The first time I met Jeff Gordon he was in the back of a dark truck at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was small and shy and his mustache was as narrow as a power cord.
How about you, Rick Hendrick?
“The first time I sat down with him he had this little squeaky voice and a little pencil-thin mustache,” Hendrick says. “I told him, ‘You can’t be the same guy I saw drive a race car in Atlanta. You ain’t old enough to drive a race car.’ ”
Gordon was from California and Indiana, and not from the South, which was rare for a driver at the time. Hendrick Motorsports put him in a car full time in 1993.
Gordon is 44 now. The mustache is gone and the body has filled out – some. He has won four Sprint Cup championships and 93 races. He’ll run his last race Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he could win a fifth title.
Hendrick and I talk at the end of a hallway in an opulent South Florida hotel. He chooses the site to keep the conversation private.
“The first time we put Jeff in a (Sprint) Cup car in Charlotte (Motor Speedway) it was an open practice,” Hendrick says. “And in three or four laps on the track he was like eighth.
“When I lost Tim Richmond (a driver who died of AIDS in 1989) I looked at the talent Tim had, the way he could drive a car that was out of control. I thought, ‘Man, (Jeff has) Tim Richmond’s kind of talent with the whole package.’ ”
Richmond was 34 when died.
“So we take a shot on a young guy,” says Hendrick. “Jeff is smart. He knew how to race, when to race and wait for the right opportunity and not tear the car up. And when he starts winning everything, everybody starts looking for the next Jeff Gordon. So all these guys, Tony Stewart, would never have got a shot if it weren’t for Jeff Gordon.
“Then Jeff expands his reach to networks. He does ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘(Live with) Regis and Kelly.’ He broadened the fan base even further. And all of a sudden here’s people in California and sponsors that are showing up that never witnessed NASCAR.”
When Gordon became a star, NASCAR was considered a Southern sport with limited national appeal. And there on national TV is a NASCAR emissary who is smart and funny and good looking. So that’s how drivers look and act?
“He’s on the Forbes Magazine cover where they start rating the teams and what they’re worth,” Hendrick says. “He touched Wall Street and celebrities, but he still maintained that relationship with the males, the females and the kids. He nurtured that (appeal to kids) with Make-A-Wish, and he told (drivers) you need to start a foundation and do things for kids and you need to give back.”
On the track Gordon and Dale Earnhardt were bitter rivals. Off the track they were business partners.
“That was pretty comical,” Hendrick says. “Jeff had a good business head on his shoulders.”
Behind us, glasses are stacked and food is arranged.
“This is the cool thing about Jeff,” Hendrick says. “You can put him in any environment, with any governor or president. He walks onto the stage at the Detroit Auto Show and they give him a script and he reads it one time and walks out (without the script) and just nails it. He’s a one-take master, and he just amazes me. He’s such a total package it’s hard to give him credit in all the areas he deserves.”
On a Sunday in 2004 a Beechcraft Super King aircraft owned by Hendrick Motorsports crashed into the Virginia mountains on the way to the Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Ten people died, among them Hendrick’s son Ricky, brother John and John’s twin daughters.
“I didn’t know if I could go back into that place,” Hendrick says about his shop. “I walked into the museum where all our employees assembled and Jeff sat in the front row. And he was crying and I was crying.
“It’s little moments like that with Jeff that will always burn inside me. I love him. I couldn’t love him more. He was a member of the family, whether he was a little brother or a son. I never had to have a lawyer (for contracts) with Jeff. All it took for us was a handshake.”
Next season Chase Elliott, who is 19 and does not have a mustache, narrow or otherwise, will drive the No. 24.
“I’ll be walking into the garage and see Chase on the roof of the 24 and it’s going to be strange for all of us,” Hendrick says. “Jeff and I are excited about Chase. Jeff wants to do more things with his kids, like soccer on the weekend.”
So Gordon is prepared to walk away?
“He’s a guy who can walk away without regrets,” Hendrick says. “Nobody can ever say anybody changed the face of the sport like Jeff Gordon did.”