My strongest memory of Jeff Gordon is not of him winning a race or making a pass or stalking through the garage to confront some driver he was pissed at. It is of him singing.
Five or six years ago at Talladega Superspeedway, I showed up at Gordon’s hauler for a scheduled interview about his old rival, Dale Earnhardt. Before I could ask a question, he started singing Earnhardt’s last name, like it was the first time he ever heard it and he liked the sound of it. He warbled like he didn’t have a care in the world, and he laughed as he did it.
I can’t remember what I asked him or what he said, but I can still hear him singing and laughing. I thought of that unusual encounter when I heard Gordon’s announcement on Thursday that 2015 will be his final season racing full-time at the Sprint Cup level. Stories this week about Gordon off the track will be just as prevalent as stories about him on it. The stories will say how utterly normal he is, that however rich and famous he became, he never turned into a jerk, he never treated people like trash, he never stopped being the kind of guy who might suddenly break into song.
And that might prove to be his greatest legacy.
At the exact time NASCAR needed a star to take the sport out of the Southeast and into the world at large, Gordon appeared. He presented himself and NASCAR to the masses, and NASCAR is immeasurably better for it. Wonder Boy, as he was derisively called back then, made every appearance, smiled through every commercial, charmed every interviewer.
He never could have foreseen where all of that would take him, from the White House to Rwanda and everywhere in between. He was, and remains, a transformational figure. NASCAR will not – indeed, cannot – have another driver like him.
He was the face of NASCAR and everybody wanted a piece of him. He hosted Saturday Night Live and Live! with Regis and Kelly and just last week he lit up the Internet when video appeared of him racing on a tricycle at an NBA game. Obviously, he thoroughly crushed the poor schlub who raced against him.
Driving for Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon has won four championships, 92 races and $146 million in prize money at NASCAR’s top level. He is not the best driver of all time, but he’s in the top five. He is inarguably the person most responsible for NASCAR’s tremendous rise in popularity from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.
But he hasn’t won a championship since 2001. And while he was a contender last season, he’s 43, has two young kids and has suffered through years of recurring back pains. Gordon always said he didn’t want to hang around too long, and now he goes out on top, which is no small feat. Gordon is third on the all-time wins list, and among the top seven, none voluntarily retired while still in his prime.
Gordon takes with him a clean-cut image that, in terms of racing, is true and false in almost equal measure. Let’s not whitewash the guy. The smiling, decent Jeff Gordon disappeared when the ruthless Jeff Gordon strapped on his helmet. He has gotten into confrontations at the racetrack with Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski, and that’s the short list. Especially early in his career, he was the master of using his front bumper to move other drivers out of the way in those rare instances where he wasn’t already leading.
The conflict between the corporate Gordon and competitor Gordon makes him both the most loved and vilified driver of all time. All great drivers are hated by a significant chunk of fans simply for being great. And, in Gordon’s case, because he was polite and spoke in complete sentences and dated models and once had a terrible haircut and an even worse mustache.
I once interviewed a fan who loved Gordon so much that if she went to a restaurant that served Coke, she ordered water – because one of Gordon’s sponsors was Pepsi. When she filled up her gas tank, she rounded the price off in cents at his car number, 24. I invite you to Google “Jeff Gordon” and the expletive of your choice for the opposite end of that spectrum.
Too often in sports (and the wider world) our standards have dropped so low and our desire to turn people into heroes is so strong that we praise an athlete for anything. We turn the absence of bad behavior into the presence of good behavior. We praise an athlete for patiently answering questions and signing autographs as if that takes a monk’s grace. And for sure, Gordon treats people decently and deserves to be recognized for that.
But Gordon also has long been one of NASCAR’s most philanthropic drivers. That started when the son of his then-crew chief, Ray Evernham, was diagnosed with leukemia in the early 1990s. He watched as the boy suffered through chemo treatments. In 1999, he created the Jeff Gordon Foundation, which fights children’s cancer. The foundation has raised more than $15 million, and in 2012, it donated $1.5 million to help start the Butaro Cancer Center of Excellence in Rwanda, the first comprehensive cancer-referral center in rural east Africa.
Last summer, Gordon and his wife, Ingrid Vandebosch, were invited to the White House for a state dinner. Now, it’s strange enough for a NASCAR driver to be at the White House for a state dinner. Stranger still that the driver would be recognized for his charity work in Africa.
At one point the first couple of the United States and the first couple of NASCAR were on the dance floor next to each other. President Obama apparently had heard about Gordon break dancing at the NASCAR awards banquet a few years prior. The commander in chief, the president of the United States, the leader of the free world, asked Gordon to show off his moves, right there among the leaders of various African nations. If that doesn’t show Gordon’s unique place in the world, the heights to which driving a car in circles has taken him, I don’t know what does.
Alas, Gordon declined. Obama should’ve asked him to sing.