A MILLION TO ONE
Jeff Gordon won more than a record paycheck at the Brickyard 400
This is an article from the Aug. 10, 1998 issue
Because Jeff Gordon needs another million dollars about as much
as he needs another pair of designer sunglasses, winning the
biggest purse in the history of auto racing--$1,637,625 in last
Saturday's Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway--hardly
fazed him. Oh, he paid it his typically polite lip service. But
a richer reward was the nearly unanimous and thunderous approval
of the 350,000 fans in attendance at Indy. Such shows of
affection have been the only thing missing from Gordon's
wondrous NASCAR career.
At most stops on the Winston Cup tour, especially at Southern
tracks, the booing of Gordon's successes and the cheering of his
failures (even his crashes) have reached the point of cruelty.
But this time, back home again in Indiana--Hoosiers claim
California-native Gordon because he lived in the Indianapolis
suburb of Pittsboro as a teenage sprint car driver--Gordon could
not have heard the smattering of boos, for they were buried
under an avalanche of cheers that only Indy, with its massive
grandstands, could have bestowed. "After the race was over, as I
drove down pit road, I shut the engine off, because I just had
to hear it," said Gordon. "I don't hear a roar like that
The Brickyard 400 draws fans from around the country, but the
pro-Gordon sentiment at Indy is such that "it's almost like even
the people who come from outside Indiana start cheering for
you," he says. For this race, at least, the black-clad disciples
of Dale Earnhardt and other assorted Gordon-haters simply gave
up the cause and accepted that Gordon, whom they sarcastically
call Wonder Boy, has become NASCAR's irresistible force.
The prize money, $1 million of which was a bonus Gordon received
for winning a NASCAR major after finishing in the top five in
the previous major (he won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in
May), shot his career winnings past $20 million and his average
payday for each of the 175 Winston Cup races he has entered to a
series-record $115,985. That's money per start, not per win.
Earnhardt, second in the category, has averaged $54,641 in 593
starts. Earnhardt still leads in career winnings, with $32.4
million, but is in his 20th season while Gordon is in his sixth.
Gordon's sum last Saturday surpassed Arie Luyendyk's single-race
world record of $1,568,150 at the 1997 Indy 500. Formula One pays
appearance rather than prize money, and no other purse in NASCAR,
CART or sports car racing has approached what Gordon won at Indy.
The victory was Gordon's second in a row, his third in four
races and his sixth of the season. He increased his points lead
to 72 and has clearly hit his stride as he pursues a second
straight season title and his third in four years. Perhaps the
most telling sight of the day was that of a lone Earnhardt fan
standing amid the jubilant throng and thrusting his right middle
finger in the air in the direction of the checkered flag as
Gordon passed beneath it. But the guy wasn't booing. Perhaps
he'd learned to save his breath.
UNSER JR. EYES NASCAR
Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr., Indy car racing's
biggest-name driver, is hinting that he could wind up behind the
wheel of NASCAR stock cars if CART and Indianapolis Motor
Speedway don't settle their differences. "If the war continues
between the two entities, you might find me in a stock car
someday," Unser said last week before competing at Indy in the
International Race of Champions (IROC), an all-star circuit run
in stock cars. "NASCAR is definitely the Number 1 series in the
Friday's IROC appearance, in which he finished second to
NASCAR's Mark Martin, was Unser's first race at the Speedway
since 1994, when he won his second Indy 500. In '95 he failed to
qualify for the 500. Since then, Unser has stuck with his team
owner, Roger Penske, in CART's boycott of the 500.
Though Unser touts CART as the No. 1 international series
because of its TV coverage overseas, he concedes that the split
between CART and the Indy Racing League has badly hurt
open-wheel racing in America. "There's public confusion about
CART and the IRL," Unser says, "and that leads more viewers to
watch NASCAR, because there's no confusion in that series."
Unser has open-wheel racing in his blood--his father, Al Sr.,
won Indy four times, and his uncle Bobby won it three times--and
insists that CART is his priority for now. "My heart belongs in
an open-wheel car," he says. "But I love racing stock cars, and
the competition is definitely close. If I ever were to do
NASCAR, it would be full time, for sure."
Unser knows he couldn't effectively split his time between two
types of racing. He and Penske, who also owns a NASCAR team,
with Rusty Wallace as the regular driver, have talked about
running five or six selected NASCAR races a year with a second
car. "But I told Roger, 'We can't do that,'" says Unser. "We
need a full commitment if we expect to win, and we don't want to
go there not expecting to win."
There's little question that Unser would win in NASCAR. He has
had solid performances against Winston Cup drivers over the
years in IROC, in which he's won a record 11 races. In Unser's
only NASCAR race, the 1993 Daytona 500, he started 40th in a
mediocre car and moved to fifth before being caught up in a crash.
U.S. GRAND PRIX AT INDY IN 2000?
Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George seems prepared
to spend whatever it takes to host an annual Formula One Grand
Prix race at Indy, beginning perhaps as early as 2000. George
said last week that the chance of reaching agreement with F/1
moguls is "at least 50-50, maybe better." F/1, the world's most
prestigious motor racing series, last ran in the U.S. in 1991,
through the streets of Phoenix.
Formula One would never run on ovals, so George has a design for
a road course that would run through the infield and use parts
of the oval. Those alterations could cost $15 million to $20
million. Add to that the roughly $14 million F/1 czar Bernie
Ecclestone charges per event, and George's outlay could be $29
million to $34 million before the first race.
Ecclestone was conspicuous by his silence last week, atypically
failing to return SI's phone calls to his London office. He did
say in June that if he decides to hold an F/1 race in the U.S.,
he wants a long-term contract with the organizer. George wants
at least a seven-year deal.
Formula One's seven-year absence from the U.S. and the lack of
any American drivers in the series could mean that an F/1 Grand
Prix would have to be cultivated for several years before it
became profitable for Indy. "We expect it to be a relationship
that both sides want to continue for a long time," said George,
"so [the expenditures] would be worth it."
Rookie of the Year Race
BADLY INJURED PARK RETURNS
After missing nearly half the Winston Cup season with multiple
injuries, Steve Park has a chance to mount the most spectacular
comeback by a rookie-of-the-year candidate since Dale Earnhardt
in 1979. Earnhardt, who happens to be Park's car owner, missed
four races with fractures of both collarbones in '79 and still
scored enough points to be top rookie. Before returning to
action in last Saturday's Brickyard 400, Park had missed 15
races with fractures of his left collarbone, right femur and
right shoulder blade suffered in a March 6 crash during practice
The rookie points structure allows contenders to count their top
15 finishes of the 33-race season, and Park returned to driving
at Indy with 15 races to go. He ran as high as fifth in
Saturday's race before wrecking with a blown tire only 10 laps
from the finish, while running 14th. He wound up 35th and sits
fourth in the rookie standings.
Michael Schumacher's lifetime winning percentage in Formula
One--31 victories in 112 starts over eight seasons. If he
continues at this pace, he will move atop the career wins list in
2003, replacing the retired Alain Prost, who had a winning
percentage of 25.6 (51 victories in 199 starts over 13 seasons).