As Jeff Gordon Nears Retirement, NASCAR Community Reflects On His Impact
The driver who helped NASCAR connect with a new generation of racing fans is retiring soon. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon came from a different part of the country and had a very different style than the racing legends that preceded him. More than 20 years later, many in the sport say he's been key to broadening its appeal and polishing its image.
Jeff Gordon is well-groomed, polite and somewhat corporate – not exactly the spitting image of old school racing legends.
Tom Higgins has covered the sport since the 1950s, back when racing and moonshine went hand in hand.
"They were supposed to be these rough and tumble, semi-outlaw figures, or at least that was the characterization they got in the old days," he says.
In the 70s and 80s, stars like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. stuck to legal activities but kept that old school look and mentality.
Then in the early 90s, Higgins remembers a courteous young driver who looked like he should be in junior high. His name was Jeff Gordon.
"He didn't fit the mold," Higgins says. "He was the new wave."
In Charlotte in 1994, Gordon won his first race in NASCAR's top circuit. The TBS broadcast showed a boyish Gordon in tears.
"I'm speechless man, I mean, this is the greatest day of my life," he said right after winning.
The next year, Gordon became one of the youngest NASCAR champions ever at age 24.
Sheri Griffin from New Jersey, who was in town for last weekend's Bank of America 500, remembers how gracious he was.
"I saw an interview back in the early 90s and I just liked his style," she says. "I thought he was a gentleman."
At the NASCAR Hall of Fame in uptown, Griffin was admiring an exhibit dedicated to Gordon. It includes another thing he's known for: the paint scheme that led his team to be called the "Rainbow Warriors" in the 90s.
Director of exhibits Kevin Schlesier showed off Gordon's iconic cars.
"They go from that DayGlo orange all the way through the different colors of the rainbow," he said. "The main body part then goes into this really, really brilliant blue, so you knew exactly where Jeff Gordon was at the track at any time."
A fan from Florida, Laura Varela, remembers the first time she saw that car.
"In 1997, my brother had a pair of tickets to the Daytona 500," she says. "I didn't know what it was. He gave me the tickets. I went, and Jeff Gordon won the race. That started almost 20 years of me being a fan of Jeff Gordon's."
Varela liked how young he was, how genuinely happy he seemed after winning, and "he was definitely very attractive and that was a different look for NASCAR at the time as well," she says with a laugh.
He came from a different part of the country than most of the previous stars. Gordon was born in California, and his family moved to Indiana in his early teen years.
Fellow driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. puts it this way:
"Back when he started, I think 90 percent of the drivers in the field were from North Carolina, and now I'm the last one," Earnhardt chuckles.
He's exaggerating a bit, but NASCAR has turned from a Southern profession into a national one. Today, there are drivers from all across the country, from Vancouver, Washington, to Middletown, Connecticut.
"He definitely brought a new demographic of fans, a new group of fans to the sport and appealed to a different fan than we generally had back then," Earnhardt says.
Like Tyler Blaha-Gruszka. Growing up in Chicago, he says he got picked on for being a Jeff Gordon fan.
"Because no one liked NASCAR, I was the only one in school that liked NASCAR," he laughs. "Everyone made fun of me for it, but I just held strong. I loved it."
At the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Blaha-Gruszka says he liked Gordon's style, his colorful car, and how he kept winning.
Gordon won his fourth championship in 2001. Since then, he's remained competitive but hasn't won another title. A back injury bothered him in recent years. And now, he says he wants to spend more time with his kids as they grow up.
Another driver with multiple championships, Tony Stewart, summed up Gordon's impact this way:
"Jeff has really done so much for the sport that nobody will ever be able to do again," Stewart said.
With the playoffs winding down, Gordon still has a shot at this year's championship. After that, he'll stay involved in the business side of the sport.
Team owner Rick Hendrick says Gordon is great with sponsors and savvy with the media.
"He can help motorsports in a tremendous way, from what he does on TV to what he can do with social media, working with sponsors and so forth," Hendrick says. "I'm excited about the next level of Jeff Gordon's career."
Gordon says NASCAR is in good shape with another batch of talented young drivers. That includes the son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliot, Chase Elliott, who Gordon says will take over his car.
"That's going to bring a lot of fans out," Gordon says, "and a lot of new fans to the sport as well when you take a young guy like Chase."
More than 20 years ago, another legendary driver could've said the same thing about Jeff Gordon.