NASCAR & Auto Racing

Perfect Timing: Jeff Gordon vs. Dale Earnhardt one key to Gordon’s NASCAR HOF induction

Dumb question: Why is Jeff Gordon in the NASCAR Hall of Fame?

Brendan Marks on Stock car driver Jeff Gordon's career that made him part of the 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame class.
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Brendan Marks on Stock car driver Jeff Gordon's career that made him part of the 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame class.

NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Jeff Gordon will be honored, along with four others, in a ceremony Friday night at the Charlotte Convention Center. Here is his story, in his words, as told to Observer reporter Brendan Marks:

How did I get here?

I’ve been asking myself that a lot lately. Preparing for this Hall of Fame speech, knowing I’ve got to stand up in front of a lot of folks that mean a lot to me — peers, folks in the racing industry, family, friends — preparing for that is stressful for me. I certainly want to say the right things to the people who made significant contributions. I want them to know how much it means to me. …

So I’ve been going back. Thinking. But it seems like I always come back to that same thing:

How in the world did this all happen?

I started making notes preparing for my speech — shoot, probably as soon as I knew I was going to be in the Hall of Fame. It’s just like, OK, this thing is becoming a reality. Every once in a while, things would pop into my mind and I’d write down notes in my phone.

And in doing that, it just allowed me to go back and reminisce about major moments that were turning points in my NASCAR career.

Brickyard 400
Gordon (center) celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the 1998 Brickyard 400 Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. PATRICK SCHNEIDER

I’m sure everybody has a similar story. But for me, I think the greatest gift that I had along the way was timing. I feel like if anybody had been introduced to racing at a young age like I had, and did as much racing as I did at a young age, then I think most would have excelled under the circumstances I was presented with.

So to me, the key factor was just being at the right place at the right time.

Buck Baker Driving School

So, why me?

For the longest time, I didn’t even know the full story.

I called Hugh Connerty, who was my first car owner in NASCAR, to invite him to the Hall of Fame ceremony – I’m so excited he’s coming — but I also wanted to pick his brain. To ask him, How the heck did this stuff happen? And why?

When I first met Hugh, I was at Buck Baker Driving School. Now look … we all know you don’t go into NASCAR racing or get a ride in the Busch Grand National Series (now the Xfinity Series) today if you go to a driving school. That just doesn’t happen … but yet, it happened to me. So I call Hugh to ask him, and he says, ‘Well, this is how I remember it.’

Buck Baker Driving School
NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon (far left) in a group shot at the Buck Baker Driving School at North Carolina Motor Speedway in 1990.

He told me he had purchased this car and wanted to go run a few races.

‘I wasn’t prepared to go driving in the Cup Series,’ he said, ‘so I thought Busch Grand National might be fun.’

He’s a businessman. (Connerty owned several steakhouses at the time). He had the means to do it.

Hugh’s connection was to Leo Jackson, who owned a Cup team. He married Leo’s daughter. But the key was, I think Hugh must’ve gone to the Buck Baker Driving School and built a relationship with Buck. So he said, ‘Hey Buck, every once in a while, can I bring this car and make some laps in it? Might do some racing, but for right now I just want to have some fun with it.’ Well Buck obliged and took care of him that way. So that’s how Hugh was in Rockingham the same time I was there.

Then there’s Benny Parsons. With his connection to ESPN, he was sort of the link, saying, ‘Hey, this kid’s racing up in Indiana, he’s racing midgets and sprint cars, and he’s going to be at Buck Baker Driving School.’ Somehow he knew that Hugh would bring his car there from time to time.

My understanding was Benny said, ‘Man, it’d be cool to put Jeff behind the wheel. Kind of see how it goes, see how he likes it, how he does.’ So — and this is from what I understand — Benny called Leo Jackson and told him I was going to be there and he might want to put me behind the wheel of that car.

Brendan Marks on Stock car driver Jeff Gordon's career that made him part of the 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame class.

I never knew that.

All these years, no idea.

