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ON THE FAST TRACK AT 23, JEFF GORDON IS NASCAR'S HOTTEST DRIVER AND BIGGEST HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

April 24, 1995
April 24, 1995

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April 24, 1995

ON THE FAST TRACK AT 23, JEFF GORDON IS NASCAR'S HOTTEST DRIVER AND BIGGEST HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

Jeff Gordon could have been a brat at the age of five, when he
drove his first race car, a quarter midget. He could have been a
prima donna at eight, when he won his first national championship
in quarter midgets; just rotten at nine, while beating
17-year-olds in go-karts; insufferable at 13, as a wunderkind
among grown-ups in deadly sprint cars. And he could be a self-
anointed demigod now, at 23, as the youngest star in NASCAR
history and, beyond that, a driver with the image to help NASCAR
cross over to become a mainstream sport in America. But, says
Gordon self-effacingly, ``I'm just a kid. It's just a big blur,
how fast I've gotten to this level. I can't even remember some
things.''

This is an article from the April 24, 1995 issue Original Layout

So much for being a prima donna, and NASCAR is grateful for that.
In recent years stock car racing has been threatening to break out
from its cult status. Last season, attendance for the 31-race
Winston Cup series averaged 157,935 per event; the tour hit every
region of the country; and every race was telecast nationally, to
solid ratings. What remains is for the sport to shed its rough-cut
image. And Gordon, the little (5'7") prodigy from the San
Francisco Bay Area -- darkly handsome, polished, polite, shy -- is
the rising star many NASCAR people think can lead them out of the
wilderness.

In this, his third Winston Cup season, Gordon has won more races
(three) and more poles (four) than any other driver on the
circuit. And that has been with bad luck. With slightly better
fortune he could have opened the season with an unprecedented
seven victories. He has led every race this year at some point,
and not one of his losses has been his fault. In his still-
dawning career Gordon has won five races and more than $3 million
in prize money. No other NASCAR driver has been so successful so
young.

``Nobody but me,'' says Richard Petty, NASCAR's alltime leader in
wins, with 200. But the King's arrival took place in easier,
humbler times: Petty was winning at 23, but he was doing it on
small-town bullrings, on a fledgling circuit, for chicken-feed
purses. Gordon is winning authoritatively on superspeedways in
what has become the most competitive form of motor racing in the
world.

As he shoots hoops with his wife, Brooke, in the driveway of their
new house on Lake Norman, near the college town of Davidson, N.C.,
Jeff looks like an upstart on the PGA Tour. If you somehow guessed
he was a race driver, you would say he drove Formula One or
possibly Indy Cars, not stock cars. He just doesn't fit the NASCAR
stereotype. But, says Jeff, ``there are so many signs that say to
me, This is where you belong.''

In a way Gordon was born to this life. He is NASCAR's first
test-tube driver, raised to be a racer by his stepfather, John
Bickford, an auto parts maker. Jeff was four years old and living
in Vallejo, Calif., when he started out in bicycle motocross
racing, but his mother, Carol, soon forbade that, saying it was
too dangerous. ``At BMX events they were hauling kids away in
ambulances all the time,'' says Carol.

John solved that problem by buying Jeff a quarter midget, a
six-foot car with a single-cylinder, 2.85 horsepower engine.
Carol was appalled. ``But,'' she says, ``it didn't take long to
realize that it was a lot safer than the bikes.'' Throughout his
childhood Jeff drove hurt only once, and that, Carol recalls,
was when he was five and ``he broke his nose when he fell at the
baby-sitter's.''

Jeff's talent was obvious, and John sought to challenge him with
ever- stronger competition. ``Most kids in quarter midgets race
maybe 20 weekends a year,'' John says. ``We raced 52 weekends a
year, somewhere in the United States. We had eight or nine cars.
We practiced two or three times a week. We were the Roger Penske
of quarter midgets.''

