Jeff Gordon: Entrepreneur, employee, spokesman, humanitarian, everyman

9/18/2007 - NASCAR

It's Friday morning at the racetrack. Which track? Doesn't matter. It's a new day and a new weekend of racing. Jeff Gordon grabs some fruit from the fridge of his infield motor coach and starts this morning like every other: logging on to check the Spreadsheet, an ever-changing schedule updated by his team but whose final form is determined by Gordon and Gordon only.

Like most drivers, the 36-year-old Gordon is many things to many people. His days are sliced up and doled out. And whether he's Jeff the Employee or Jeff the Entrepreneur, Jeff the Humanitarian or Jeff the Everyman, every appointment is met with the same commitment as a crucial late-race pass. To keep his 200 mph world spinning, the four-time NASCAR champion leans on an army of dozens, sometimes hundreds of support staffers. Their livelihoods, of course, ride squarely on his famous square chin, which means they are all joined in a single mission: making sure the No. 24 car is first to the checkered flag.

Because winning is good. And when Gordon wins, they all win. So to get to know the many sides of
Jeff Gordon, why not get to know the folks who know him best? That's what we did.

Track team

By the time Gordon's No. 24 DuPont Chevy takes the green flag, it has come in contact with no fewer than 300 people who've built and tested the 700-horsepower rocket. After that, a team of 50 engineers, mechanics and specialists fine-tune each car at the shop before an advance road crew of eight guides it through qualifying, practice and race prep.

Once the car rolls onto the starting grid, it is the property of the eight-man pit crew known as the Rainbow Warriors: tire-changers Clay Robinson and Kevin Gilman (currently sidelined by tendinitis and subbed for by Mike Atwell); tire-carriers Tiny Houston and Jeff Knight; jack man Jeff Cook; gas can man Caleb Hurd; catch can man Jamie Frady; and "eighth man" Andy Kruep, who goes over the wall only if NASCAR officials agree that extra help is required. Every Warrior is a full-time HMS employee except Knight, a sales rep, and Gilman, a warehouse manager.

The Warriors follow a fitness regimen prescribed by strength coach Mark Morrison, while pit coach Matt Clark oversees practice and film sessions on all 200 pits of a season. If stress takes a toll, Clark keeps a team of psychologists on speed dial.

Atop the pit box sits crew chief Steve Letarte, NASCAR's equivalent of a head coach, who started sweeping floors for HMS in 1995. His lieutenants are car chief Jeff Meendering (nuts and bolts) and engineer Kane Replogle (G-forces and Q-factors). When Letarte was
hit with a six-race suspension, Meendering stepped in to protect Gordon's points lead.

During the race, the team talks via radio, but only two men speak to Gordon: Letarte and spotter Shannon McGlamery, who directs Gordon from atop the press box. For midrace brainstorms, crew chiefs prefer to IM or jog down pit row. "Teams constantly scan radio chatter," Letarte says. "If we're really up to something, we don't want to tip our hand."

Branded name

John Bickford sits in his office above the No. 24 DuPont race shop, surrounded by carafes of Jeff Gordon Chardonnay, a stack of Jeff Gordon ergonomic pillows and bottles of Halston Z-14 cologne -- a scent endorsed by, yes, Jeff Gordon. If the people who clog Bickford's voice mail had their way, he'd also be buried under stacks of Jeff Gordon cookies, frozen chicken and panty hose.

Bickford is far more than just a business manager; he's Gordon's stepfather and the man who put him in his first race car at the age of 5.

It's all geared toward brand strategy. But just like Tiger Woods, our brand is a name, a personality. So we constantly ask, Would this really reflect Jeff?

John Bickford

"John is the only dad and the only manager I've ever known," Gordon says. "He was teaching me at the earliest age how to be patient, how to wait for the right deals, the right situation, whether it was a potential ride or a potential sponsor. That still applies today."

