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Speed Demon Jeff Gordon is deified by millions as the paragon of all that's right about America, and vilified by millions more as the blue-eyed devil who will be the wrack and ruin of NASCAR. Could they both be right?

Feb. 10, 2003
Feb. 10, 2003

Table of Contents
Feb. 10, 2003

Speed Demon Jeff Gordon is deified by millions as the paragon of all that's right about America, and vilified by millions more as the blue-eyed devil who will be the wrack and ruin of NASCAR. Could they both be right?

Two young men, Chevrolet fans by their T-shirts and caps, are out
walking. This is August, last summer.

This is an article from the Feb. 10, 2003 issue Original Layout

"Wait a second, man, hold up. Wasn't that Gordon?"

"Where?"

"On that golf cart just went by...."

"What? On a golf cart? What the hell would Gordon be doin' out
here on a golf cart?"

"No, seriously, dude, it was him. Look!"

"Like he'd ever come out here. No effin' way. Never happen.
Gordon'd never come out here. Think about it. How drunk are
you, anyhow?"

Long pause.

"Pretty effin' drunk, but it was still him."

One hundred yards away now, cresting a hill in the last of the
sunset and trailing a cloud of dust and a wake of rubbernecking
argument and beer-impaired finger-pointing, it is Jeff Gordon,
the four-time NASCAR Winston Cup Champion who, depending upon
which fan you ask and which finger he's pointing, is either
This Nation's Mightiest Hero, the Unyielding Defender of
True-Blue Decency and the Blessed Four-Barrel Redeemer of the
Pushrod V-8; or the Citified, Sissified, Goody
Too-Good-to-Be-True Shoes Destroyer of All That Was Once Holy
and Noble in the Manly Art of Stock Car Racing.

Gordon, in khaki pants and a blue knit golf shirt, is draped
across the backseat of a golf cart driven by NASCAR star Elliott
Sadler and copiloted by rookie sensation Jimmie Johnson, and
they're joyriding the infield of the road course at Watkins Glen,
N.Y., the night before the race. The three of them are barely
disguised by their street clothes and slender sunglasses and
unmarked baseball caps so that, as they weave in and out of the
wandering Saturday evening crowds, people half recognize them,
people stop and turn and stare. There are thousands and thousands
of ardent race fans camped out here, and what protects Jeff
Gordon from being mobbed for autographs, overrun, overwhelmed,
what defends him against being crushed to death by the sheer
tonnage of their love, or just as likely torn to a scattering of
hair and bone by their loathing, is the utterly incalculable
unlikelihood of what he's doing. Gordon'd never come out here!
Think about it!

Sadler keeps that golf cart moving, the gasps of recognition
always 20 or 30 safe yards behind them, keeps it gliding up and
down the snaking ranks and rows of candy-apple motor homes,
through the stinging greenwood smoke from all those tribal
bonfires, keeps it moving past the 100 homemade shrines to
martyred Dale Earnhardt--GONE TO RACE IN A BETTER PLACE, the
eternal flame flickering atop the eternal tiki torch--past flags
snapping in the faltering twilight for Martin and Wallace and
Jarrett, Ford and Dodge, Viagra and Coke and the Confederate
States of America, past the tight-ass white-wine garden parties
and the ringing horseshoe pits and the lard-and-skillet tent
camps, past the 4H kids and the old coot dogwalkers and the
rippling, exhibitionist in-line bikini skaters, past the
40,000-watt Molly Hatchet air guitarists and the screaming Yankee
drunks and the silent Rebel stoners, past the giggling
belly-shirt dollies surrounded by their sullen jayvee boyfriends,
past the FREE MAMMOGRAM WITH EVERY MARGARITA FAMILY KARAOKE STAGE
and the date-rape keggers, past the lonesome cowboy DUIs and the
angry redneck ADWs and the naked, gleaming flesh of a hundred
Heart of Darkness barbecues, until at last they pass a huge sign
made of empty Coors Light cans laid flat across the hillside
grass, and they're committed now, there's no going back, HOMO
GORDON SUCKS it reads in the firelight, and this is the end of
the line.

Just beyond the sign there's a homebuilt school bus--camper
conversion in a grove of trees, and it is shakily hand-lettered
on every surface with anti-Gordon slogans and slurs, most in the
form of hootin', hollerin', homophobic knee-slappers unprintable
here, the kind of thing that really cracks up NASCAR's Internet
cognoscenti when they enter things like "Fans Against Gordon"
into their search engines.

To question a driver's hetero manstuff, to mock his bravery, his
backbone--his very butch, for crying out loud!--is an insult of
the most cutting kind out here. Gordon has been attacked this way
since the day he arrived on the tour a decade ago. It is, of
course, a challenge of serious consequence, a muy machismo
th'owdown that demands satisfaction.