All I knew was that I showed up there and I was doing the school, and yeah, they’re bringing some cameras to shoot things for ESPN’s Saturday Night Thunder show and that this guy Hugh had a car. And Buck came over and said to me, ‘Would you like to drive a Busch Grand National car to see what it’s like?’

Absolutely!

So you know, looking back on it now, it was really Benny Parsons that made that connection happen. And Benny was always fantastic to me over the years, but he and I never spoke about that moment.

That’s one of those moments where it was just timing. To be there, to get this opportunity, to be behind the wheel of the car … and then Hugh saying, ‘Well hey, I was going to drive this car, but you went a lot faster in it than I did. I don’t belong out there! I’d like to see you drive it. How ‘bout you run three races for me this year?’

And really, that’s what made it all happen.

Because then we went and sat outside front row at Rockingham in that car.

I don’t know if I had ever asked Hugh that question: Why did you pick me? So this time when I was talking to him, I finally did, and he said, ‘Well, Leo talked to Benny Parsons, and Benny Parsons told him to put you in the car.’

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Eight or 10 laps at Rockingham

One more thing about Hugh.

Hugh is … let’s just say, he’s a larger guy than I was. I was pretty small.

But I was going to get in that car, one way or another. I didn’t care whether I fit in the seat or not. So we found all these pillows and different things, and just stuffed ‘em in there. Definitely was not the safest situation.

But I strapped myself in there and away I went. And obviously that car was a real race car, compared to the school cars, so I was really able to carry a lot of speed into the corners and see what it was like.

Man, I had a blast. It just felt great.

I must’ve made eight or 10 laps — I don’t think I made a lot. I didn’t want to go so far to where I got myself in trouble, but I felt I drove it pretty fast. I just remember coming back in and saying, ‘Boy that felt really good,’ and the reaction — at least from Hugh, I don’t remember what Buck Baker or the rest of them did — was he was pretty blown away that I went a lot faster than he did.

Hugh and I only did three races together. Two of them, qualifying rained out. We didn’t make Charlotte because it rained out qualifying, but we were probably fast enough. They had this last chance race — and of all people, I ended up crashing with Buck Baker’s son, Randy.

So Rockingham was next — and we qualified second!

Timing is everything

When I get into all of it, the timing of all of it, one of the big, key parts of it is the timing of when I came into NASCAR.

That’s the timing of when I got to drive for Bill Davis, and the timing of when I met Rick Hendrick, got to go drive for Rick.

And then the timing of who I got to race against … like Dale Earnhardt.

Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. (left) and Gordon formed a fierce rivalry during the 1990’s, before Earnhardt’s tragic death in 2001. PETER COSGROVE Associated Press

To build that rivalry and go up against one of the all-time greats for a championship, and just to see the sport explode. … It was popular when I came in, but my gosh. Over the next 10 years, the way it was blowing up — whether it was building grandstands and filling ‘em up, getting bigger and bigger crowds — it was almost like a cult-type popularity wherever we went.

It was insane.

It was such a thrill to thrive in the Series during one of its greatest eras.

So yeah, I look around me today, and I look at all the opportunities that have come in my life — racing, the wins, championships, having my own business, real estate investments, the lifestyle that I live, being able to be partners with Rick at Hendrick Motorsports, being on TV with FOX — I mean, all of that was created for me from ‘94 through 2004 or 2005.

And that rivalry with Dale was a huge part of it.

Battling with Dale

There was always Ford-Chevy.

When I came in, the big deal was Ford-Chevy. That was the rivalry among the fans, and you could definitely sense that, feel that among the fans. So I instantly knew when I switched from Ford to Chevy, going from Busch Grand National to Cup, that … that was a big deal. It got written up a lot about, and the fans reacted to it a lot, me switching manufacturers. The manufacturers rivalry in general was the heart and soul of the fans.

Now of course I knew how popular Dale Earnhardt was, because that was obvious. During driver introductions, looking at what people were wearing, just the way the media reacted to him — everything — he was definitely at the top.