After winning that first national quarter-midget championship at
eight, Jeff moved up the next year to go-karts -- racers with
engines restricted to about 10 horsepower. ``All the other
parents were saying Jeff was probably lying about his age, that he
was probably 20 and just real little,'' says John. ``Nobody wanted
to race us. That was fine. We moved up to the junior class [using
the same go-karts but with higher horsepower], and he still kicked
everybody's ass. These kids were 13 to 17, and he was killing
them.

``We then moved up to superstock light [with still higher
horsepower]. Now we were running against guys 17 and older --
unlimited age. We were still winning. And those guys were going,
`There's no damn nine-year-old kid gonna run with us! Get outa
here!' ''

Feeling unwelcome, Jeff went back to concentrating on quarter
midgets, winning his second national championship at age 10 and
feeling the onset of burnout. ``You get to be 12 years old,'' he
recalls in tones of midlife crisis, ``and you realize you've been
in quarter midgets for eight years. What's next? I was getting
older, not knowing what I wanted to do next.''

The family learned that a few Midwestern sprint car tracks and
one sanctioning body -- the All-Star series -- did not have a
minimum-age requirement. ``Nobody was fool enough to drive that
young, so they didn't think they needed an age rule,'' Jeff says
of sprint racing, which was so dangerous as to be obviously not
for boys.

For $25,000 John and Jeff built a sprint car: 1,300 pounds, with a
650- horsepower engine. Jeff trained with the All-Star circuit on
its winter tour in Florida in 1985, when he was 13, and then
competed during the summer at the sprint car hotbeds of Ohio,
Illinois and Indiana. The family moved to Pittsboro, Ind., in 1986
to be close to tracks where Jeff could race legally at 14. He won
three sprint races before he was old enough to get an Indiana
driver's license. He also began to race full midgets, which are
925-pound cars with 320-horsepower engines.

At 18 Jeff started racing regularly on the U.S. Automobile Club
sprint car circuit. Now he was driving 815-horsepower, open-wheel
sprinters and full midgets, winning the USAC season championship
in the latter.

His career path turned on a single morning in the summer of 1990.
John and Carol advised Jeff to look into NASCAR, though he'd never
raced a single lap in a full-bodied car. He found out about a
driving school conducted by former NASCAR star Buck Baker at
Rockingham, N.C., and decided to attend. ``That first day, the
first time I got in a [stock] car,'' Jeff recalls, ``I said, `This
is it. This is what I want to do.' The car was different from
anything that I was used to. It was so big and heavy. It felt very
fast but very smooth. I loved it.''

He got his first full-time ride from an owner named Bill Davis in
1991 in NASCAR's Busch Series, the level below Winston Cup
competition. That season, shuttling between two very different
tours, Gordon won USAC's Silver Crown championship for open-wheel
cars and was also the Busch Series Rookie of the Year.

Rick Hendrick, who fields Chevrolets as owner of the biggest,
richest team in Winston Cup racing, happened to be at a Busch race
in Atlanta in March 1992. He was on his way to a luxury skybox,
Hendrick recalls, ``when I caught this white car out of the corner
of my eye. As it went into the corner, I could see that it was
extremely loose.'' By that he means that the car had a very
dangerous chassis setup that would allow it to go faster through
turns. ``I said, `Man, that guy's gonna wreck!' Dale Earnhardt and
Harry Gant were leading, and this white car was right up on them.
I told the people with me, `You just can't drive a car that
loose.' But the car went on to win the race. I asked who the
driver was. Somebody said, `That's that kid Gordon.' ''

What remained was to meet the driver. Personality and looks are
now vital in NASCAR, a sport driven by sponsorship money from
image-conscious corporations. Hendrick is particularly
image-sensitive, having not only his own business -- he is
America's largest automobile retailer, with 80 dealerships
coast-to-coast -- but also corporate sponsors that provide the
bulk of the $20 million annual budget of his three-driver NASCAR
team.

At his first meeting with Gordon, Hendrick recalls, ``I was almost
in a daze. Jeff had it all. It was just scary. He's good-looking,
and I couldn't believe how well he handled himself at age 20.''
Hendrick had feared finding an arrogant, difficult prodigy. ``What
I found was a mature young guy who was kind of humble -- a little
bashful. A sponsor's dream.''