Every potential Gordon project runs through Bickford and his 18-person non-race-related staff at Jeff Gordon, Inc. The business itself includes JG Motorsports (which co-owns Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 ride with Hendrick Motorsports), the Jeff Gordon Network/fan club/Web site (jeffgordon.com), the Jeff Gordon Foundation (his charity), Wide Open Productions (an in-house multimedia company) and Hendrick Gordon Licensing. HGL is a joint venture between JGI and Hendrick Motorsports that manages the use of HMS driver names and likenesses, covering everything from the Andretti Gordon Racing School (co-licensed by Mario Andretti) to two car dealerships (one Chevrolet, one Toyota).

"It's all geared toward brand strategy," Bickford explains. "But just like Tiger Woods, our brand is a name, a personality. So we constantly ask, Would this really reflect Jeff?"

Helping Bickford to determine that strategy are the same people who help Tiger plot his global domination: Cleveland-based ├╝beragency IMG, led by athlete marketing guru Alan Zucker. But
ultimately, the men and women in the silk suits must defer to the man in the Nomex firesuit.

"We simply filter through the opportunities and put the best of the best in front of him," Bickford says. "In the end, he determines what he will or will not do."

Company man

Rick Hendrick remembers the time he first laid eyes
on Gordon. It was March 14, 1992, at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Hendrick, then in his ninth season as a NASCAR owner, was watching a Busch Series race. Actually, he was watching one car.

"This white No. 1 car kept barreling through Turn 4 sideways," says Hendrick, who owns 70 car dealerships in 10 states. "There was smoke coming off the tires, and I thought he'd get out of the throttle, but he just stood on the gas. I said, 'I'm going to stand here and watch this guy because he is going to bust his butt.' But he did the same thing lap after lap and won the race. I just had to get that kid signed up."

Eight months later, Gordon was entered in his first Cup race. Eight years later, his three championships had transformed Hendrick Motorsports into the New York Yankees of NASCAR. What began as five guys working on cars in an old engine shop has grown into a 550-employee, 100-acre complex that includes six race teams (four Cup, two Busch) and a dozen support departments spread out over as many buildings. In June, Forbes estimated the organization's worth at $297 million.

"I don't know if I can explain how much of all this should be attributed to Jeff," Hendrick says. "But we'd never won a championship before Jeff, and now we've won 10 over three different series.
He took us to the next level."

Which is why Gordon is the only HMS employee not named Hendrick with a lifetime contract.

Pitch perfect

Gordon was 14 when he walked into Valvoline's Indianapolis office to try to talk his way into getting free oil for his sprint car. When asked how he'd gotten there, the kid replied without so much as a grin, "My mom drove me. How about that oil?"

He's been winning over sponsors ever since, building a portfolio that includes nearly two dozen companies, from primary sponsor DuPont and major associate sponsor Pepsi to a lineup ranging from GMAC to Nicorette. And to keep those backers coming back, Gordon's contracts with each include a specified number of TV commercials, photo shoots, factory visits and hospitality meet-and-greets before every race.

We receive 150 to 200 requests each week. Everything from magazine cover shoots to phone interviews to one-liner promos for local radio stations.

Jon Edwards

Pitching product also means playing nice with the media, which means Gordon's priorities are tiered from national TV and print down to regional newspapers and local radio. Every verbal sponsor mention or in-focus shot of logos is tabulated for exposure reports that tell the sponsors how well their association with Gordon is paying off.

"He'll do 300 appearances this year," Bickford says. "We manage his schedule here at JGI from the checkered flag on Sunday until Jeff gets to the next track, on Thursday night. Everything at the track belongs to the other Jon."

That would be Jon Edwards of Performance PR Plus, a 12-person firm that rose to prominence along with Gordon, its biggest client. Edwards is a Durham, N.C., native who receives nearly as much face time as Gordon during race weekends. He's the guy with the Secret Service-style earpiece who's been 6 inches off his driver's shoulder for every press conference and postrace interview since 2000 -- equal parts traffic cop, confidant and bodyguard.

"We receive 150 to 200 requests each week," Edwards says. "Everything from magazine cover shoots to phone interviews to one-liner promos for local radio stations. We would do it all if we could, but there's only so much time in a weekend."