There is no evidence anywhere that this guy roots for another
driver--this guy simply hates Gordon. Makes his whole race
weekend out of it. Until now, he's been standing heavily in front
of the bus, a blunt, profane middle-ager with a novelty-shop
bullhorn and an empty dinner plate of a face, and every 10
seconds or so, between pulls on another Coors Light, announcing
to the passing crowds, "Gordon's a fag!" or "Gordon sucks!" or
"Brooke! Call me!" a reference to Jeff Gordon's
soon-to-be-ex-wife.

A few feet away, in case the slow-witted have missed his point,
is an easel holding a giant collage of doctored images of Gordon,
Web downloads mostly, taped to a large white posterboard: a
Gordon TV Guide cover drawn over with a mustache and horns and
glasses; Gordon in pink tutu; Gordon's head montaged onto
glistening, muscle-bound bodies knotted in, er, Greco-Roman
flagrante. This sign is under the supervision of another bleary,
beefy unit in his mid-40s. Maybe he's the one who lettered the
title in wandering grease pencil, WHAT LITTLE JEFFY DOES WITH HIS
TIME OFF.

This is where the golf cart stops.

The three drivers pile out and run over to the sign. They pull
off their hats and sunglasses, and the guy with the bullhorn to
his lips is struck dumb. His grin congeals. Gordon'd never come
out here!

Gordon looks at him squarely, expressionless, then turns to face
the other guy. This one has a look in his eyes like a plowhorse
trapped in a burning barn. Gordon and Sadler and Johnson converge
on him. Listed optimistically at 5'7" and 150 pounds, Gordon
isn't very threatening physically, but the psychological violence
of his arrival is stunning. Johnson's taller, heftier build is
neutralized by his Hardy Boy good looks. The unshaven Sadler,
though, looks plenty nasty at six feet plus and a muscular 200
pounds, so when he reaches fast into his waistband and fills his
hand with something solid and black, the plowhorse flinches a
little and steps back. The dark grove, already charged with
menace, crackles now with electricity, and you wonder what the
hell might happen and how far a thing has to go before it has
gone too far.

Sadler, a big-time hunter, raises his arm, and while he does so
Gordon and Johnson lunge for the sign, brushing past the
wild-eyed guy who's trying now, out of respect or resentment or
simple panic, to wave them away, and whatever Sadler has in his
hand is at eye level and aimed out in front of him, and Gordon
and Johnson duck down low on either side of the sign and smile
evil little smiles, and then there's a blinding flash ... as
Sadler takes their picture.

Then Gordon and Johnson start howling with laughter--it's all a
goof, a snapshot panty raid. As Sadler puts the camera away,
Gordon pulls out a felt-tip pen and autographs the mocking
collage with a flourish. "Thanks, you guys," he calls over his
shoulder, no irony in his voice, "have a good weekend." And he
and his posse are back on the golf cart, headed to the drivers'
compound before a crowd can gather, and they're 30 yards away
before the easel weasel croaks out a confused "Thank you." And
it's a full minute before you can hear, from the dark, from the
trees, as deep and reverberant as four C-cells can make a human
voice, "You still suck!"

While hardly an item for the police blotter, and certainly nothing
that would knock Winona or Mariah off the
celebrity-descent-into-the-snakepit page of your hometown paper,
this low-voltage prank was, for Jeff Gordon, a man once described
as "the nicest robot you'd ever want to meet," a walk along the
very brink of madness.

Sure, he's this continent's red-hot racecar driver and thus, as
far as marketing strategies and household mythology go, a
fire-breathing, death-eating meta-daredevil sex machine; but
Gordon's won so many races now that he's managed to take the wow
out of it for us, to make the deadly-extraordinary look routine.
And his public image, his corporate persona, has always been a
strangely dull concoction--one part hot-rod bravado to nine parts
dutiful consumer. You see that Ace Racer face lasering
right-angle rectitude back at you from a box of Frosted Mini
Wheats or a can of Pepsi or the pages of DuPont's annual report,
and you're not buying excitement, you're buying his soothing
reassurance--and not just about cereal or soda or sales figures,
either, but about yourself, about America, about the world. His
very face guarantees there won't be any bad surprises. Zany, he
ain't. Pulling his cap around backward was about as wild as he
got in public.

In private? Ditto. On top of which he has always guarded his
off-track life, maybe more vigorously than was strictly
necessary, and the motoring press never dug very deeply or even
seemed very interested, not beyond the most perfunctory sort of
fan-club, Favorite flavor? Q & A anyway, figuring perhaps that
once Gordon uttered the word Vanilla, everything that needed
saying had been said.

He will say to you, with a straight face, "For some reason, no
matter what happens in my life, I always seem to have a piece of
my heart that says everything is going to be O.K."

