NASCAR: Gordon's still got it at 40
Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 11, 2011
By Dan Gelston
LONG POND, Pa. — Jeff Gordon was struck by how the children of the Congo had their hands out looking for food or money. Gordon didn’t make his fact-finding mission to Africa for a quick fix. He was there for an education on what the children needed and how he could make a difference in their futures.
So he talked to the kids. Learned their special handshakes. He forged a bond over a three-day trip with the people that stretched deeper than a quick photo-op or a pithy feel-good sentence on a press release.
Back home, Gordon is the four-time NASCAR champion. To some kids, he’s the voice of Jeff Gorvette from “Cars 2.”
In a country where some grow up with lifelong hardships, Gordon was simply a friendly face trying to help.
“As soon as you make a connection with them, they light up,” Gordon said.
Gordon made his name as one of the greatest race car drivers on the planet. Now, he’s traveling the globe, on behalf of his own foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, dedicated to charity work ranging from eradicating cancer to ending hunger. He does more than sign checks and call it a day. Gordon is visiting the poorest countries abroad, and touring food banks not far from the tracks that serve as his weekend office, to spotlight the causes that mean the most to him.
“I wish I had time to do more,” Gordon said.
This is Gordon at 40: Mixing life in the pits with philanthropy; juggling marriage, fatherhood and other business interests. He’s doing it all while enjoying a rebirth on the track, winning more races this season (two) than the previous three combined. Gordon’s first-year partnership with crew chief Alan Gustafson is an instant smash, and that Sprint Cup trophy that’s been anchored to Jimmie Johnson’s side at Hendrick Motorsports just might find a new address.
“I don’t think we’re the best team out there right now, but we’re knocking on the door of being there,” Gordon said. “I’m hoping by the time the Chase comes around, we truly are. I definitely think we’re a threat to win the championship. I wouldn’t put us as the favorite yet.”
Gordon was once NASCAR’s hotshot phenom, whose fiery competitive spirit zipped him to the top of the sport and ignited stock car racing’s popularity from Madison Avenue to mainstream America. He steamrolled the competition, married a Victory Lane model, divorced her, and enjoyed all the perks of single life, before settling down again.
All of that has been etched in his bio for years.
His second act holds so much more.
On the morning of his 40th birthday last Thursday, Gordon awoke to his daughter, Ella, singing “Happy Birthday.” He had no blowout party plans for the milestone. His son, Leo, turned 1 this week and the Gordons planned a private gathering with family and friends. Gordon lives in the moment, and has little time for reflection when there’s always so much to do.
He called his life, “40 great years,” with no complaints.
“I could never imagine my life turning out the way it has,” he said. “I never expected to have the career I’d have. I guess I always thought one day I’d be married with one or two children. Being a dad, to experience that, you can’t really fathom what it’s like. I certainly never thought I’d make trips to the Congo and things like that. It’s certainly been an amazing opportunity.”
If Gordon is having the time of his life, it starts to make up for some of the lean years he’s experienced professionally and personally since winning his fourth championship in 2001. Gordon suffered serious issues in his back, specifically his lower spine, and needed anti-inflammatory medication and workouts with a trainer to return to full strength.
He drove in pain during a winless 2008 season and briefly contemplated retirement.
“I thought, ‘Why do I need to put myself through this and am I causing more serious damage that might affect me long term,’” he said. “I wouldn’t say it was a serious discussion, but the topic (retirement) was brought up. But I wasn’t going down without a fight.”
Gordon is healthy, competitive and having fun this season. Asked how long he wants to continue the 36-race grind, he smiles and says, “Man, if I keep having years like this, a long time.”
His partnership with Gustafson has been a turning point. His seven top-fives through 21 races are four shy of his 36-race total last year with former crew chief Steve Letarte. Gordon has victories this year at Phoenix and Pocono and is seventh in the points standings entering Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen. His win in June at Pocono put him into a tie for third on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup career victories list with 84.
“Of everybody I’ve ever worked with, he’s the most complete driver,” said Gustafson, a longtime Hendrick Motorsports employee. “It kind of cracks me up that people have the perception of him being a pretty boy or a prima donna. But of all the drivers I’ve worked with, he’s the least that way. He loves to be with the guys, interact with the guys. It means a lot to the guys.”
It would mean more to wrest the title away from Johnson. Johnson morphed from Gordon’s protegee to late-night running buddy to the driver who staked his claim as the best in NASCAR. Johnson has won the last five championships and has Gordon, known as “Four Time,” chasing him as top dog at Hendrick.
In so many ways, Johnson has seen Gordon’s evolution like few others around the garage.
“It’s hard not to change,” Johnson said. “I think he’s a better person.”
Gordon has learned there’s more to life than checkered flags and championships. His children will live a privileged life, yet he yearns for them to take active roles in their communities and learn how to give back to the less fortunate.
“It’s important for them to realize this is not normal,” he said. “There are people out there that are struggling, that there are people out there that don’t live like this. In her world, she doesn’t know any different.”
Gordon is part of the Clinton Global Initiative, a project led by Bill Clinton to inspire, connect, and empower a community of global leaders to forge solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. He started the Jeff Gordon Foundation, which supports children battling cancer by funding programs that improve patients’ quality of life, treatment programs that increase survivorship and pediatric medical research dedicated to finding a cure.
He has a cause-driven sponsorship for the No. 24 Chevrolet, pairing with the AARP Foundation. The foundation’s “Drive to End Hunger” campaign is Gordon’s primary sponsor for the next three years. The campaign has delivered 2.7 million meals to hunger relief organizations near NASCAR tracks, and Gordon has visited food banks and made other donations.
Gordon plans to visit Rwanda in the offseason and bring 4-year-old Ella along.
“You’re there and it allows you to appreciate life far more,” Gordon said. “You can make an impact on other people’s lives.”
On the track and off, there’s no slowing down for Gordon at 40.