to have affected their march through NASCAR’s record books. If you are a fan of Jeff, Ray and the Rainbow Warriors, stand tall, cheer loudly and just smile at the booers. What else can they do?

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