Think, then, how Gordon--your Platonic Ideal of the Heroic
American Christian Square; the buttoned-down, laced-up,
blue-eyed, strong-jawed paragon of devotion to purpose and
achievement; the best stock car driver of his generation,
completely private and perfectly happy, perfectly married,
perfectly perfect--must have felt last season when his storybook
marriage blew a tire and went straight into the wall! When he
found himself homeless! When his multimillion-dollar divorce,
suit and countersuit, was splashed across the supermarket tabs!
When his race cars broke down and his luck dried up and his
losing streak stretched on and on and on! And don't forget the
rumored surveillance tapes! Then there was the goatee! Oh, the
humanity! For Jeffrey Michael Gordon, now 31 years old, 2002 was
the best and worst of times, the long morning of his great
awakening, the year when tragedy and comedy and every exclamation
point he'd ever swerved to avoid at last gathered him up, and it
was madness, I tell you, madness!

As the 2001 series champion, Gordon entered the 2002 season
answering the usual champeen questions. How do you feel? How's
the team? How's the car? Can you repeat? Of such gray stuff are
weekend features knitted. Somehow the one question that never
got asked was the one boiling away in every brain in NASCAR,
including Gordon's, and it was the only question worth asking
and of course it was the only one you could never answer. Jeff
Gordon is the Alltime Money Winner. Jeff Gordon changed stock
car racing forever. Dale Earnhardt is gone, and 2001, the Season
of Mourning, is over. Is Jeff Gordon, at last, the Man?

Revered by millions as the best American driver who ever lived and
reviled by an equal number as a slick corporate pretty boy, Jeff
Gordon was born on Aug. 4, 1971, in Vallejo, Calif. It is home to
the Mare Island Naval Shipyard and solidly middle class, neither
as pretty nor as precious as its famous neighbors, Napa and
Sonoma.

When Gordon was just over a year old, his mother, Carol, was
divorced from his biological father, Bill. She was remarried in
May 1973 to a man she'd met at work named John Bickford. When
Gordon says "Dad," this is whom he's talking about.

Like Tiger Woods, or Pinocchio, Jeff Gordon was turned on the
lathe of a father's ambition. Bickford, who made his living
engineering and building vehicle controls for the handicapped,
had been a motorcycle racer as a young man and loved it--but it
hadn't much loved him back. So maybe an old, unrequited passion
made Bickford see what he wanted to see in a child so young. Even
at two or three, Bickford says now, Gordon had "phenomenal
hand-eye coordination." If Bickford had played in the high school
marching band, Gordon might have gone to Juilliard.

Like so many California kids in those years, though, Gordon
started fooling around with BMX racing as soon as he could ride a
bike. He was a tiny natural, four, 4 1/2 years old and fast, but
Carol worried from the first moment she went to the local track.
"They were hauling the older kids away in an ambulance with
broken arms, broken legs, cracked ribs, so I complained to John,
'Isn't there something we can do that's a little bit safer than
this?'" A week later Bickford showed up in the driveway with two
quarter-midget racers, one for Jeff and one for his older sister,
Kim. John explained to Carol that these were much safer than
bikes or cycles because of the roll cages and the bodywork. As
she stood on the lawn, looking at the small roadsters, one black,
one pink, "it made sense, somehow," Carol says, laughing now
while she tells it. "John has that ability, to make everything
make sense."

Within a few weeks Gordon was lapping a vacant lot against a
stopwatch. Kim was immune. "I didn't bring the cars home to push
the kids into racing," says Bickford. "I just wanted to give Jeff
a chance to see if he liked it." By the time he was five he was
racing. By the time he was 5 1/2 he was racing every weekend. By
the time he was six he was winning. He had a knack, even then,
for feeling what the car was doing under him, though he couldn't
necessarily articulate it. And racing, even at that level, is a
sport of mechanical increments and adjustments. The driver has to
be able to tell the mechanic what the car's doing when it's on
the track. Gordon would run a lap against the stopwatch; Bickford
would say to him, "Let's try X," and X would be, say, a stiffer
suspension setting. Gordon runs a lap. Bickford asks, "Was it
better/worse/same?" And Gordon would say, "Worse." Then Bickford
would show him the stopwatch. "No, Jeff, you were eleven
one-hundredths faster," or, "You're right, you're slower. Let's
try Y." On and on like this through long afternoons, X-Y-Z,
better/worse/same?, Gordon and his dad parsing time and distance
into ever smaller pieces, until the stopwatch itself became the
opponent, the object of fixation. "He'd never really get mad at
me," Bickford says now, "but he'd sure get mad at that
stopwatch."

Carol would run practice laps with him in the other
midget--weaving in front of him, slowing him down, passing him,
tailing him, cutting him off--so he could hone his skills.

The year he turned seven Gordon won 35 races in Northern
California. The next year he began to race more widely and won
the Grand National Championship. He won 52 other events that
year. The family slept in the car. They slept in their truck.
They bought a used motor home. For the next several years, in
quarter-midgets or go-karts, from California to Illinois, he won
almost every time he showed up. By age 12 he had won hundreds of
races. He signed autographs for packs of fans, and his parents
sold JEFF GORDON T-shirts off the back of their trailer. He was a
star. He was also completely burned out--on the travel, on the
stopwatch, even on the winning. He took up waterskiing. Within
months he'd become so good that he briefly considered a career as
a professional.

