How good would Robby Gordon be if he gave up off-road racing?
Robby Gordon has put together an impressive effort to win the Dakar Rally
Though he has done well in NASCAR and IndyCar, Gordon's first love is off-road
He won the Baja 1,000 while driving solo in a non-factory Ford truck at age 18
Robby Gordon celebrated his 40th birthday last Friday in Argentina, where he was overseeing final preparations for Team Dakar USA in the Dakar Rally. An owner-driver just as he is in Sprint Cup, Gordon has put together an impressive effort to win the marathon of endurance races, transplanted this year to South America from Africa because of security concerns.
Gordon has entered three vehicles for the 6,000-mile rally, which began Saturday in Buenos Aires and will run through the Andes to Chile and back to Buenos Aires. Gordon and teammate Eric Vigoroux are in Hummer H3s, running for the overall title in the car class. Tom Gevis is driving in the truck class, which runs behind the cars and has been entered to provide mechanical support for the Hummers. The ASO, the sanctioning body, requires any repairs on course to be made by an official entry. If the Hummers have problems, Gevis will arrive to get them going again.
There are also the support vehicles for Team USA Dakar: A Mercedes Benz 6 by 6 and two Hummer H1s. They'll be waiting to refresh and replenish the race vehicles at the end of each day's special stages, as the racing stretches are known, by Gordon's crew of 18.
Gordon has funded this massive effort through sponsorships, primarily from Hummer, Monster and Vanguard. He's left no stone unturned trying to reach the finish line on Jan. 17.
You can understand Gordon's desire to win the famous Dakar event. Rallying is the international form of off-road racing and off-road is Gordon's first love. He won the Baja 1,000 driving solo in a non-factory Ford truck from Ensenada to La Paz at age 18 in 1987. It brought offers from Ford, Toyota and Dodge. Gordon negotiated a deal with Ford that included an opportunity to go pavement racing and it led to victories with Roush Racing in IMSA's GTO class. By 1992, with Ford's support, Gordon was racing in CART's IndyCar Series and he had a solid career in CART that included two victories in 1995.
Gordon made the switch to NASCAR in 1997, driving for Felix Sabates in 20 races, and bounced back and forth between Sprint Cup and CART for the next several seasons. In 2001, he decided to stay full-time in Cup, signed with Richard Childress Racing and won the season-finale at New Hampshire. Gordon won twice more with Childress in 2003, remained with RCR through 2004 and started his own team in 2005.
Throughout all the team and series changes, Gordon has continued to race off-road, focusing on the Baja 1,000 and, for the past four years, Dakar. You have to admire his energy and enthusiasm for off-road, but has it been at the cost of a more successful Cup career? Probably, particularly considering his role as an owner-driver.
Gordon has tons of talent, evidenced by his victories in CART and Cup. How many other drivers have both on their resume? Tony Stewart is the only comparison; he has wins in IRL IndyCar and Cup. Stewart has raced Midgets and Sprint cars during his Cup career, and has teams in both, but, until this year, hasn't taken on the role of owner, too. Gordon has been driver and owner of his off-road teams on top of Cup ownership the past four years. The multi-tasking has been too much of a distraction for Gordon to reach his potential.
Gordon is coming off a difficult Cup season. He was 33rd in points, without a top-five for the first time since 2000. Gordon started 2008 with Ford and switched to Dodge in a deal for technical, manufacturing and marketing support from Gillett Evernham prior to the Daytona 500. The deal was supposed to include GEM buying Gordon's team and hiring him for the next four seasons, but it fell apart at midseason and Gordon had to switch to Penske engines.
Gordon changed to Toyota in December, his third manufacturer in a year. He has a 13-race deal for primary sponsorship from Jim Beam and backing from Menards for 2009 and says he's got enough money for the entire Cup season. But he undoubtedly could use more money to become more competitive. Shouldn't he be looking for it rather than racing in the Dakar?
There is also the technical transition to be considered. NASCAR has banned testing, but building new cars and putting them on the 7-post shaker rig would have been beneficial before hitting the track in Daytona.
Gordon is off to a solid start in the Dakar. He was ninth after Monday's third stage, with 11 stages remaining. It would be a great accomplishment for Gordon to win. Then, maybe, he can put it and off-road behind him and concentrate on his day job in Cup. At 40, he's still capable of strong and consistent performances if he puts his full energy toward it.