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.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Busch-Hamlin feud: It ain't over

I wrote my column today about Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, who are still getting along as teammates for Joe Gibbs Racing about as well as oil and vinegar despite the peacemaking efforts of Gibbs.

My take today is that Busch is good for the sport of NASCAR, which has always needed talented villains and now has one who happily fulfills the role.

It is an interesting dynamic, though, that these two are not only unhappy with each other -- ostensibly because of NASCAR's all-star race last Saturday night, but I would guess it goes a lot further back than that -- but that they have to work together.

This quote from Hamlin Thursday was particularly telling as to the nature of their relationship, I thought. Hamlin said he wasn't going to put a lot of "effort" into trying to rebuild their relationship, then said of Busch: "

"Kyle brings this stuff on himself. I don’t want to be a part of it. Any drama he wants to create – it’s on him. Anything he says on the radio – it’s on him. … Each year I think Kyle is going to grow out of it, and each year he doesn’t. Until he puts it all together, that’s when he’ll become a champion. Right now, he just doesn’t have himself all together."

Can you imagine, say, one Panther teammate ripping another in the same way? I know Steve Smith once punched Ken Lucas -- it's not like everything is all hunky-dory in any sport -- but that sort of candor is pretty rare when a guy has time to think about what he's going to say, walks into an interview room and then blisters his teammate.

Interesting stuff. Also interesting: Hamlin will start directly behind Busch in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600. If he was truly furious with him, he could push Busch directly into the wall on that first turn. He would never do that, though... would he?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Silly Panther jersey prices

Sometimes, when I need a chuckle, I go to the shopping portion of the Carolina Panthers' official website and see what they have on "sale."

I like this website's stubbornness. It wants you to pay a lot for its merchandise, and it makes no apologies for that. It so rarely puts something at 50 percent off or more -- even when the player it advertises is long gone -- that when I see something for a big discount it's a shocker. (The website's motto seems to be something like the motto the entire NFL has in making fans pay full price for exhibition games every August).

Hey, if you can get people to pay those prices, more power to you. And I will say the Panthers have a few "bundled" packages that aren't bad deals on their shopping homepage right now (where you get several items, packaged together, at a discount).

But I do find it laughable that the Panthers still insist on charging so much for Julius Peppers and Jake Delhomme jerseys, even though those players are gone. There must be a market for it, but consider for a moment just the prices of a white Panther replica jersey in adult sizes for the following folks:

Note: regular price for the jersey is generally $80-95.

1) Julius Peppers... $59.99 to $74.99. Wow -- what a deal! The guy is in Chicago and the Panthers still want that much? What would it take for the price to drop to $50 -- would Peppers need to go to a third team?

2) Jake Delhomme... $47.99 to $62.99. Oh, c'mon. At least it's not quite as much as the Peppers rip-off, but seriously. He's gone.

3) Brad Hoover... $48.99. Are there this many people out there who want to yell "Hoov" to a popular player no longer on the field?

4) Dwayne Jarrett... $29.99. This is the one price that makes sense here -- sorta. Jarrett's jersey is by far the cheapest, and he's contributed far less than the other 3... but he's the only one still on the team!

I scrolled around a little more looking for "bargains" on the website and found items like a 36" tall Sir Purr plush stuffed animal for a mere... $199.99!

But then I finally found something that was discounted by that magic 50 percent number. Drum roll, please....

Anyone want a Keyshawn Johnson Panthers bobblehead, reg.$20, for $9.99??

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Richard Petty's autograph

Over 50-plus years in racing, Richard Petty has given his autograph close to a million times -- sometimes as many as 5,000 times a day, he says. Almost all of them have looked as elaborate as this one, which he signed Thursday, May 20, 2010.

Richard Petty is legendary for his relationship with NASCAR fans. Nowhere is that relationship more apparent than when Petty is asked for his autograph -- a sort of "The King and I" moment that has been repeated hundreds of thousands of times throughout his career and is the subject of my column for Friday.

Petty invariably is polite to whomever asks and then produces this looping script that looks like it belongs in a museum. He told me Thursday at a NASCAR hall of fame event (Petty is one of the five men being inducted in its first-ever class) how that ornate signature evolved.