Well, at least the Worldwide Leader is always willing to make life easier, right?

"Actually, this week alone I've had five requests from every platform of ESPN, from NASCAR Now to SportsCenter to ESPN.com to The Magazine," Edwards says. "Think you could help me out with a little corporate synergy?"

Oops. Our bad.

Charity drive

While Gordon was winning three Cup titles with Evernham in the 1990s, Evernham's son, Ray J, was battling leukemia, and owner Rick Hendrick was diagnosed with the same. Both have recovered, but the impact of their fights still rides with Gordon.

"It was the ultimate reality check," he says. "I was a kid, and here we were in the middle of one of the greatest runs of all time, but Rick and Ray J reminded us of what was really important, which is why we had to do something."

Fund-raisers and supportive acts grew into the Jeff Gordon Foundation, founded in 1999 to focus on what was becoming an endless list of causes Gordon wanted to help. It came down
to the two that had affected him so deeply: blood diseases and kids.

"You can tell that there's a passion there," says JGF director Trish Kriger, whom Gordon hired from Habitat for Humanity to run the three-person group. "Whether it's meeting a Make-a-Wish child or financial support for hospitals, he applies the same intensity to the foundation that he does to racing."

A year ago, he cut the ribbon on the Jeff Gordon Children's Hospital in Concord, N.C.,
and handed over a check for $1 million. His pre-Brickyard bowling tourneys have raised more than $1.25 million for the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. Gordon has year-round online auctions, and each year he designates a specialty line of apparel and collectibles to channel all proceeds into the six main JGF charities. JGF also writes grants and fulfills requests from countless other organizations (at a limit of one per year). Kriger guides the ship, but as usual, every idea and opportunity runs through Gordon.

"You want to help everyone, but that's impossible," he says. "You have to focus on what is closest to your heart. Nearly every driver in Nextel Cup has a foundation to support a cause he believes in, and we all support each other whenever we can. It's one of the things I love about this sport."

Regular guy

When daughter Ella Sofia was born on June 20, Gordon and wife Ingrid Vandebosch wanted to create as normal a family life as possible -- which meant a little lifestyle adjustment at his homes in Charlotte and New York City.

Gone is the yacht, along with its pricey full-time crew. And instead of employing two pilots and a mechanic for his Hawker 800, he now leaves it to the care of JetNetwork, an on-demand airborne motor pool. There is no longer a personal assistant, nanny, cook or maid on staff; it's just Mom, Dad and baby at home.

"People think I'm lying when I say that we're up changing diapers and feeding the baby," Gordon says. "Anyone who doesn't believe me can stop by at 3 a.m. and see for themselves."

His only personal staff can be found at the racetrack, where distractions are never a good idea. Ingrid and Ella Sofia have yet to spend a full weekend at the track, but their accommodations are second to none. The competitors' RV lot looks like a KOA campground in Beverly Hills, with gleaming multimillion-dollar motor coaches lined up neatly in rows.

Gordon's 45-footer is among the finest, and the man who takes care of his home-away-from-home knows how to treat a king. In fact, Archie Kennedy took the wheel of Gordon's motor coach after 14 seasons serving Richard Petty. Archie and wife Tina have a home in Winston-Salem, N.C., but they've been back there just five times since February.

The Kennedys roll in to tracks as much as 48 hours ahead of Gordon, parking alongside Jimmie Johnson's rig. They unload a trailer that holds two motorcycles, a golf cart and a Chevy Tahoe, set up Gordon's picnic area underneath the rollout awning, take care of laundry and dry cleaning, then hit the supermarket with Gordon's grocery list (lots of fruits and vegetables).

During the weekend, the Kennedys will take care of other needs, but they mostly stay out of the way at a nearby hotel.

"When Jeff gets to the track, he's thinking about that race car," Kennedy says via cell phone, somewhere in Kansas en route from California to Richmond. "Our job is to make him as comfortable as possible so that he can keep his mind on that and nothing else."

Except those twice-a-day glances at the Spreadsheet, of course.

Ryan McGee, the editor-in-chief at NASCAR Images and a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History."