A Million to One
Jeff Gordon won more than a record paycheck at the Brickyard 400
Because Jeff Gordon needs another million dollars about as much as he needs another pair of designer sunglasses, winning the biggest purse in the history of auto racing—$1,637,625 in last Saturday's Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway—hardly fazed him. Oh, he paid it his typically polite lip service. But a richer reward was the nearly unanimous and thunderous approval of the 350,000 fans in attendance at Indy. Such shows of affection have been the only tiling missing from Gordon's wondrous NASCAR career.
At most stops on the Winston Cup tour, especially at Southern tracks, the booing of Gordon's successes and the cheering of his failures (even his crashes) have reached the point of cruelty. But this time, back home again in Indiana—Hoosiers claim California-native Gordon because he lived in the Indianapolis suburb of Pittsboro as a teenage sprint car driver—Gordon could not have heard the smattering of boos, for they were buried under an avalanche of cheers that only Indy, with its massive grandstands, could have bestowed. "After the race was over, as I drove down pit road, I shut the engine off, because I just had to hear it," said Gordon. "I don't hear a roar like that anywhere else."
The Brickyard 400 draws fans from around the country, but the pro-Gordon sentiment at Indy is such that "it's almost like even the people who come from outside Indiana start cheering for you," he says. For this race, at least, the black-clad disciples of Dale Earnhardt and other assorted Gordon-haters simply gave up the cause and accepted that Gordon, whom they sarcastically call Wonder Boy, has become NASCAR's irresistible force.
The prize money, $1 million of which was a bonus Gordon received for winning a NASCAR major after finishing in the top five in the previous major (he won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May), shot his career winnings past $20 million and his average payday for each of the 175 Winston Cup races he has entered to a series-record $115,985. That's money per start, not per win. Earnhardt, second in the category, has averaged $54,641 in 593 starts. Earnhardt still leads in career winnings, with $32.4 million, but is in his 20th season while Gordon is in his sixth.
Gordon's sum last Saturday surpassed Arie Luyendyk's single-race world record of $1,568,150 at the 1997 Indy 500. Formula One pays appearance rather than prize money, and no other purse in NASCAR, CART or sports car racing has approached what Gordon won at Indy.
The victory was Gordon's second in a row, his third in four races and his sixth of the season. He increased his points lead to 72 and has clearly hit his stride as he pursues a second straight season title and his third in four years. Perhaps the most telling sight of the day was that of a lone Earnhardt fan standing amid the jubilant throng and thrusting his right middle finger in the air in the direction of the checkered flag as Gordon passed beneath it. But the guy wasn't booing. Perhaps he'd learned to save his breath.
Unser Jr. Eyes NASCAR
Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr., Indy car racing's biggest-name driver, is hinting that he could wind up behind the wheel of NASCAR stock cars if CART and Indianapolis Motor Speedway don't settle their differences. "If the war continues between the two entities, you might find me in a stock car someday," Unser said last week before competing at Indy in the International Race of Champions (IROC), an all-star circuit run in stock cars. " NASCAR is definitely the Number 1 series in the United States."
Friday's IROC appearance, in which he finished second to NASCAR's Mark Martin, was Unser's first race at the Speedway since 1994, when he won his second Indy 500. In '95 he failed to qualify for the 500. Since then, Unser has stuck with his team owner, Roger Penske, in CART's boycott of the 500.