Recalled Petty: "It started sort of as a deal – somebody come up and asks you for one, you do it. Then more people and stuff. And then I got to looking at my autograph and looking at some of the other autographs and said to myself, ‘Look, if I’m going to take time to sign it, I hope they can read it.’ If they take it home and show it to their buddy and you can’t read it, then two weeks later they forget who it is.

"So I thought to myself I need to take the time so they can halfway make it out, anyway, and that’s the reason I take a little bit longer to sign autographs than some other people. It just got to be a habit so it’s not out of the ordinary for me to do anymore."

Petty, 72, also took a penmanship in business college that helped him learn the "fancy stuff," as he called it. I have watched Petty over the years sign countless autographs for fans -- he considers it his personal "Thank you" to them for being a supporter of the sport.

If you've got your own Richard Petty autograph story, incidentally, I'd like to hear a few of them. Put it in the comments below this story or e-mail me at I told one of the thousands of "The King and I" stories out there in my Friday column about Petty's signatures -- it concerned a young Brad Daugherty getting Petty's autograph and wearing the No.43 in tribute after that -- but there are so many more.

As reporters, we are normally barred from obtaining autographs for personal use. In this case, though, I made an exception. I needed to actually see Petty's signature in front of me to write an entire column about The King and his autograph, and so I got him to sign his name on my reporter's notebook. That's what the picture at the top of his blog is about.

Shortly after our one-on-one interview ended, Petty saw some fans behind a metal gate who wanted his signature, too. He tipped back his black cowboy hat and strode toward them, grabbing one of the Sharpies he always keeps in his left pants pocket for just such an occasion.

“Just another day of bein’ Richard Petty,” he said to me over his shoulder.

And then he started to sign.

Taylor Gibbs' finish line

In case you're looking for something to do on Sunday, May 23rd, let me recommend this: Taylor's Finish Line Festival, at the Z Max Dragway at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Tickets are $25 and all the money goes to Levine's Children Hospital and Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Taylor Gibbs is the son of J.D. and Melissa Gibbs and the grandson of Joe Gibbs, the former Washington Redskins coach and current NASCAR owner. Now 5, at age 2 he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Here's an excellent story about what happened after that by our own Meghan Cooke.

Joe Gibbs retired from coaching the Washington Redskins after the 2007 season, citing the pull of family obligations. Nothing weighed on his mind as heavily as Taylor -- he wanted to be close to his family in the Charlotte area instead of up in Washington, worrying about what was happening to Taylor.

Taylor's doing great now, which is wonderful news. This festival is to celebrate that fact, and to raise some money for two very worthy causes. Go if you can.

Monday, May 17, 2010

I'd put Panthers 19th

As you can see by our "Inside the Panthers" blog on the offseason power ratings by Sports Illustrated's Peter King, the Panthers are once again being looked upon favorably by what remains the best sports magazine in the business.

I have long admired SI and have been a subscriber for 20-plus years. But there's one area the magazine often falls short -- predictions. Remember that time SI had Carolina winning the Super Bowl? And no, that wasn't in 2003.

We've got another good example here, as SI has Carolina way too high -- eighth! -- in its offseason power rankings.

Where would I put Carolina? At No.19.

I think Carolina is in store for a 7-9 sort of season -- not awful, but far from great and out of the playoffs. You can't tell me that a team that went 8-8 last season (and had to win its last 3 games to get to that point) has gotten better this offseason. The purge of veterans was too dramatic and too far-reaching -- some deserved to go, yes, but not so many.

Until proven otherwise, this is a middle-of-a-pack team with a quarterback who has only eight starts (good starts, yes, but can Matt Moore lead a team an entire season?), a coach entering the final year of his contract and a front office that is obviously committed to youth over experience and thriftiness over expense.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Michael Phelps' Charlotte schedule

Michael Phelps, the 14-time Olympic gold medalist, is in town for Charlotte's UltraSwim meet, which begins today. He is entered in five events (the same number he entered at the 2009 UltraSwim, when Phelps won two, finished second in two others and dropped out of the fifth before the finals).