When it got around that Bickford was looking for a sprint car for
his 13-year-old son, the phrase child abuse was spoken, loud and
often and without sarcasm. Imagine a lawn tractor with a
700-horsepower engine shoehorned into it, and you'll have a good
idea what a sprint car looks like, and how it handles. It is a
horrifying, primitive machine, all neck-snapping straight-line
acceleration and Ben-Hur terror in the turns. Eventually
Bickford, the most single-minded, methodical and obdurate person
you're ever likely to meet, wore down the sanctioning bodies, the
insurance companies, the car builders and the other drivers, and
Gordon, too short to see out of the racer without a booster
chair, got his chance.

He didn't win immediately in the sprint car, but win he did
eventually, and while most guys his age were busy trying to
finesse a copy of Playboy onto the school bus, he was meeting
with potential sponsors and risking his hide racing against men
two or three times his age trying to earn their rent money. When
the opportunity arose to race a sprint series in Australia, he
jumped at it, then got busy trying to finesse a copy of Playboy
onto the plane.

That was the year, when he turned 14, that the whole family moved
to Pittsboro, Ind., the heart of the heart of sprint car country.
John and Carol weren't rich. They sold John's business and kept a
close eye on their diminishing savings account as they raced away
the principal.

Gordon started high school while racing almost every weekend,
from Florida to Oregon and beyond, living his dream, and John's,
and succeeding at the highest levels of short-track, open-wheel
racing. And other than a few missed classes and some moments of
blanching terror on the part of his driver's ed instructor, his
time in high school was no weirder than yours.

By 1989 he was becoming a fixture on ESPN's Thursday Night
Thunder broadcasts, and his name was on the shortlist of talented
comers who might rate a tryout on a big-money circuit. Gordon
looked into Indy-style cars and off-road trucks, but after he
went to the Buck Baker Driving School at Darlington, S.C., in
1990, he knew what he wanted to do. Even today when Gordon
describes his first couple of laps in a stock car, he sounds like
a demented mall rat. "It was like, wwhoooooooaaaaaaa! This is for
me."

That was also the year Gordon met Ray Evernham, a 33-year-old
former driver, now a mechanic and team manager. "The very first
time I saw Jeff he looked about 14 or 15 years old. His mother
was with him, and he had a briefcase in one hand. He called me
Mr. Evernham. He was trying to grow a mustache, and when he
opened his briefcase, he had a video game, a cellphone and a
racing magazine in it. I asked myself, What am I getting myself
into?"

When Gordon began racing full time in the Budweiser Late Model
Sportsman Series, last stop on the way to the Show, in 1991,
Evernham became his crew chief, in charge of X-Y-Z and
better/worse/same? By then Bickford had the managerial role in
his son's career. Gordon was the rookie of the year that season,
winning more than $100,000 in prize money.

In 1992 he had three wins in 31 starts and banked $412,000 to
lead the series in earnings. He finished fourth in the season
standings. That fall he also made his one-race Winston Cup debut,
center ring under the big canvas, at the track in Atlanta. The
afternoon of his first race was the afternoon of Richard Petty's
last, but only the keenest fans, the most devoted, felt anything
new on the wind.

In 1993 Gordon raced his first full Winston Cup season. He
finished 14th in the standings. He was named rookie of the year.
By the end of that season a great many fans had taken him up with
enthusiasm. He was their boy! Ten times that many hated him.

For both his seasons in the Budweiser Late Model Sportsman Series
he drove a Ford for Bill Davis Racing. In 1992 he and Evernham
were wooed away by team owner Rick Hendrick to drive a Cup car
sponsored by DuPont. It was, and remains, a Chevrolet. This
struck many hard-core NASCAR fans, for whom the Ford versus Chevy
question is not merely conversational but a form of
ecclesiastical debate, as the worst kind of disloyalty and
opportunism, and many never forgave him.

It was around this time that Gordon was picked up by the
mainstream press. He was being interviewed on radio and
television. What those hard-core fans heard and saw was even more
disturbing to them than a Ford left crying at the altar. To them
he was just a scrawny geek Northerner with an Indiana twang and a
bad, a very bad, mustache. Worse still, rather than the required
instep-kicking modesty, he often expressed his abilities and
ambitions with unbecoming self-confidence. Worst of all, he was
from California, the very rumpus room of evil on earth. The
Southerners who are the sport's core constituency cheered for men
like Dale Earnhardt or Darrell Waltrip, rugged, homegrown men in
the tradition of the outlaws and strivers who grew the sport from
the root, who seemed to have earned their stature through dogged
determination and guile and sacrifice and in whom the fans saw a
brighter, better reflection of themselves. In Gordon they saw
nothing of themselves, nothing of their experience. He had been
programmed his whole life to race and had been privileged,
spoiled enough to do so. He also represented change, and change
was bad. And then he started winning.

