For the past 69 years, an annual midget car race has been held in Indianapolis. The race, which is called the Night Before the 500, is prestigious enough to attract the country’s best young open-wheel racers. And even some who are not so young. A.J. Foyt at 34 won the race in 1969 and competed in the Indy 500 the next day.
So when the 18-year-old Jeff Gordon won the Night Before in 1989, he was hailed as a future Indy-car star. Although he was born in Vallejo, Calif., his family had moved to Pitsboro, Ind., to give him more opportunity to race during his teenaged years.
Alas, his Indy career never happened. In the 1990s a bitter civil war developed in open-wheel racing. Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, feuded with CART, whose circuit included road racing as well as oval. George wanted an ovals-only series with everyone driving an identical car. So he founded the Indy Racing League, whose main event was the Indianapolis 500.
George’s restructuring of the 500 caused most of the open-wheel stars to skip the world’s most iconic car race. The sport was in chaos, and Gordon was unable to secure a ride. So he left open wheels for stock cars. He won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, and he has continued to win on a regular basis.
It came as a shock to NASCAR fans when Gordon announced his intention to retire, at 44, as a full-time driver at the end of this season.
He’s a four-time NASCAR champion and ranks third all-time with 96 Sprint Cup victories. The only racers to rank ahead of him, Richard Petty (200 wins) and David Pearson (106), competed into their 50s. The fourth-ranked driver, Dale Earnhardt (76 wins), died on the race track (Daytona) at 49.
Gordon, though troubled by a sore back, is coming off one of his best years, with four Cup wins. He is still very much in his prime. But he realized prime time was running out. He did not want to linger in the twilight.
“He wanted to do it on his terms,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of his No. 24 Chevy.
Former NASCAR champ Darrell Waltrip said: “In my book, Jeff Gordon is the greatest of all time. What he has done in our sport and to our sport is unparalleled. Jeff started what we called the youth movement in NASCAR. Not only am I talking about the legions of young fans he brought to the sport, but also the youth movement behind the wheel.”
Until Gordon, a driver had to “pay his dues” before landing on a winning team. But Gordon was so spectacular in his USAC midget career that he was able to break the age barrier. Waltrip and Earnhardt did not win a Sprint Cup race until they were 28. Gordon won his first at 22.
But Gordon’s main significance is that he greatly expanded the popularity of NASCAR, which before him was largely confined to the Deep South. The stars were good ole boys who talked funny. Gordon brought in California and the West. His engaging personality and racing style – aggressive, but always a gentleman – appealed to people everywhere.
As Waltrip said, “He is recognized across the country and across the world, not just the racetrack.”
If you mention things like this to the diminutive Gordon (he stands 5-7), he will smile sheepishly and say, “I’ve never approached it that I’m a leader for the sport.”
But he is and he will continue to be, even in retirement. He sees his future as a television analyst. This year he will join Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick as driver/analysts for FOX in its broadcasts of the Xfinity series. “I’m very passionate about the sport.” Gordon said. “I love to critique it.”
There’s potential here for lively commentary, given that Gordon has had fiery disagreements with Keselowski over the latter’s willingness to bump other cars to win.
Hopefully, Keselowski, 30, and born in Michigan, will come to appreciate Gordon, who opened the door for young drivers from regions other than the South.