If you want to see Phelps, you still can. They're selling a limited number of tickets at the door each day starting as low as $10 (see for details). Phelps won't swim today, but he should be in the pool for every other session this weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday -- morning sessions begin at 9 a.m. and the finals each night at 6 p.m.)

Friday will definitely be a heavy day for Phelps, and Saturday could be, too. He will swim the 200 freestyle and the 100 butterfly on Friday, he said in a press conference Thursday afternoon.

On Saturday, Phelps said he is scheduled to do both the 50 freestyle and the 100 backstroke. The 50 free is not his forte, and that's the one he dropped out of last year at the UltraSwim after a mediocre morning performance.

If Phelps does make the finals in both, though, and wants to swim them both, those two races are back-to-back. That means Phelps could be swimming two finals on Saturday night about 10 minutes apart. That'd be fun.

On Sunday, Phelps is scheduled to compete in one event -- the 200 individual medley.

The events he will have the toughest time winning here are the 50 free and the 100 backstroke (which he lost last year in the UltraSwim to Aaron Peirsol, who has long been America's pre-eminent backstroker and is here again as well).

I'll be covering the UltraSwim all weekend for The Observer in both this blog and in the newspaper. Here was a preview column I wrote today on Charlotte Olympian Ricky Berens, who is also here competing (as is his girlfriend, the very accomplished swimmer Rebecca Soni).

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Fabulous Hudson Hornet

The "Fabulous Hudson Hornet" is among the cars on display at "Glory Road" in the NASCAR hall of fame, which opened today in Charlotte.

I took the picture above on a tour through the NASCAR hall of fame. It's not a very good picture, but it's a great car. There are a lot of snapshot-worthy moments in the hall, and as I wrote in my review of the place last week, it will absolutely dazzle you (at least the first time). I'm sure it's doing exactly that today to the hundreds of people passing through the doors.

The Hudson Hornet gained a new legion of followers in the 2006 animated movie "Cars," in which Paul Newman voices the character of "Doc Hudson," who turns out to be the Hudson Hornet himself.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Dale Jr: An exclusive interview

I was fortunate enough to have a long interview that you can read here with Dale Earnhardt Jr. recently about his late father, Dale Earnhardt Sr. The full text of the interview will be published in Sunday's Charlotte Observer as part of our special section on the new NASCAR Hall of Fame and its first class of inductees (Earnhardt Sr. is one member of the five-man class).

Dale Jr. doesn't talk at length about his father very often, and I'm grateful for him doing this one to help Observer and readers better understand his dad (who died in 2001).

Look for that special section in The Charlotte Observer Sunday. It has some great writing from Ron Green Sr. and Tom Higgins, who witnessed so much of NASCAR's history, as well as everything you need to know about the Hall of Fame to plan a visit. And here's a small taste of the Dale Jr. interview I did:

Q: It has been nine years since your father’s death at Daytona. As the years pass, what is it you hope people remember about him?
A: The one thing that you’re always scared is going to evaporate is how he made people feel when he walked into a room. He entered a room and changed its atmosphere. He had just such a powerful personality. Not like the power of a king, but just this energy that just filled the room.
And that stuff is so easy to forget. One day, it will be hard to recall that. One day I’m worried that everybody will just be looking at pictures and stats of him and that will be it. They’ll just be looking at him in a two-dimensional sort of way.
But he was three-dimensional. When he was at the track, you knew he was there, even if you couldn’t see him. You could just feel it. And that was an awesome feeling.

Q: How often do you think of him?
A: It’s always kind of hovering in the back of your mind, kind of like the hum of an air conditioner. Not something that bothers you -- something you can get used to living with. It’s a part of who you are.
It’s a good thing in most ways when I think of him because it’s definitely something that keeps me making better decisions more often. I make a lot of decisions based on feeling like that he’s over my shoulder still, and I’m glad for that.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

On Fox, Brown and Furyk

I wrote a notes column today about John Fox, Larry Brown, "Mister" Furyk (you'll need to read the column to see why I say that) and a fine new book by Bethany Bradsher called "Coaching Third."

In the meantime, it's May, and that means NASCAR around here. I plan to go to a preview of the new NASCAR hall of fame in Charlotte -- it officially opens to the public on May 11 -- and write about that later this week.