They arrive as so many gifts from the gods, sent to frolic among mere mortals. They defy dissection, dazzle with radiance, capture the imagination, and with skills that border the supernatural, constantly create portraits fit for a museum. They are rarities, yet reminders of an ageless adage - magic can be observed, but never fully explained.
The young Muhammad Ali was clearly one of them, as was the young Wayne Gretzky. Michael Jordan, at 34, is still one of them, as is Tiger Woods.
In this group, finally, is Jeff Gordon, the poster boy and reigning marvel of Winston Cup stock-car racing. This is a sport that stubbornly demands heavy dues, an enterprise that traditionally reserves its greatest rewards for those who have spent endless years toiling in anonymity (Mike Skinner, for one example, is the circuit’s top rookie, and he is 40.). Yet Gordon, just three days short of his 26th birthday, already has rolled up a lifetime of achievements as he heads into today’s Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In less than five full years on the circuit, he has grabbed 26 victories and more than $12 million in prize money. In contrast, 40-year-old Terry Labonte, last year’s points champion, has won 18 races and $15.7 million in his 18-plus years on it. Gordon, in this current season, has won seven of the series’ 18 races and amassed $2 million in earnings faster than any driver in history. No other driver has more than three victories this year, or $1.4 million in earnings.
He also has broken through, crossed over, expanded the possibilities and parameters of a sport that only recently has burst from its regional bonds. He has cut a commercial with Shaquille O’Neal, and played golf with singers Amy Grant and Vince Gill.
He has attended an Oscar-night party with Tom Cruise and has been named by People magazine as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World. He has married a beauty queen, endorsed a cereal, sunglasses and ice cream, and even earned the ultimate recognition available to any athlete. He has earned the resentment of those he works against and the boos of their frustrated fans.
“Here’s my thinking on Jeff Gordon. Everybody’s scared of Jeff Gordon,” declares 50-year-old Darrell Waltrip, who has spent merely half his lifetime on the Winston Cup circuit. “People want to know why they’re booing Jeff Gordon. They boo him because they’re scared of him.
“NASCAR’s scared of him. Why? Because they can’t make enough rules to keep him from winning races. The competition’s scared of him. (Seven-time Winston Cup champion) Dale Earnhardt is scared to death of him because he’s going to win more races and more money and more championships than he did. So everyone’s scared of Jeff Gordon, and here’s the other thing.
“It’s like somebody’s writing this script for him and he has wings. He’s like an angel. Do you know anything bad about Jeff Gordon? Ever read anything bad about Jeff Gordon?”
Ray Evernham, Gordon’s crew chief and close friend, says Gordon never ceases to amaze him.
“Jeff Gordon is the Michael Jordan of auto racing. He’s the Tiger Woods. He’s the whoever,” he says. “Every once in awhile, somebody comes along who has the gift, and he’s the one right now.”
Of course, Gordon points out, you have to make the most of your ability.
Jeff Gordon is very familiar with winning races, which he has been doing since his stepfather, auto parts maker John Bickford, started him out in bicycle motocross racing at age 4. A year later he was doing the same in a quarter midget (a 6-foot car with a single-cylinder, 2.85 horsepower engine).
He raced them year-around and all over the U.S. At the ripe old age of 8, he won the national quarter-midget title. Then, like some young assistant coach lusting after a high-profile top job, he moved on and up, to Go Karts to superstock lights and - after moving from California to Pittsboro, Ind. - to sprint cars.
By 1991, months before his 20th birthday, he had himself a full-time ride on the Busch Series, and the next year, at one of its races, he was spotted by Rick Hendrick, who owns the most powerful team on the Winston Cup circuit.
“I was almost in a daze. Jeff had it all,” he once said of his first meeting with Gordon. “It was just scary. He’s good looking, and I couldn’t believe how well he handled himself at age 20.”
In 1993, at 21, he was driving full time for Hendrick, and a year after that - just two days after turning 23 - he won the inaugural Brickyard 400.
“It was one of those days. You can’t ask for anything better,” Gordon said of that victory.
But things clearly have.
He won seven races and the Winston Cup points title in 1995. He won 10 races while finishing second in points in 1996. And last February he won the Daytona 500 to start off this, his best season yet. Now, with the 32-race season just past its halfway point, he has seven victories and the spot atop the points standings. He also has that ineffable aura that both defies explanation and engenders enmity in those it defeats.
“I don’t know what he’s got. If people could answer that, there would be a lot more Michael Jordans in the world,” Evernham says. “I got to work with Al Jr., Al Sr. (the Unsers), Michael, Mario (the Andrettis), Earnhardt. They all have just a certain way about them, and this kid talks like them. He thinks like them. He’s a racer.”
Earnhardt is impressed too.
“It takes a lot of years to get that, I don’t know, mystique, or whatever it is about you. (Gordon) was able to jump on it early,” said Earnhardt.
Could that be why other drivers resent him?
“I don’t know if they (do),” Gordon says. “I think what they see is a similar driving style that has taken them to several victories. Maybe they don’t want to see it in anyone else but themselves, and I think I have gotten more aggressive this year. But I’ve only gotten aggressive when I need to make up a position or win the race.
“It’s one of those things where I just take it by instinct. When it comes time to get aggressive, certain things happen so quick you don’t even know they’ve happened. You almost don’t even know they’re happening because it happens so fast.
“I just feel very blessed. Not only with the ability I’ve been given, but with the people and talent around me. That’s where I feel especially blessed.”
And the racing world knows it.
“It is like he fell out of the sky and into a pot of gold,” concludes Waltrip, the grizzled vet. “Now all of a sudden fans don’t like Jeff Gordon and the competition doesn’t like Jeff Gordon because he’s winning all the races.
“But I think it’s great. I think he’s a phenomenal race car driver, and I personally love it. He’s going to carry us into the 2000s. This kid doesn’t deserve to be booed. He deserves to be cheered, and appreciated.”
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