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.
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