In May 1992, Hendrick signed Gordon, who made a splash at the
start of the 1993 season by becoming, at 21, the youngest driver
ever to win a 125-mile qualifying race for the Daytona 500. The
victory was nice, but by that time Gordon had already won more
than 600 races in various types of cars. If he was dazzled in
Victory Lane that day at Daytona, it was largely because he came
face-to-face with Brooke Sealey, one of that season's Miss Winston
models. Gordon had seen pictures of Sealey and been told by a
mutual friend that they would be a perfect match. ``I was wowed
before I ever met her,'' he says. Upon winning the race, ``I
finally had something to talk to her about,'' he adds.

There is an unwritten rule in NASCAR prohibiting drivers from
dating the Winston models. Sealey had intended to abide by it. But
``in Victory Lane,'' she says, ``we were winking at each other.''
Later in the garage area, ``he came up to me, and his little voice
was just shaking. He was trying to talk to me, making the excuse
that nobody else in racing was our age.'' (Sealey is a year older
than Gordon.)

They began a season of high but separate visibility at the tracks
and secret rendezvous away from them. Several times when they were
together at restaurants, Sealey had to duck into kitchens and out
back doors when other racers happened in. Once as Gordon and
Sealey were about to board a flight together, Darrell Waltrip's
team arrived at the gate. Sealey slipped away and had to wait two
hours for another flight. As for race weekends, says Gordon, ``I
am now a master at sneaking in and out of hotels.''

The NASCAR crowd, a gossipy lot, buzzed all season about the
handsome young driver who should have been a magnet for women but
never seemed to have a date. ``Earnhardt asked if I was gay,''
says Gordon. The mouths also wondered why Sealey didn't have a
boyfriend and didn't bring dates to social functions. Yet the
gossips never seemed to link the two juiciest items of the season.

At the NASCAR awards banquet in New York that December, Gordon was
honored as Rookie of the Year, with record first-year winnings of
$765,000, and Sealey's season as Miss Winston officially ended.
After the banquet they revealed their romance and left the gossips
gaping.

At Daytona the following February, a year to the day from the
couple's Victory Lane encounter of 1993, Gordon reserved a huge
private room at a French restaurant. Sealey was baffled when just
the two of them were seated. There Gordon proposed, and she
accepted.

Before they married, in November, however, there was the matter
of Gordon's second season to get through. His first Winston Cup
win came on May 29 in one of the biggest races on the tour, the
Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. He was 22. And on Aug. 6, two days
after turning 23, he won the richest stock car race ever, the
inaugural Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,
collecting a $613,000 paycheck.

This season Gordon's three victories -- in Rockingham, Atlanta
and Bristol, Tenn. -- were runaways. He was cakewalking toward
another win, in Darlington, S.C., when he was unavoidably caught
up in a wreck caused by others. And a mishap during a pit stop
cost him an excellent shot at winning the Daytona 500. In the
most recent race of this season, at North Wilkesboro, N.C., on
April 9, Gordon started on the pole, but a worn right rear tire
left him second to Earnhardt at the finish.

Even with the most spectacular start of any NASCAR career under
his belt, Gordon says, ``I don't sit and think, Man, can I win
seven championships, or 10 championships? I'm just going for that
first one. I don't sit back and go, Man, what a storybook. It's
just a big blur.''

COLOR PHOTO:JIM GUND (LEFT)Wins like the one in Bristol have been a ``big blur'' to Gordon. [headshot of Jeff Gordon in his car wearing helmet] COLOR PHOTO:GEORGE TIEDEMANN [see caption above--Jeff Gordon racing]TWO COLOR PHOTOS:GEORGE TIEDEMANN (2) Earnhardt (far left) is the reigning NASCAR king, but Gordon (center, with crew chief Ray Evernham) overtook him in the Food City 500. [Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon; Jeff Gordon passing Dale Earnhardt during race]COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUNDAfter a crash at Darlington, Jeff was soon back in the winner's circle with Brooke. [Jeff Gordon's wrecked racecar] COLOR PHOTO:GEORGE TIEDEMANN [see caption above--Jeff and Brooke Gordon]