Clinton, South Carolina, Friday, January 23, 2015, 5:02 p.m.
I’ve had a day to ruminate since word arrived that Jeff Gordon was winding down his NASCAR career. On Thursday morning, I got up early and wrote a blog, and then, shortly after I posted it, realized I had written the wrong one. Oh, well. This is my website. I can get around to it whenever I want. Most of the time, thinking about it in a world where everyone else is rushing to judgment works well for me. It’s my way of resisting the temptations of contemporary life and sets me apart in a world where everyone is perpetually in a hurry.
That plus I had other stuff to do.
Gordon will be 44 in August. His rookie season at NASCAR’s highest level was my rookie year writing about it full-time. Still, Gordon outlasted me. Journalists generally last longer than racing drivers, which is fair because drivers make a little more money.
Then again, I was a writer before 1993, and I still write now. Out of all those years, and all the drivers, ballplayers and politicians I’ve known, Gordon is unique in one substantial way. He never makes the same mistake twice. Never. On the track. In his life. With the media. With the rich and famous. With the poor and hungry.
For instance, Gordon only sang during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field once.
If Gordon has decided that the time to hang up his helmet is drawing nigh, he is right. Most drivers let fate decide. They love it as much, to quote Merle Travis, as “a fiend his dope, a drunkard his wine,” and it also occurs to them that there is nothing else they can do that will make them as much money as climbing into that stock car every week, even to diminished results, and, so, they do it as long as there is money to pay for it.
Much of what I have seen written about Gordon since he made his announcement has glorified him, and, indeed, his career has been characterized by glory, but it makes it seem as if Gordon arrived in NASCAR as the charismatic face of it, and that is plainly less than the truth. It is oversimplified. When Gordon arrived, he wasn’t prepared for success. The rookie reporter thought writing about the rookie driver was an exercise in futility. I used to say I could conduct the media conference myself because I already knew how Gordon would answer every question. He was the first driver smothered by handlers. Ray Evernham was as protective of Gordon as Scotland Yard for the Queen of England.
During 1995, the year of his first championship, everyone arrived in Atlanta for the coronation, and word was disseminated that Gordon would talk about the race only, not the championship, which he had all but wrapped up. Jim McLaurin was adept at taking care of such media concerns, thanks to his perspicacious wit. The NASCAR writer representing The State paper of Columbia raised his hand and asked, “Jeff, I know you don’t want to talk about the championship. My question is, why won’t you talk about the championship?”
I laughed. Most everyone else in the room laughed. Gordon laughed, and then he talked about the championship.
What I appreciate about Gordon is that he evolved fully in a way that most of his contemporaries managed only partly. By the time my days at the track were ending, Gordon had become the quintessential pro. He was perfect. He had the tact necessary to say what was appropriate, but he would not lie, and most of his contemporaries have no idea how much a lie can come back to haunt a man. Even if he didn’t provide copy that would make the headline writer’s job a snap, he had a way of transmitting, by his expression, by the look in his eyes, that the questioner had something there. He saved me lots of wrong directions on my lonely way back home (paraphrasing Kris Kristofferson).
Gordon went from driving me to distraction to lighting my path in the span of less than twenty short years. He’s one of those I sorely miss as I watch from afar. His was an image he came to occupy with grace and skill, much like the cockpit of a Chevy.
Oh, five years or so ago, I had a conversion with Gordon in which I observed that his driving style was almost identical to Tony Stewart’s but that, while Stewart was basically the same person inside and outside his car, Gordon’s personality belied his aggressive style on the track. I said that most observers cannot separate the personality from the style. As a result, Stewart would always get himself in more trouble and generate more controversy even though, on the track, he behaved no differently.
Gordon said he was impressed that I’d noticed that, and I told him, thanks, but it seemed to me it should be as clear as a Caribbean morning to anyone who watched closely.
I wrote a book about him once. It was mainly a collection of lovely color photographs, but I wrote the text. It was also unauthorized and unlicensed, and I bumped into Gordon between transporters at what was then California Speedway. I’d heard he was miffed. Of course, it was probably his handlers who were miffed. A lot of good cop/bad cop is played in NASCAR, nowhere more than in the rehearsed orchestra that performs the Hendrick Motorsports symphonies. In any event, I wanted to clear the air.
I told Gordon that I wouldn’t write a book on anyone that was authorized, because then it would mean that image specialists would pore over every word and, by the time they’d gotten done, they would have excised every phrase that might have been considered interesting. I told him my only motive in writing the book, besides money, which athletes understand, was to paint him in a positive light, but that there would undoubtedly be passages he wouldn’t like. I also pointed out that, if Hitler had been able to control everything written about Hitler, the world might be in a lot worse shape.
Gordon said he understood, and that was the end of any rift between us, though I suspect there wasn’t really much of one from the beginning. Some of those around him had gotten the idea that someone else on earth might make a dime off him, and they were paid to minimize uncommitted royalties. As a footnote, I once had a similar conversation with Stewart, and the understanding between us was the same. In Stewart’s case, he seemed a little wounded, not that I might make money off him, but that I didn’t want to pen an “official book.” Bones Bourcier did an exemplary job with that, by the way.
As a race-car driver, Gordon is top five all-time. He hasn’t won six championships, as has the driver to whom he will always be compared, Jimmie Johnson, but Johnson has never won races at the eye-popping rate Gordon did in the nineties. For his career, Gordon is top five, but his prime was second to none.
Gordon didn’t change NASCAR with his personality. He changed it forever by proving that a young driver could climb into top-flight equipment and be successful almost right away. Before Gordon, the hot Roman candle (from the Texas Panhandle, in Jimmy Buffett’s words) had to work his way up. Ricky Rudd climbed into Bill Champion’s aging equipment. Drivers too numerous to mention took a modest step upward with Junie Donlavey. By the time a driver had a decent shot to win, he was late twenties or, more likely, early thirties.
Gordon paved the way directly, and saved lots of trouble, for those who followed him, among them Stewart, Johnson, Ryan Newman, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, the brothers Busch, and many others, and that number includes dozens who weren’t able to take advantage of the shot. His triumph signaled the graduation of NASCAR into the major league of American racing and the mainstream of American sport.
No one should be the least bit surprised that Gordon knows when to quit and how to do it.
Thanks for reading my modest efforts, and I hope you’ll check out my short stories at www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com, and the books of mine you can purchase here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1