On his 40th birthday, Jeff Gordon talks racing, family, his future
Jeff Gordon, currently seventh in the Sprint Cup standings, turns 40 today (Aug. 4)
Gordon exits a decade where he divorced, remarried and fathered two children
He has no plans to retire, and he wants to win his first title under the Chase format
Four-year-old Ella Gordon hugs her father and kisses him as he's about to go to work. Before he walks out the door, she has something else for the man she calls "papa.'' As her baby brother, Leo, bounces in his crib and smiles, Ella tells her father to bring home a trophy.
"These kind of things just light you up,'' four-time champion Jeff Gordon says.
The driver many knew as the kid (the one with that wispy mustache he wore to look older), who made his Cup debut in Richard Petty's final race, delivered a milk toast as part of his first title celebration and defined NASCAR's youth movement, turns 40 today.
As he leaves his 30s, Gordon exits a decade in which he won his last title, divorced, remarried and fathered two children. That decade, more than any other, was a coming of age for Gordon, friends say. A time to learn and grow, a time to experience what he missed earlier in his life. A time where he learned to balance family and racing.
"[Parenthood] changes your priorities and your goals,'' Gordon says. "Me and my wife truly are molding them into who they are going to be through our genes, but most of all I think it's through our actions and what we do and how we say it and everything else. That perspective the last 10 years has changed drastically.
"Probably the other thing that has changed in the last 10 years is the amount that I've had to put into [racing] is far greater. The driver's involvement is more important today than it used to be from a technical standpoint of information.''
All that keeps Gordon busy.
"I wake up early and when it's time to go to bed,'' he says, "I'm out because it's a full, full day.''
ESPN introduced race fans to a teenage Gordon on its broadcasts of U.S. Auto Club races. It only seemed that he won every race. That led many fans to believe he always had it easy, but even Gordon admits there were times he wondered how far his career would go.
Gordon progressed, came to NASCAR and changed the sport. Three months after turning 21, he made his Cup debut in the 1992 season finale at Atlanta with Hendrick Motorsports. Young drivers, back then, were not supposed to start in good rides. They had to prove themselves in subpar equipment before getting better rides. Gordon, however, proved that young drivers deserved good rides immediately.
The victories and championships soon followed. He even met his wife in Victory Lane. Everything seemed perfect.
Four months after Gordon won his fourth title in 2001, Brooke Gordon filed for divorce. It was finalized in June 2003.
Suddenly, Gordon's aura of perfection was shattered. He was, as it turned out, no different than most people. He, like many, struggled to find his way after the divorce.
"When I was single, it was way harder focusing on racing than [it was] being married with two children because my priorities weren't in order,'' said Gordon, who failed to make the Chase in 2005 -- only the second time in his career he's finished outside the top 10 in points.
"You would think that, 'OK, being single I get to put more effort into racing.' I put a lot of effort into racing, but I was putting a lot of effort into a lot of other things. I was traveling. I was making new friends, girlfriends, which is a lot of effort that goes into that, too."
Brian Vickers was a teammate to Gordon then and saw him emerge from a cocoon of constraint after the divorce. "It was almost like he got to live his childhood," Vickers said. "He got to do a lot of the things that he didn't get to do the first go-round because he was successful early. I know that drill. You spend your whole life racing; you give up a lot of things to do that. On top of that, he got married early."
Jimmie Johnson said that he believes Gordon spent more time trying to please others early in his career. When crew chief Ray Evernham left the team in 1999 and his marriage to Brooke dissolved, Gordon began to do what he wanted.
"It didn't make everybody happy,'' Johnson said. "The divorce wasn't pretty. That whole situation wasn't pretty, but he got to a point where he wanted to make his decisions and live his life his way. That's where he is today.''
As Gordon wandered through single living, he met Belgian model Ingrid Vandebosch. That's when, as Gordon says, "things started to make sense.
"I'd like to live here. I'd like to live here with you," he thought. "I'd like to share these moments and this life with you. I'd like to start a family.''
They married Nov. 7, 2006.
The following June, Ella was born.
Gordon smiles at the memory of seeing her birth. Being there is as special now as it was then.
"You're nervous, you're excited, you just don't really know how you're going to react,'' he says. "When it comes, you're like this is the greatest moment ever. Nothing ever will compare to this moment. You just feel this instant, 'Oh my gosh, we made this.' But then you also have this overwhelming responsibility that instantly kicks in as well. This child is completely dependent on us.''
Even now, Gordon admits playing with Ella is an adjustment, especially compared to his son, Leo, who turns 1 on Tuesday.
"It's a stretch for me to do these girl activities,'' Gordon says. "She wants to get dressed up. She wants hand-puppet shows and all that stuff, and I'm not the best at those things. But with the boy, at least so far ... it's car, wheels, spin. I get that. I like that. I can do that.''
Early in his career, Gordon admits he didn't know the name of everybody who worked on his cars.
"Back then, I could get away with it because we were winning,'' he says. "Not winning as much, I've had to be present more and more involved and give more of my time [to the team]. I want to make sure there are no excuses. If we're not winning, I don't want somebody saying, 'Well, Jeff is not around much.'"
Gordon's two wins this season are more than he had from 2008-10, when his only victory came at Texas in 2009. Gordon nearly won Sunday's Brickyard 400, finishing second to Paul Menard, who won with a fuel gamble. Afterward, Gordon said he felt his team's performance showed that they were a championship caliber team. Gordon, who is seventh in the points, has said all season he didn't want to just make the Chase but wants to enter it as a title threat.
If he can continue to run in the next six races as he did at Indy, it will be hard not to include him among the championship favorites.
"We saw some great things from Jeff Gordon,'' former champion Dale Jarrett said, "but I think that we still have the opportunity to see some really good things to come from him."
Jarrett notes that he won his first championship only days before turning 43. Also, 24 of his 32 career wins came after he turned 40. So, yes, there's still time for a fifth championship -- or more.
Gordon admits he wants to win a title under the Chase format. All four of his championships came before the Chase. "If I don't get it done, its' not going to haunt me forever,'' Gordon says, "but it [a title] will just be icing on the cake.''
Johnson remembers when he started driving in Cup how he thought Gordon seemed to be older than most people. "Hell, he's only five years older than me,'' Johnson says.
This likely will be Gordon's last decade of racing. He won't say when he'll retire. He doesn't know. He admits a few years ago he thought more about retirement when he was not enjoying the sport as much, when he was not as competitive and hurt. Not now. An improved conditioning program has him feeling better than he has in recent years, and he's competitive and enjoying the sport again.
There's no time to think about retiring anytime soon. When he does, though, one thing is certain. "I'm going to be working for a long time because I have to stay busy,'' he says. But what activity can rival his passion for driving?
He has plenty of time to mull that question.
Ella Gordon was in Pocono -- where the series returns this weekend -- when her father won there in June. She went to Victory Lane with him and understood its significance.
"She knows you get a trophy, that's special,'' Gordon says. "She's been to plenty of races where we didn't get a trophy, so it was definitely special and stood out to here."
So did getting wet as the team sprayed Gordon with various drinks as he exited his car. She didn't like that as much.
"That's part of winning,'' Gordon told her. "If we go to Victory Lane again, you've got to be prepared for that and know to stay out of the way of that if you don't want to get it, or bask in it and love it. ''
That's the approach Gordon takes as he balances playing dolls with Ella or little cars with Leo and working with his team to make another title run. One has to bask in it and love it.
Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found here.
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