Jeff Gordon: Up Close

Recollections, humor, and happenstance meetings with Jeff Gordon

Most race fans only see Jeff Gordon on the racetrack, driving at 200 miles per hour, winning Winston Cups, and collecting trophies. Some race fans boo him for winning too much; fair enough I guess. But if you ask any driver in the garage area about him, you're likely to hear nothing but praise for the way he conducts himself both on and off the track. Here are a few stories about him from those that have spent time with Jeff over the years.

Ray Evernham - former crew chief

Jeff Gordon was 19 years old when he was introduced to Ray Evernham. Gordon was known as a successful sprint racer but was a neophyte in the stock car world. Evernham had heard about the Indiana kid who was winning sprint car titles, but didn't really know what to expect when he first met him. Ray fondly recalled his first meeting with the future champion. "(Jeff) was trying to grow a mustache at the time and when he opened his briefcase, he had a video game and a racing magazine in it," Evernham said laughing. Few would have thought at the time that the two would later team up to become one of the most successful driver-crew chief combinations that the sport had ever seen.

Rick Hendrick - car owner

In 1992, Rick Hendrick was a successful Winston Cup car owner. Ricky Rudd and Ken Schrader were winning races for him and he had won a Daytona 500 in the past with Darrell Waltrip. However, he was looking to expand his operation. During a Busch Grand National race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March 1992, Rick was walking up to the press box. He noticed a car on the track out of the corner of his eye. He saw Jeff Gordon. "He came out of the turn with the back end hanging out," Rick said. "I told the guy with me that I wanted to wait a minute and see him bust his tail. But I stood there for 20 laps, and he just kept on going. He was on the ragged edge all day." Gordon would go on to win the race that day. Rick asked who the driver was. The response: "That Gordon kid." He then asked Jimmy Johnson, general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, to sign the driver to a contract; whatever it took. And the rest is history.

John Bickford - Jeff's stepfather

John Bickford was the most influential person in Jeff's life as he made his climb up the racing ladder. Bickford married Jeff's mother, Carol, when Jeff was a year old. After trying BMX bicycles, he bought Jeff a quarter midget race car which Gordon drove to numerous victories in the northern California area. To hasten his climb up the racing ladder, the family moved to Indiana but things were far from easy. For a while, they lived on the race winnings that Jeff earned. Talking about the fans that boo Jeff, Bickford said, "(Those people) have no idea about Jeff sleeping in the back of his truck, because he couldn't drive the diesel down the freeway, about making belly pans and selling them at the racetrack because we were holding onto every dime." These days, he marvels at his stepson's accomplishments. "All those laps in sprint and midgets cars helped make Jeff what he is today. You learn something about your competitors with every lap, anticipating what they do. Everyone's amazed when he avoids a crash, but that's not an accident. He's never broken a bone that I know of, never spent a night in a hospital. When he was 10 at Hills Ferry Speedway in California, someone ran over him with a go-kart and I took a piece of the fence off and used it as a splint for his shoulder. He was sore but he wanted to race."

Steve Smith - Racing Columnist, Irace.com

"It's time to tell my 'Jeff Gordon Story.' Most racing writers have one. Mine's a bit different. It was three years ago, early in the 1995 season. Gordon had won two races in 1994, including the inaugural Brickyard 400, and had already won three of the seven races he'd take in 1995. I was in New York City, covering the Greater New York Auto Show, a huge annual event attended by all those New Yorkers who wish they could own a car, but have to ride the subway. During an unusual free evening, I wanted to get away from the auto show crowds. Since much of my career involved television, I'd come to know people who worked at "The Late Show with David Letterman," which, of course, tapes late in the afternoon at the Ed Sullivan Theater on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. After a lucky phone call, I found myself in the VIP line waiting to get in.

Even VIPs, I learned, have to wait in line outside the theater. I'd been standing there for a few minutes when I heard a couple get in line behind me. It was Jeff Gordon and wife Brooke. Also in town for the auto show, and also finding themselves with a rare free evening, they'd called and asked for a couple of tickets to Letterman, who, you likely know, is a huge race fan, and a native of Indiana, Gordon's adopted home state. By April of '95, Jeff was well on his way to the eventual 1995 Winston Cup championship. Had he insisted on star treatment for himself and Brooke, he would have received it. But the three of us stood in line, on the sidewalk in Manhattan, for more than half an hour, just talking and waiting. If anyone recognized the already well-known Gordon, or the invariably striking Brooke, they did not let on. Only the teenaged doorman at the show seemed to know who Gordon was, and told Jeff he was a fan. His greeting was warmly acknowledged.

Once inside, we sat and talked until showtime. Letterman was in rare form, and we had lucked into what would become a legendary show: It was Letterman's birthday, and guest Drew Barrymore gave Dave a birthday dance on his desk, punctuated by a quick lift of her pullover teeshirt. It was one of the few moments when Letterman was genuinely speechless. As were we.

After the show, Gordon made a point of shaking my hand, and telling me how much he and Brooke had enjoyed it all. True? I don't know. But I've been around dozens, probably hundreds, of race drivers, the vast majority of far less stature than Jeff Gordon. But I've seldom seen less ego. You base your impressions on little things. Like Jeff Gordon, who did not know me from Adam, making a point of being a nice guy. You wanna boo Jeff? Go ahead. But I need a better reason than him being a winner."