He won his first Cup race in 1994, his first Cup Championship in
1995. At 24 he was the youngest driver of the modern era to do
so. It was around this time that Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time
champion with a really fine mustache, coined Gordon's derisive
nickname, Wonderboy. Most of the other drivers welcomed him with
the same sly measure of respect and contempt. Gordon couldn't
have cared less; all he could see was that damned stopwatch. He
was bringing new fans into the sport by the hundreds of
thousands, broadening NASCAR's appeal to the North, East and
West, and creating a counterweight to the legions of Gordon
haters. He still looked like the kid who bags your groceries. He
won two more championships with Evernham in '97 and '98, and now
when he was introduced he was cheered as loudly as he was booed.

Ask John Bickford to describe his stepson in one word, and he'll
pause a moment before saying, very slowly and clearly,
"Relentless." In his first six seasons Gordon won 42 races and
earned nearly $25 million in prize money. With all the success
came all the trappings of success: the houses, the boats, the
planes, the businesses, the charity foundation. He owned the
requisite garageful of fantastic cars even though he spent all
his time being driven around in a Suburban with tinted windows.
Corporations clamored for his endorsement as he fashioned a
generic, middle-American public persona. He'd pull himself
sweating from the car after yet another victory and, waiting
until the TV microphones got to him, carefully thank "the crew of
the awesome number 24 DuPont Chevrolet Monte Carlo" and a
succession of associate sponsors.

In 1994 he married Brooke Sealey, a former Miss Winston he'd met
the year before in Victory Lane, after winning the 125-mile
qualifier at Daytona. They seemed perfectly suited. Brooke, a
model, a stone hottie and a devout Christian, would tape
Scripture to his dashboard before every race. She taught him how
to dress and talked him out of that mustache. By then Gordon had
embraced a vigorous Christianity, and the two of them went
everywhere together and prayed together beside his car before
each race and were profiled by Christian magazines, sports
magazines and Christian sports magazines, and they were trim and
rich and pious and beautiful, and that was all the more reason to
hate him. Or love him.

If you wanted to hate him, you could point to the fact that he'd
stepped out of one controlling relationship right into
another--the year he got married he fired his own father. If you
wanted to love him, you could note that he'd eased Bickford out
because, as Gordon says, he was eager to take control of his
life, pull his own strings. If you wanted to hate him, you could
say that the only reason he won was because Rick Hendrick threw
outrageous money into his racing operation, money he earned from
a huge network of car dealerships. If you wanted to love him, you
could look to the future and see that this was the way the sport
was heading. If you wanted to hate him, you could point to the
fact that Hendrick had pleaded guilty to charges of mail fraud in
the mid-'90s for having made payments to Honda executives to keep
those car dealerships successful. If you wanted to love him,
you'd see that Gordon raised millions of dollars for leukemia
research, the disease with which Hendrick has been stricken. If
you wanted to hate him, you'd note that the original rainbow
paint scheme of the number 24 car was reminiscent of a gay rights
bumper sticker. If you wanted to love him, you had a hard time
arguing that one.

Love him. Hate him. Gordon receded into the background of his own
life while the fans fought over who he really was.

In 1999 he finished the season sixth overall. Evernham, the
shambling mad scientist of the X-Y-Z and the real brains, some
said, behind all those wins, left to orchestrate Dodge's return
to NASCAR. Gordon and Hendrick hired Robbie Loomis, a 35year-old
Floridian who'd once been the crew chief for the King himself,
Richard Petty, to run their team. With Loomis, a quiet,
thoughtful man with a personality halfway between that of Sheriff
Andy Taylor and Gautama Buddha, running things, they finished the
year in ninth place. In 2001 they won another championship,
Gordon's fourth. By the time the 2002 season began, Gordon & Co.
had 58 career wins, had banked more than $45 million in prize
money and rewritten the record book. Jeff Gordon was 30.

His 2002 season started reasonably enough. Gordon ran ninth at
the opener at Daytona on Feb. 17, and for the next three weeks
everything went as it always had. At Atlanta, though, the
weekend of March 10, rumors began to circulate that Gordon and
his wife had separated. The next week, at Darlington, it was
announced that Brooke had filed for divorce. Meeting with the
press at the tailgate of his transporter that weekend, Gordon
declined comment when asked if the situation was hurting his
performance. "You can talk to me about sitting on the outside
front row. I'd love to talk about that because we've got a
really good car, we're runnin' good...." You didn't know
whether to hug him or slap him.

Marriages collapse for a hundred reasons or no reason at all. The
law requires a reason, though, and the one cited on Brooke's
petition for divorce was "The marriage between the parties is
irretrievably broken as a result of the Husband's marital
misconduct." You can explain all you want that this phrase is as
broad and soft as a blanket, that it could mean burning the
meatloaf again and again or rooting for the Red Wings or
repeatedly failing to put the toilet seat down. But it can also
mean the very worst things you might imagine in a marriage, and
once the petition hit the Internet, the supermarket tabloids and
the gossip columns had a track meet.

