Commentary

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is Jeff Gordon's personal playground

Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser ... and Jeff Gordon. Each has won four times at the famed Brickyard. But only Gordon has done it in a stock car, making Indianapolis Motor Speedway his personal playground, writes Ryan McGee.

Updated: July 24, 2008, 2:39 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Jeff GordonAP Photo/Tom StrattmanJeff Gordon, left, and car owner Rick Hendrick pucker up after Gordon's fourth Brickyard win in 2004.

When he was just a kid, Jeff Gordon made his first pilgrimage to The Speedway, pressing his face up against the long chain-link fence that lines Gasoline Alley.

It was there that he watched Al Unser, A.J. Foyt and Johnny Rutherford tow their slick, super-fast Indy cars in and out of the garage. He even managed to score an autograph from his personal hero, four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears.

"I don't think I stopped smiling for a week," he recalls, smiling even today.

Now, after four Brickyard victories of his own, Gordon doesn't like the comparisons to Mears, Foyt and Unser, the other four-peaters. And he is quick to point out that he's no longer the fuzz-faced kid who single-handedly ushered in Indy's stock car era.

But his Speedway story, and the numbers it has produced, underlines the obvious truth. Indianapolis Motor Speedway is Jeff Gordon's playground. He's just nice enough to invite the rest of us to come and watch.

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon
AP Photo/Mike ConroyJeff Gordon celebrates after winning the inaugural Cup race at the Brickyard in 1994.

Do the math
The Brickyard … er, Allstate 400 Media Guide might as well be renamed the Gordon Guide. He is the Indianapolis career leader in the following statistics:

• Wins -- Four (Dale Jarrett and Tony Stewart are second with two each)
• Top-5s -- Eight (Three drivers have five)
• Top-10s -- 11 (Two drivers have nine)
• Poles -- 3 (No one else has more than one)
• Lap led -- 433 (Stewart, 215)
• Earnings -- $4,434,245

It's the statistical equivalent to what Kimbo Slice did to that guy's ear earlier this summer.

"Race car drivers don't typically like to hand out compliments to other race car drivers," admits Ernie Irvan, who won two poles and with some luck could be a two-time Brickyard 400 winner himself. "But I don't think there's any way that anyone can look at what Jeff has done at Indianapolis and deny how awesome that is. The biggest stars show up for the biggest races, and Jeff always shows up for Indy."

Feels like the first time
Irvan would know. He had the best seat in the house for Gordon's history-making pass for the lead in 1994.

When NASCAR rolled into Speedway, Ind., that August, it was the first time the old track had ever hosted an event other than the Indy 500. It's hard to think about now, but there were genuine fears that the concept would fall on its face. Thanks in no small part to Gordon, who'd graduated from high school in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., those concerns abated as soon as the gates were opened.

"There were 350,000 people there," remembers then-crew chief Ray Evernham. "And I swear I think every one of them was cheering for Jeff."

Two days earlier, he'd celebrated his 23rd birthday. On race day, he led 93 of the race's 160 laps in a No. 24 DuPont Chevy known affectionately as "Booger."

As the laps wound down, he found himself racing side by side with Irvan, and Evernham in his ear reminding him to be patient. For 16 laps Gordon forced Irvan to run his 28 Texaco Havoline harder and harder. Then, with four to go, Irvan's Thunderbird bobbled. He shot up the track and saved it, but it was too late. He'd blown a tire and was forced to watch Gordon race away down the backstretch.

A few minutes later Gordon was standing in the same Victory Lane where his heroes had stood before.

All the right moves
Looking back, the move was nuts.

For two-thirds of his life, Gordon had been racing out of the family home in Vallejo, Calif. He'd won more than 200 races in go-karts and quarter midgets. At the ripe old age of 12, Gordon had become bored with cars and even spent a year trying to become a pro water-skier.

Then he rediscovered his love of racing behind the wheel of a 700-horsepower sprint car. Problem was that to race that car he and his stepfather, John Bickford, had to drive to Florida, Iowa and Indiana.

The biggest stars show up for the biggest races, and Jeff always shows up for Indy.

-- Ernie Irvan

So in the spring of 1985, as soon as Jeff finished middle school, Carol Bickford bought a house in Pittsboro, only 20 miles up the road from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "John and I were off racing," Gordon recalls. "We didn't even see the house until we signed the contract."

The move stretched the family's finances to the brink of breaking. In the end, Gordon could afford to race in the All-Star and World of Outlaws series only because his stepfather, now the chief officer at Jeff Gordon Racing, was a master at bartering for tires, parts and even fuel.

After finding shocking success against the likes of Steve Kinser and then winning a USAC Midget championship in 1990, Gordon and Bickford went knocking on doors to find an Indy-car ride.

"Unfortunately," Bickford says today, still irritated, "those doors were opened only for people with a lot of money in their pockets. We didn't have any."

"That's when we went south and started racing stock cars," Gordon explains. "When I signed on to race in NASCAR I figured I was signing away my dream of racing at Indianapolis. But timing is everything, right?"

Sure, but so is winning.

Drive for five
He's added three more bricks to the wall since '94, backing up his '98 and '01 victories with Cup championships. And, as Gordon fans like to point out, if they'd stuck with the old points system in '04 he would have done the double then, too.

But the Jeff Gordon who rolls "Back Home Again in Indiana" this week is a totally different person from the kid who showed up and shocked the world 14 years ago, or even the then-soon-to-be-divorced champ of '01.

Now he's a happily married father who will turn 37 on Aug. 4, not old by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly a far cry from the younger side of the Sprint Cup garage.

This weekend at Indianapolis, he'll be back in Gasoline Alley and through the looking glass. The kid who once stood at the fence shouting to Rick Mears is now the four-time winner, and the next Jeff Gordon is likely pressed against the fence, shouting to get his attention.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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