Used by permission from Irace.com editor David Green

Terry Labonte - Hendrick Motorsports teammate

Terry Labonte is Jeff's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. The two drivers have won four Winston Cup titles between them. At Hendrick Motorsports, Jeff won in 1995, Terry in 1996, and Jeff again in 1997. The driver of the Kelloggs Chevrolet is often considered to be the smoothest driver in Winston Cup racing.
Talking about his teammate, Jeff Gordon, Labonte said, "I really admire him. I think he's without a doubt the greatest driver that's come along in several years, and it just amazes me sometimes to see some of the things he can do. I told him after he won the championship that I'm proud to be on a team with him. I think he does a great job for all of us at Hendrick Motorsports, winning Rick Hendrick two championships." It would be easy to understand how Labonte could be bitter about Gordon's glowing success. But that's not the case. "He's a good guy and I really think people are jealous of him a little bit because he's so successful, he's so young and he's so good and it's really not fair. I've seen him pull out on pit road and I'll pull out behind him and people will be shaking their fist at him and making obscene gestures to him and I'm like, 'Man, here's a guy that doesn't ever say anything bad, he doesn't ever do anything bad.' I mean he's just a good guy and he runs good and wins races and these people are just jealous of him because he is that good."

Andy Graves - Chip Ganassi Racing team manager

When Jeff Gordon was a teenager racing sprint cars in Indiana, Andy Graves was his roommate. Andy helped Jeff on the sprint cars and followed him to Charlotte when Jeff pursued stock cars. Andy was hired by Hendrick Motorsports and climbed his way up the ladder into the position of Terry Labonte's crew chief. Andy was Jeff's roommate for five years. Who else besides his immediate family could know him better?
"From living with him for five years, everyone has their downfalls, but Jeff is a really neat individual. It's a shame he's become so popular and people want to take shots at him, because he's really a great guy."

Ricky Craven - NASCAR driver

Ricky Craven's friendship with Jeff Gordon goes back to when Craven was racing in the Busch series. Both Craven and Gordon were sponsored by DuPont at the time. In 1998, Craven was forced to sit out 4 months due to post concussion syndrome. His first race back in the car was at New Hampshire. The Bud Chevrolet was the last car to take a qualifying lap. Gordon had set the time to beat; and Craven bested it to win the pole in his return to the Winston Cup series. The first driver to congratulate Craven was Jeff Gordon.
"Few people know Jeff because he doesn't get close to people. But you saw the real Jeff Gordon at New Hampshire. He got bumped off the pole and yet he was the first to congratulate me. That's why he's a friend."

Greg Zyla - Performance Racing Industry Magazine

It's hard to believe that just over ten years ago, Gordon was a sprint car driver trying to make a name for himself. Greg Zyla, a writer for Performance Racing Industry Magazine, sent in this recollection of Jeff Gordon's sprint car days.
"I'll never forget back in 1987 or '88, he came to Selinsgrove Speedway in central Pennsylvania to compete against the big boys of outlaw sprint car racing, including several WOO drivers. The central Pa. teams are some of the best in the country. Jeff started way back in the feature, and I think he ran eighth or ninth. From that day on, I knew Jeff Gordon was a real race car driver. Selinsgrove is an ultra-fast 1/2 mile dirt track, with speeds well over 125 on the straights. I guess I'll remember this most about him, because no one ever came to Selinsgrove at his age and did what he did. No he didn't win, but to come through the pack and finish in the top 10 was quite an accomplishment. By the way, the car he drove that night, the Shoff No. 23, is the only car to my knowledge that Gordon was ever fired from as a driver. Evidently, the team never 'clicked,' and Jeff only ran a few races."

Charles Barkley - former NBA player

A few years ago when Barkley was playing for the Phoenix Suns, Brooke and Jeff Gordon had courtside seats. After the game, they went in to meet him. Barkley has been perceived as being arrogant and a less than hospitable individual. However, upon meeting him, Gordon and Barkley became fast friends.
"When I was growing up, everybody hated the Celtics because they always won. Jeff Gordon is going through that same thing. When you think about it, there is no way possible that any person in the entire world should dislike him. What has he ever done except win? He's never in trouble, he's very religious, and he's always kicking butt. What more would you want in an athlete?"

'Chocolate' Myers - Richard Childress Racing #29 gasman

It would be easy for rival race teams to hate Jeff Gordon. Since his arrival in Winston Cup, he's beaten them a remarkable precentage of the time. However, they offer nothing but the highest praise for the two-time Winston Cup champion.
"I'll tell you, I get to speak a lot publicly, and I tell everybody right up front they need to meet Jeff Gordon," Myers said, "because he's just a super, super nice guy. He's doing what he gets paid to do, and he's doing a great job at it. You know, a lot of people don't like Jeff, but Jeff's a winner and he's awesome. He's really a role model for a lot of people."

Buddy Baker - NASCAR Legend

In 1990, Buddy Baker had retired from driving and was helping his father run his driving school in North Carolina. 'The Buck Baker Driving School' has been one of the most popular NASCAR driving schools over the years. An Indiana teenager named Jeff Gordon came down to the driving school to get a crash course on stock car racing that year. Already an accomplished sprint car champion, Gordon attended the driving school more as a publicity stunt for ESPN who sent a crew to film the session; in return, Gordon attended free of charge. He was expected to be an Indy car star like A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, and Bobby Unser had been. However, that trip to North Carolina changed his outlook. Baker reflects on that week:
"He came to my father's driving school. (After one) night, he called his mom, and said, 'Mom, I've made up my mind what I want to do with the rest of my life.' He wanted Winston Cup cars. As far as Indy racing goes, that was a kick in the pants for them. Because stars like him don't come along that often."

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