Gordon, Jeff

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GORDON, Jeff

(b. 4 August 1971 in Vallejo, California), champion National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) driver.

Gordon is the stepson of John Bickford, Sr., the owner of a manufacturing company specializing in auto parts, and Carol, who devoted much of her time to her son's racing career; he has two siblings. The writer Mark Bechtel, in George Tiedemann's Trading Paint (2001), summarized Gordon's upbringing as being "groomed to race cars," and as a result Gordon emerged as "a prodigious talent." At age four Gordon was a fiercely competitive BMX (mountain bike) rider, but when he was five his mother put a stop to high-speed biking because she felt it was too dangerous. However, at that time Gordon's stepfather bought him a six-foot, quarter-midget racing car. Gordon's stepfather was instrumental in steering Gordon toward racing. Bickford admitted: "I was living my dreams through Jeff. His being small made it obvious he'd never be a football player. So I taught him the only thing I knew, how to race." Bickford revealed the importance of focus, discipline, and intensity in Gordon's upbringing: "I approached it from a professional standpoint. This wasn't about having fun. If we want to have fun we'll go to Disney World." By age eight Gordon and his stepfather had a "stable" of eight cars, and the young Gordon was racing every week of the year.

In 1979 Gordon won his first national quarter-midget championship, and in 1982 he won his second national quarter-midget championship. From 1979 to 1982 he also raced go-karts and frequently bested rivals many years his senior. In 1986 Bickford moved the family from California to Pittsboro, Indiana, to allow Gordon more opportunities to race cars. Although only a village of 1,000 inhabitants, Pittsboro is a mere fifteen miles from the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 1989 Gordon won his first midget race, and in 1990, as a nineteen year old, he won the U.S. Automobile Club (USAC) full midget championship. Gordon was featured several times on ESPN's racing program Thursday Night Thunder. His good looks and extraordinary driving transformed the 1989 Pittsboro High School prom king into a genuine all-American folk hero. Immediately following graduation, Gordon enrolled in a driving school run by stock car legend Buck Baker in Rockingham, North Carolina.

Despite Gordon's "Indy" locale, his parents urged him to try the NASCAR circuit. Many drivers must slowly serve their apprenticeships by graduating through the ranks of the Craftsman Truck series and the Busch Circuit before venturing onto the NASCAR stage. With Gordon the 1990s were a blur as he rewrote the record books and quickly established himself as the "boy wonder" of auto racing. His achievements in the period 1990 to 2000 were considerable. In 1994 he won the inaugural Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The five-foot, seven-inch, 150-pound Chevrolet driver won Winston Cup championships in 1995, 1997, and 1998 and was runner-up to Terry Labonte in 1996. In 1995 Gordon became the youngest Winston Cup Series champion in NASCAR's modern era to that date in only his third full season. Gordon became the youngest driver to win the Daytona 500 twice and the youngest driver in Winston Cup history to achieve fifty career wins with his victory in the 2000 running of the Die Hard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. By the end of 2000 Gordon's racing credentials were, by any yardstick, astonishing. In 257 starts he secured 52 wins, 122 top five finishes, and 159 top ten finishes, and his prize money totaled $29,570,670.

During his rookie season Gordon met Brooke Sealey, a Miss Winston model, and they married in November 1994, following the conclusion of Gordon's second NASCAR racing season. His wife, a born-again Christian with a strong commitment to Bible study, church attendance, and a tee-total lifestyle, had a profound impact on Gordon. A famous NASCAR awards photograph shows Dale Earnhardt and Gordon toasting one another. The former is consuming hard liquor, the later is quaffing milk. Gordon's credo is simple, God first, family next, and racing third.

Gordon's fan support, while considerable, stands in stark contrast to significant groups of race aficionados who have felt alienated and resentful about the seeming ease of Gordon's ascendancy. His racing team, known for their bright colors as the Rainbow Warriors, "composed of hired guns, athletes trained to come in one race day to get him in and out of the pits in a hurry," has been unsettling for some. In the tough macho world of snarling engines and 200-mile-per-hour stock cars, the "unthreatening" manner of Gordon's "sunny aura" has nourished public antipathies that seem more in keeping with professional wrestling or ice hockey. At NASCAR races it is not unusual to see spectators waving placards that read "Anybody but Gordon." His fellow NASCAR driver and regular rival Dale Jarrett said about Gordon, "He shouldn't be allowed to be that young, that talented, that experienced, and that good looking."

The year 2001 was difficult and trying for both NASCAR and Gordon. The tragedy of Dale Earnhardt's death at the conclusion of the Daytona 500 in February cast a mantle of gloom and doom over not just NASCAR but American race fans in general. While Earnhardt and Gordon were not close friends, indeed the media portrayed them as adversaries, they respected one another. Their many competitive duels resulted in mutual success. Between 1990 and 2000 Earnhardt and Gordon won seven out of ten driver championships and combined for eighty-seven wins.

Gordon and his wife, who have no children, settled near Charlotte, North Carolina. Gordon keeps fit by playing racquetball, water skiing, and snow skiing and relaxes with video games. He is active in many charities, including the Leukemia Society and Make-a-Wish Foundation.

For an excellent photographic study of Gordon supported by a chatty journalistic narrative, see Frank Moriarty, Jeff Gordon (1999). Bob McCullough, My Greatest Day in NASCAR (2000), features a transcribed interview with Gordon, and George Tiedemann, Trading Paint: Dale Earnhardt v. Jeff Gordon (2001), includes pieces by Mark Bechtel with in-depth profiles of Gordon. Current Biography Yearbook (2000) contains a detailed, richly layered minibiography of Gordon. Bill Center, Ultimate Stock Car (2000), is a good overview of NASCAR with informative segments on Gordon. Richard Pillsbury, "Stock Car Racing," in The Theater of Sport, edited by Karl B. Raiz (1995), is a superb essay. The Gastonia, North Carolina, Gaston Gazette runs a weekly column, written primarily by Monte Dutton, on NASCAR that is syndicated across the United States.

Scott A. G. M. Crawford

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