Jeff Gordon could have been a brat at the age of five, when he drove his first race car, a quarter midget. He could have been a prima donna at eight, when he won his first national championship in quarter midgets; just rotten at nine, while beating 17-year-olds in go-karts; insufferable at 13, as a wunderkind among grown-ups in deadly sprint cars. And he could be a self-anointed demigod now, at 23, as the youngest star in NASCAR history and, beyond that, a driver with the image to help NASCAR cross over to become a mainstream sport in America. But, says Gordon self-effacingly, "I'm just a kid. It's just a big blur, how fast I've gotten to this level. I can't even remember some things."
So much for being a prima donna, and NASCAR is grateful for that. In recent years stock car racing has been threatening to break out from its cult status. Last season, attendance for the 31-race Winston Cup series averaged 157,935 per event; the tour hit every region of the country; and every race was telecast nationally, to solid ratings. What remains is for the sport to shed its rough-cut image. And Gordon, the little (5'7") prodigy from the San Francisco Bay Area—darkly handsome, polished, polite, shy—is the rising star many NASCAR people think can lead them out of the wilderness.
In this, his third Winston Cup season, Gordon has won more races (three) and more poles (four) than any other driver on the circuit. And that has been with bad luck. With slightly better fortune he could have opened the season with an unprecedented seven victories. He has led every race this year at some point, and not one of his losses has been his fault. In his still-dawning career Gordon has won five races and more than $3 million in prize money. No other NASCAR driver has been so successful so young.
"Nobody but me," says Richard Petty, NASCAR's alltime leader in wins, with 200. But the King's arrival took place in easier, humbler times: Petty was winning at 23, but he was doing it on small-town bullrings, on a fledgling circuit, for chicken-feed purses. Gordon is winning authoritatively on superspeedways in what has become the most competitive form of motor racing in the world.
As he shoots hoops with his wile, Brooke, in the driveway of their new house on Lake Norman, near the college town of Davidson, N.C., Jeff looks like an upstart on the PGA Tour. If you somehow guessed he was a race driver, you would say he drove Formula One or possibly Indy Cars, not stock cars. He just doesn't fit the NASCAR stereotype. But, says Jeff, "there are so many signs that say to me, This is where you belong."
In a way Gordon was born to this life. He is NASCAR's first test-tube driver, raised to be a racer by his stepfather, John Bickford, an auto parts maker. Jeff was four years old and living in Vallejo, Calif., when he started out in bicycle motocross racing, but his mother, Carol, soon forbade that, saying it was too dangerous. "At BMX events they were hauling kids away in ambulances all the time," says Carol.
John solved that problem by buying Jeff a quarter midget, a six-foot car with a single-cylinder, 2.85 horsepower engine. Carol was appalled. "But," she says, "it didn't take long to realize that it was a lot safer than the bikes." Throughout his childhood Jeff drove hurt only once, and that, Carol recalls, was when he was five and "he broke his nose when he fell at the baby-sitter's."
Jeff's talent was obvious, and John sought to challenge him with ever-stronger competition. "Most kids in quarter midgets race maybe 20 weekends a year," John says. "We raced 52 weekends a year, somewhere in the United States. We had eight or nine cars. We practiced two or three times a week. We were the Roger Penske of quarter midgets."
After winning that first national quarter-midget championship at eight, Jeff moved up the next year to go-karts—racers with engines restricted to about 10 horsepower. "All the other parents were saying Jeff was probably lying about his age, that he was probably 20 and just real little," says John. "Nobody wanted to race us. That was fine. We moved up to the junior class [using the same go-karts but with higher horsepower], and he still kicked everybody's ass. These kids were 13 to 17, and he was killing them.
"We then moved up to superstock light [with still higher horsepower]. Now we were running against guys 17 and older—unlimited age. We were still winning. And those guys were going, 'There's no damn nine-year-old kid gonna run with us! Get outa here!' "