And also, he won his last championship in ‘94, so he was still “the man.” He was getting it done. He’d won his seventh championship, going for eight … and then here I come along, and we were just poised and ready. After spending the first couple of seasons building our team up, Ray (Evernham) was a more experienced crew chief, and I was a more experienced driver. We had the resources at Hendrick Motorsports and put together an amazing team.

Dale’s goal was to win an eighth championship, and our goal was to stop him by winning our first.

First Championship
Gordon won his first Cup championship in 1995 at the age of 24, making him the youngest series winner in history. MARK B SLUDER KRT

But we also built this kind of dynasty of our own as we competed — not just against Dale, but Rusty (Wallace) and Mark (Martin) and everyone else.

In 1995, going up against Dale and battling with him … it’s funny because we didn’t go head-to-head that often in ‘95. Usually if he was having a good day, I was having a not-so-good day, and if I was having a good day, he was having a not-so-good day. Only a handful of times I think we finished 1-2 or in the top five against one another.

But yet, we were battling for the championship, so I went from having people cheering me because I was young and up-and-coming and had won a couple big races in ‘94, to now I’m battling against him for the championship.

And now his fans were like, ‘Waaaait a minute, wait a minute — Can’t cheer for him anymore, because he’s going up against our guy.’

I wasn’t as good at it as Dale was, but he was just amazing at getting away with things in the media, what he could say, and things on the race track, what he would do. I think he’d just been around long enough to know what makes this thing tick and what people were going to react to.

And, he had the fan base to know that he could get away with it. Even if he ended up on the bad side of it, he could still get away with it, whereas I was gun-shy. I was like, ‘No man, I can’t do that. If I say that or do that, it’s gonna cost me this race, or this championship, or the fans are going to react in a negative way.’

I loved that we were battling against one another, but most of my things I said were on the race track — by outrunning him.

I mean, we had a lot of interactions. I was really more that kid that looked up to him … but then you put me on the race track, and I wanted to beat him. But off the race track, I didn’t want to say anything that made him mad, I didn’t want to say anything or do anything that was disrespectful.

You know, I looked up to him because I wanted to be like him.

Not necessarily my personality, but I wanted to create what he created. Which, obviously is the numbers on the track, but also the persona that he created off it.

It’s gone by so fast

Final Win
Gordon’s 93rd and final NASCAR Cup Series win, at Martinsville Speedway in November 2015. Steve Helber AP

Now I go back and look at the stats, and every once in a while I’ll see — maybe on social media or if I’m doing some research for a race — I’ll go back and look at some races.

Just the other day I saw there was a race in Atlanta where I was battling with Jimmie for my 85th win and held him off. He was faster than me there at the end, I got real loose and we ran side-by-side for a few laps and just really battled it out. It was a great race. Great battle between the two of us.

It meant a lot to me because at the time, Jimmie was kicking my butt. I wasn’t getting the wins that he was getting, plus it was a big deal to get win No. 85.

Championship Win
Gordon celebrating his third Cup Series championship in 1998 after winning the ACDelco 400 at Rockingham Speedway. JEFF SINER

So stuff like that stands out to me, when I can go back and sort of relive the moment, almost. But I have to be with somebody like Ray or another driver and actually get these little things that spark a memory — then I can usually remember the details.

But for the most part, if you just say, ‘Tell me about … ,’ I don’t have a clue. Couldn’t tell you.

And some of that’s because it’s been such a blur, honestly. It’s gone … it’s gone by so fast.

So much happened in such a short period of time for me.

I mean, I look at today, right? We’re trying to pump up these young kids, of hey, who is gonna be the next one to break out? And I think back to myself, and I didn’t show much in ‘93. A little bit in ‘94. Then all of a sudden in ‘95 it’s like, ‘Where’d this kid come from?’ We won seven races and the championship in my third year in the Cup Series.

You know, that just doesn’t happen often.

