Sunday, May 30, 2010

Jeff Gordon: Then and now

I came to the Charlotte Observer in 1994, knowing very little about NASCAR. (Some would say I still don't, but it's not for lack of trying -- I've written four racing columns this week alone, including today's profile of Jeff Gordon).

When I joined The Observer, I had worked for three years for The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal, which had given me a working knowledge of horse racing. I covered the Kentucky Derby a couple of times and grew to appreciate the athleticism of jockeys and the grace of thoroughbreds.

But stock-car racing was pretty foreign to me, even though I grew up in NASCAR country in Spartanburg, S.C. (home of NASCAR icons David Pearson and Bud Moore, among others).

So I embarked upon a crash course in NASCAR, and one of my first big assignments was a profile of a 23-year-old wunderkind driver named Jeff Gordon. For a year or so, I wrote small items like racing notebooks for the newspaper when at the track, but then I got the Gordon assignment in May 1995.

That story -- from May 1995 -- started like this:

Jeff Gordon is smack in the middle of the best ride of his life.

He looks a little like Tom Cruise. He gets richer every week. He drives the coolest, fastest car around. He hangs out with Brooke, a former beauty queen he married six months ago after a secret romance worthy of Harlequin.

He is 23 years old.

"Sometimes Jeff Gordon is so perfect, you just want to beat him up," says Ray Evernham, Gordon's crew chief and the best man at Gordon's November wedding.

A test-tube racer groomed from age 4 by his stepfather, John Bickford, Gordon will start from the pole for today's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and will be favored to win.

At this moment, though, Jeff Gordon - future of stock-car racing, "Wonder Boy," new god of all things greasy, half of stock-car racing's Ken and Barbie couple - is about to sneeze.

Gordon's allergies are clawing at him. He is outside on the deck of his stucco house on Lake Norman, eyes starting to water, gazing across a lush lawn he never mows himself because his allergies don't need further encouragement.

"Aww, man, I have got to get my prescription refilled," Gordon says. "I'm allergic to basically everything that grows outside."

This, then, may be the way to halt the growing Gordon mania - sprinkle yellow pollen inside his No. 24 race car.

It went on like that for 3,000 more words, detailing Gordon's career, marriage, addiction to ice cream and so on. We did the main interview at his home on Lake Norman, and Gordon was courteous, funny... and seemed to be holding something back.

I didn't figure out quite it was until years later, when Gordon started admitting that early in his career he tried to be Mr. Perfect at the expense of being himself. He did seem almost robotic in those early years -- smart and handsome and somewhat plastic.

I like the Gordon we have now better, even though he hasn't won a Cup championship for nine years and is struggling like everyone else against Jimmie Johnson's dominance.

That first marriage ended in a high-profile divorce, but Gordon is now a doting father expecting his second child. At 38, he's a little more wrinkled and a lot more real. It's 15 years later and I'm still writing front-page stories about him, so either we're both spinning our wheels or he's stayed very relevant. I think it's the latter.


Anonymous said...

What is there to know about NASCAR? Its not like you have to have a college degree. Its for simpletons like any sweat sport.
America is finally discovering it is a collective redneck nation and always has been for 500 yrs as the human waste dump of the planet. No royaly. Peons, peasants, vagabonds.
Hundreds of millions of sweating smelly dirty masses of rejects and outcasts. Rednecks of all races & religions north east south and west. Redneck America. Get over it.

Anonymous said...


All athletes who play the dirt sweat contact physical sports are half illiterate and dumb as hell with extremely low IQ. Most who go thru college on a scholarship can hardly write their names.

Professional sports are the worst where the collective IQ is compatible to being mentally retarded.

They used to be called dumb jocks but in todays pc age they are gifted athletes. What a joke.

Athletes are the dumbest creatures on the planet. Is anyone even aware that the real reason Cassius Clay aka Muhammed Ali in 1968 didnt go into the miltiary in spite of all the antiwar rhetoric was because he failed a 4th grade Army literacy exam? The man couldnt even spell his own name. Fact.

There are no sports that require more than an elementary education but then beating your brains pn a gridiron or shooting hoops even driving race cars etc takes zero intelligence.

GMdrake said...

The first two posts sound like the same bitter person. Not all race fans are dirty smelly rednecks. But it would be a waste of time to try to explain that to someone as sad and pathetic as these two (one). How a blog about a racecar driver turns into "Ali can't spell his own name" is beyond silly.
Anyway, yes, Scott, you are correct. Gordon has remained relevant after all these years and continues to be one of the best. I would say though that racing is a sport, whereas football, baseball and basketball are games. Keep up the good work Scott.

Anonymous said...

in the old days athletes were called dumb jocks but now are called gifted athletes.

thats hilarious.

Anonymous said...

4 time champ Gordon is hot at 4 time champ Johnson trying to knock him out of the saddle with a 5th. Lot of tension there. Gordan wants his 5th in a badddd way ..

7 time champ Petty always voiced distain for 7 time champ Earnhardt who made no bones about going after his 8th.

Petty def didnt cry at Daytona in 2001. He grinned and signed a big whewwwwww ... thank you wall...

Anonymous said...

R.I.P David Poole...I though nobody could ever replace Tom Higgins however you filled those shoes admirably.

As for the current group of Observer writers and all suck! Tom "I love rasslin" Sorensburg is HORRIBLE, absolutely HORRIBLE.

It is very sad that the major paper (loosely used) in the hub of NASCAR sucks so badly.

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