Brooke was asking for temporary and permanent alimony, the house,
the Porsche and the Mercedes 600, use of the boats and the plane,
and money to pay the salaries of the chef, the maids, the
groundskeeper. He could keep the maroon Suburban. A month later,
just as the tabs were running out of things to write about the
original petition, Gordon filed his counterpetition. In it he
agreed that the marriage was "irretrievably broken," but denied
any marital misconduct. He had, however, moved out of their
baronial home in Highland Beach, Fla., and was flopping, at least
on the nights he wasn't camped at the track in his baronial motor
home, on a friend's couch in Charlotte.

From race to race things went on as before, at least in the
garage. The 100-hour workweek for the crew didn't change, nor did
the hundreds of items on the race-day checklists the crew members
taped to the car. But by the end of May they'd lost 20 in a row
going back to the year before--a long dry spell only by Gordon's
standards. "We've been through worse," they'd say to you before
you even asked a question, "we'll get it."

A few days before the race at Dover, Del., in June, Gordon visits
DuPont headquarters in nearby Wilmington for the company's annual
NASCAR Day. It's also DuPont's 200th anniversary, so the global
conglomerate wackymaker has been dialed up to about 17. Banners
line the streets, there's music in the air, and the early
over-under on the corporate anniversary cake is 1,000 pounds.

Gordon and Loomis will be paraded around town in race cars, then
asked to help serve the aforementioned big cake. Delicious gross
weight? Three-thousand, one-hundred-sixty pounds.

The press follows in a chauffered Town Car. During the brief ride
downtown, the driver is asked what there is to do here. He hems
and haws about last week's Greek Festival and the Italian
festival the week before and finally says with a sigh worthy of a
French existentialist, "Really? Nothing. There's nothing to do
here. Nothing."

Returning to the DuPont corporate campus, the focus of the
afternoon is the gauzy awning beneath which Gordon and Loomis,
flanked by two state troopers, will sign autographs for 200 lucky
employees. If Gordon didn't have to interact with anyone, he
could probably sign 500 autographs an hour. As it is, though, he
chats pleasantly with everyone coming through the line. "How are
you?" he'll ask, or "What's your name?" and then 10 or 15 or 30
seconds later, after they tell him stories about people he'll
never meet or events he doesn't recall or places he'll never go,
he'll politely conclude with "Thank you very much, have a good
day." He signs hats, posters, model cars and shirts. Soda cans
and quarter-scale car hoods and bandannas and bumper stickers and
stolen pit lane gas cans. He signs so many pictures of himself
that you wonder what he sees when he looks down at that face.

While they wait in line people ask one another what they're going
to say to him. Once they've seen him they clump together and talk
about what he said. It's getting late, and in a few minutes he's
taken inside for a special photo session with employees'
children. He won't leave here until he's signed for or posed with
or talked to everyone who wants to be signed for or posed with or
talked to. It'll be a nine-hour DuPont day, but Gordon won't roll
his eyes or stamp his feet. "It's a big part of my job. And for
the most part I really enjoy it."

Toward the end of the autograph-signing session a woman
approaches the table. She is in her 30s, pale and freckled,
red-haired with pretty green eyes, well-dressed, and as soon as
Gordon says, "Hi, how are you?" she begins crying. She is
instantly racked with sobs and shaking uncontrollably and smiling
at the same time and can't get even her name out of her mouth.
Gordon signs an 8-by-10 for her. She stands before him, beaming
and weeping inconsolably. Her face flushes as red as a small-town
fire engine. She remains there for several seconds, until someone
gently guides her away. She is literally choking on the words
"Thank you."

At Gordon's shoulder the older state trooper turns to the
younger. "She does that every year."

A week later at a fire station in Penn Forest Township, Pa., where
the engines are as red as a crazy woman's face, Gordon attends a
meeting of the Jeff Gordon Fan Club. This is the day before the
Cup race at Pocono.

The multipurpose room of the firehall has been taken over by 200
lucky fan club members. Lucky because they had to win a lottery
to get here--10,000 people submitted applications to attend, but
the Penn Forest Township firehall multipurpose room, while nicely
paneled, is only so big.

The fans have been neatly arrayed at 10 rectangular tables facing
a small stage in the corner of the room. The stage is where they
call the numbers on Bingo Night. On each table is a floral
centerpiece adorned with Gordon-sponsored products--Gatorade,
Quaker State, Pepsi, etc.--above which bob red, blue and yellow
balloons. Upon entry each fan was given a Frito-Lay T-shirt, a
pulled-pork sandwich, some chips and slaw, and as much Pepsi as
he can swallow to wash it all down.

Gordon arrives half an hour late because the traffic was so bad
leaving the track. Even the lights and siren on the Suburban
didn't help. It is a well-mannered crowd, but, jacked up on all
that cola, the instant Gordon walks in they scream like a roomful
of spider monkeys. Young, old, fat, thin, men, women. Over the
din you can hear the most subversive of them yelling, "Grow the
goatee! Grow the goatee!"