Those numbers that we put together from ‘95 through ‘99 — the wins, and the top fives, and the top 10s, and the championships — are insane. I mean, you could throw 2001 in there too, but we had an off year in 2000 and we weren’t very good that year. But from ‘95 to ‘99, I think it’s like 50-something races that we won.

And obviously in ‘98, we just were winning everything.

We won races we should’ve won, we won races we shouldn’t have won. We won the final race, we won the championship. We didn’t win the Daytona 500 but I do think we won the Brickyard.

That was an insane year where your confidence level is just through the roof. Just go to the race track thinking, ‘Yeah, we’re the car to beat, and we’re probably going to win this race if we don’t mess up.’

Crazy. Just crazy.

Ray Evernham and Rick Hendrick

Ray Evernham
Gordon and his longtime crew chief Ray Evernham (right) won three championships together at Hendrick Motorsports in 1995, 1997, and 1998. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Two people stand out the most.

Ray Evernham was my very first ever crew chief in NASCAR, which is kind of crazy when I think about that. The very first car I ever drove was with Ray Evernham as crew chief … who’s in the Hall of Fame.

He and I won 47 races together. We won three championship together. … I mean, he really played such an instrumental role on taking our race team to a whole ‘nother level.

And then of course there’s Rick Hendrick, and what Rick has meant not just to my career, but to me personally.

He’s like family.

He gave me this chance to go into the Cup Series. When he signed me, we had no sponsors. And there was no third team, cars or people. Nothing.

Rick Hendrick
Gordon (right) earned Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick (left) his first Cup Series championship in 1995, and the two are now business partners at the team. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

I mean, he took such a huge risk on putting me in the car, utilizing Ray as crew chief to put the team together — so many unknowns ... and yet, boom, here this thing comes together and it gets him his first championship and all these wins. It launched everything. I feel just forever connected to these two guys — that’s probably the number one thing to know.

First victory, at Charlotte

One more racing memory, real quick — my first win, Charlotte, 1994.

The first of anything is always really, really special. Stands out in a different, unique way.

First Win
The first of Gordon’s 93 Cup Series wins came in the 1994 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. CHRISTOPHER RECORD

I think my first Cup win, what made it so special, was I just felt like, all your dreams that you could have ever asked for or wanted were coming together all in that moment. That you worked hard, you questioned at times — do I have what it takes? Does our team have what it takes?

This seems like Mount Everest to try to achieve this goal of winning a race at this level, and when you do it, it’s … It’s not only this huge feeling of accomplishment, but you’ve achieved it with a group of people that have worked hard that also want that same dream to happen.

You didn’t feel like it was possible for it to happen, and yet it does.

You know, I’m a pretty emotional guy when it comes to things you want so bad, you work real hard at, and when you achieve it, like we did at Charlotte in 1994. …

I was in disbelief.

Living my best life

As far as thank you’s go — oh man, I could go on forever — I don’t know if there’s enough time for all that.

I mean, certainly my parents. What my stepdad did for me, none of this would have happened without that.

Kids
Gordon (24) has two children, Leo (left) and Ella Sofia (right), with his longtime wife Ingrid Vandebosch. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Ingrid and the kids are the ones that really make me think about and appreciate all that I’ve accomplished, and that I’m able to share all this with them. They bring out of me the desire to balance out racing and enjoy life.

Family, and life, and love, and friendship.

Just wanting to live, to live life to the fullest. To do that with them, with Ingrid, I’m so appreciative of that.

Jeff and Ingrid
Jeff Gordon and his wife, model Ingrid Vandebosch, have been married since 2006, and have two children together.

I’m hoping it doesn’t show, but I’m gonna do my best to hold my emotions in during my speech. Because there’s a lot of things I want to say to people that mean a lot to me, and usually I get emotional.

I’m gonna do my best not to do that, but I’m doubtful.

There’s always an anxiety and a nervousness for me, even though I’m very comfortable standing up in front of people and speaking – and I do it a lot – but when it’s things like this, accepting an award that means so much to me, my mind takes me to a place in my heart that brings out the emotions.

And this does mean so, so much to me.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.

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