CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jeff Gordon graduated from racing sprint cars on "Thursday Night Thunder" to the big leagues of NASCAR, arriving with a silly moustache, a mullet and a briefcase that held little more than his Nintendo Game Boy.
The 20-year-old from California, who briefly relocated to Indiana for its lowered age requirements to race, was very much an outsider in a series with deep Southern roots. The fragile state of open wheel racing had thrown a roadblock into Gordon’s career path and he’d detoured to stock cars as the best option.
The "Wonder Boy" almost immediately took NASCAR mainstream. Gordon is largely credited for pushing the sport beyond a regional series to one with an international presence.
Gordon won four championships, his 93 victories rank third all-time and his savvy brand management made him one of the most recognized drivers in the world. He changed the way NASCAR was marketed, brought in Fortune 500 companies as sponsors and became the first driver to appeal to a broader sports audience as a pop culture reference and an entertainer.
Gordon was the face of NASCAR from his 1993 rookie season until his 2015 retirement.
He made NASCAR attractive and viable to an entire generation of current stars. Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson got his break from Gordon, and reigning champion Joey Logano grew up a Gordon fan. Current NASCAR star Kyle Larson has photos meeting his childhood hero. Without Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports maybe isn’t one of the most successful teams in all of sports.
"IndyCar was always on my radar growing up on the West Coast but then here’s this guy with a really bad moustache making his way in stock car racing," Johnson recalled. "My dad is a huge sprint car-midget fan and it’s like ‘Oh my gosh, that’s Jeff Gordon, right?’ … The doors that he opened for drivers that did not grow up in the South, that grew up racing in the dirt, he really changed that whole outlook for owners. A lot of opportunities came through those doors that he opened."
On Friday night, Gordon will be inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. He was a first-ballot selection but fell shy of the first unanimous pick in the 10-year history of the Hall at 96 per cent. He will be inducted with NASCAR team owners Roger Penske and Jack Roush. Also inducted will be Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki, drivers killed in aviation accidents two months apart at the prime of their careers.
Gordon had just six Cup starts against Kulwicki and his debut in the 1992 season finale was the race in which Kulwicki won his only NASCAR championship. Gordon shared the track with Allison 17 times and finished sixth in the final victory of Allison’s career.
It’s impossible to know if Gordon’s on-track resume would be as strong if Allison had not died in a 1993 helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway. Allison was 32 and coming off consecutive third-place finishes in the Cup standings. He was on the cusp of becoming the driver to challenge Dale Earnhardt’s reign and carry NASCAR for the next decade.
The job fell to Gordon and it didn’t take him long to get up to speed. His first victory came in his second season, his first championship a year after that. He won 10 races the next season but lost the championship to his teammate, and Gordon recovered to reel off 23 victories in claiming the 1997 and 1998 titles.
"He was just the whole package. Jeff could do anything he wanted, he had that kind of talent," said Hall of Fame team owner Rick Hendrick, who will induct Gordon.
"You see a lot of guys with talent, but I haven’t seen a lot of guys who had it all. He could go to Wall Street and meet people, walk into a boardroom and sell a program, give him a script before he’s got to go on stage and he glances it over and just walks out there and nails it. He’s on the cover of ‘Fortune,’ and hosts ‘Regis and Kelly’ and ‘Saturday Night Live’ and just nails it. Everything he does, he’s a pro and he took us from a regional sport to national sport to an international sport and he put Hendrick Motorsports on the map."
Gordon is now a NASCAR analyst for Fox Sports, involved in numerous other ventures and the father of two children who’ve travelled the world with him and wife Ingrid Vandebosch. He’s also a key member of Hendrick’s executive team and the listed owner of Johnson’s car. Should Hendrick ever need to hand the company over, it’s likely Gordon could take the helm.
"He loves this place and he wants to see it go on," Hendrick said.