Gordon raises a hand, and it's like pressing a mute button. The Q
& A catechism begins. The questions have been submitted in
advance and are read off index cards by tonight's M.C., but
everybody here already knows Gordon. They know he likes scuba
diving and bowling and pizza, movies and video games and
motorcycling. They know his favorite TV show is Friends, and that
his favorite hymn is Awesome God. That if he couldn't drive a
race car he'd like to be an astronaut. Ask these folks--the
truckers and teachers and school bus drivers, the steel workers
and nurses and linoleum salesmen--why they've come, and they're
slow to speak. Not because that question's hard to answer, but
because it's so easy. For every one of them the answer is
different, but it's always completely obvious. Often, before they
say anything, they smile. Because they feel sorry for you.
Because to even ask the question is an admission that you don't
get it.

"He's touched so many hearts."

"He's what I think, what I believe, America used to be, should
be."

"I just love him, is all."

And in their eyes is the iron certainty of faith.

"Isn't he something?" a woman sighs as he walks out the door.

Back at Daytona a month later, 100 people stand ankle deep in
rainwater during a violent lightning storm to watch him give an
outdoor radio interview. You don't know whether to hug them or
slap them.

Winning percentage is a statistic that NASCAR doesn't much use.
People are too conditioned by baseball and the high standard of
the .300 hitter. It's an apples and oranges thing, but the best
drivers in history look anemic compared to even the
lightest-hitting middle infielder. The highest lifetime average,
for example, belongs to Tim Flock, a popular driver during the
early '50s. He won 40 races in a brief career, only 189 starts,
for a winning percentage of .212. Gordon's average through the
beginning of the 2002 season, 58 wins in 293 starts, was .198.
Tim Flock won a race once every 4.7 times he got in the car.
David Pearson, every 5.4 times. Richard Petty, every 5.8 times.
Dale Earnhardt, every 8.8 times. Darrell Waltrip, 9.6. Before
2002 Gordon won once every five times he raced the car.

To put that in some sort of perspective, consider Michael
Waltrip, one of the tour's most popular current drivers, a
17-year veteran who has earned millions in prize money and
endorsements. At the beginning of the 2002 season, he'd won once
in 498 starts.

Perhaps this is why Gordon's 2002 "losing streak" was of such
endless interest to the press. Or maybe it was simple hillbilly
schadenfreude, joy in the failure of Jeff Gordon.

Through the middle third of the season, despite all the
distractions brought on by the divorce, Gordon and the team
hovered near the top five in the point standings. The
distractions included rumors of surveillance tapes that got
started when Gordon's lawyers asked, as a matter of routine, to
see whatever materials Brooke's lawyers had gathered. While
scurrilous rumors still fly around the infield campfires, no
tapes have been produced.

Gordon's low moment probably came at Sears Point, the road course
in Northern California, 16 miles from where he was born. He
always runs fast here and won three in a row beginning in 1998.
He was leading last year, running away from the field, when he
fragged the rear-end gear. He finished 37th. At the second Pocono
race of the year he started 28th and finished 12th, and the crew
members were angry when they rolled the car back onto the hauler.
One said, "We got our ass handed to us today, man."

On his birthday at Indianapolis, another home track, he finished
sixth. He was fourth in points even though he hadn't won a race
in 11 months, and he was in a good mood. He radioed the crew,
"Great job, guys. That was fast, smart racing."

The next week, at Watkins Glen, despite all the infield hijinks
("That sign was the funniest thing I think I've ever seen. I
mean, those guys don't know me at all, so I can't really hold it
against them"), he finished 22nd. Then 19th at Michigan. The
season was two-thirds over, and he hadn't won yet. The losing
streak stood at 31, the longest since his rookie season.

The next week at Bristol, Gordon won the pole and told the press,
"As much as you guys like to write about me losing, I'd like to
win one." And he did, contending all night, then punting Rusty
Wallace out of his way with two laps to go. "What are they gonna
write about now?" he shouted into his radio as he headed for
Victory Lane. "Man, we needed that bad! What an awesome weekend!"

He won again at Darlington the week after that, and then once
more the rest of the season, in Kansas City, Kans. But they'd
also finished at the back of the pack in places like Talladega
and Dover and Martinsville, and Tony Stewart won the season
championship. "After the year we had, I'm pretty proud of where
we finished," Gordon said later.

It was a year for the young'uns, the raced-from-the-cradle
twentysomethings whom Gordon pioneered into the sport. Jimmie
Johnson, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth all did well.
Strangely, these new guys didn't get booed. All that fear and
loathing remained Gordon's to absorb. And despite all the dire
hand-wringing and the newsprint blizzard of Whither Gordon?
pieces, he went to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York in
December for the NASCAR awards banquet, having finished in fourth
place overall.

In the hotel lobby earlier that week Ray Evernham was asked to
clarify a quote of his that had been making the rounds. "I never
said there were only two great drivers in the world," Evernham
explained. "What I said, at the risk of making some people mad,
was, 'There are only two drivers in the world, Michael Schumacher
and Jeff Gordon.'" Herr Schumacher, der uberhotshoe from Germany,
had just won his fifth Formula One World Championship.

Funny thing is, even with a fourth-place season, Gordon's never
looked happier. In fact, people have been saying all year--good
day or bad, high finish or low, in the car or at the garage or on
the grid, racing go-karts against his crew or meeting the press
or the Make-a-Wish kids or pranking the doubters--that he's
looser and goofier than they've ever seen him. They all say he's
a different man. Has he changed? Robbie Loomis has perhaps the
smartest answer: "I hear that a lot. I haven't really noticed a
difference in him. I think it's just that now everybody in the
garage--the officials, the teams, the other drivers--sees a lot
more of the Gordon that always was there. He's the same, you just
get to spend more time with him."

Gordon's take? "I don't feel like I've changed. I'm just more
myself."

Six weeks later Gordon is back in New York to host Saturday Night
Live. He strides onstage at the top of the show in black pants
and a black leather jacket and a purple shirt, entirely fly and
too handsome by about half. He is still the Heroic American
Christian Square, of course, the buttoned-down
redeemer-destroyer, the unironic daredevil avenger and the
rock-jawed seller of stopwatches and corporate reassurance. But
he is also willing to risk his dignity, it seems, or at least
muss his hair, to have a little fun. Or maybe he's there only
because NBC airs NASCAR and needs some late-night
cross-pollination. In any case he doesn't suck--he's no worse
than DeNiro was. "Man, they had me doing things on TV I wouldn't
do at home in front of my mirror," Gordon says later.

That same week a gossip column in the Daily News runs a squib
under the headline WRONG TURN that says, in part, "NASCAR star
Jeff Gordon moves fast--on and off the track ... the brunette
beauty who was frolicking topless with him last week on St. Jean
Beach was model Amanda Church...."

Madness! That's the kind of thing you'd expect from Dale Jr.!

What about 2003? Early last year Gordon was asked what he'd
traded away to win all those races over all those years, to win
all those hearts and minds, to make all those deadly enemies. To
be loved and hated by so many strangers. What was the price for
something like that? "As successful as I've been on the racetrack
the last couple of years, I feel like a lot of things have passed
me by." Then he paused. "Maybe that'll change."

Maybe not the Man, not yet, but a man, at least, in full. Or
maybe just Pinocchio grown, a real boy out on his own at last.

COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL O'NEILL [COVER INSET] Jeff Gordon's Long Ride NASCAR PREVIEW 2003 TOP 20 DRIVERS--WHO WILL WIN DAYTONACOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL O'NEILL THE WHEEL DEAL Some hard-core fans think Gordon's too slick, but there's no denying that he's now the king of NASCAR.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID TAYLOR/GETTY IMAGES SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY Gordon haters aren't subtle in questioning everything from his sexuality to the rainbow paint job on his car.COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: OLYA T. EVANITSKY [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: DON GRASSMANN/CIA OVAL TEEN Gordon's mother and stepfather (left) were instrumental in his ascent from BMX bikes to midget racers (far right) to sprint cars to NASCAR.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: COURTESY OF AMERICAN SOFTWORKS CORP. (2) [See caption above]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES (2) BAD HAIR YEAR Gordon was NASCAR's rookie of the year in '93, though he lost some votes because of the mustache.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES (2) BETTER GROOMED When Gordon met his ex-wife-to-be, she was a Miss Winston (far left) and he'd just won at Daytona.COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES SIGN LANGUAGE Gordon is a tireless autographer and a cheery shill for sponsors, happy to cut the cake at corporate functions.COLOR PHOTO: OLYA T. EVANITSKY [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: DANA EDELSON/NBC SECOND ACT Once described as the "nicest robot you'll ever meet," Gordon did SNL and has a new girlfriend, Amanda Church.COLOR PHOTO: ROGER WILLIAMS/ZUMA PRESS [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES MASTER FASTER Even though '02 seemed like a down year, Gordon finished fourth in Cup standings and has 61 career wins.COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL O'NEILL [See caption above]
For Gordon, '02 was the year when tragedy and comedy and every
exclamation point HE'D EVER SWERVED TO AVOID at last gathered him
up.
By the time Gordon was five, he was racing. Like Tiger Woods, or
Pinocchio, he was TURNED ON THE LATHE OF A FATHER'S AMBITION.
At Daytona 100 FANS STAND IN A VIOLENT LIGHTNING STORM to see him
interviewed. You don't know whether to hug them or slap them.
The new, looser Gordon hosted SNL in January. "Man, they had me
DOING THINGS ON TV I WOULDN'T DO AT HOME in front of my mirror."
WHAT HAS GORDON TRADED AWAY TO WIN all those races over all those
years, to be loved and hated by so many strangers?