Jeff Gordon’s on track record speaks for itself. And, no doubt, he’ll be a shoe-in for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Long after that racing historians will be analyzing Gordon’s effect on how we perceive NASCAR itself.
When the California native came along Indy car racing was at the peak of its’ popularity and NASCAR’s audience was still growing.
Gordon could have gone to the open wheel series. He raced at the track formerly known as Indianapolis Raceway Park. In his adopted home state, of Indiana, the Indy 500 beckoned. He idolized four-time Indy 500 winner, Rick Mears. And he even asked Al Unser, Jr. (who was at his peak then) what to do. Unser told him that NASCAR was the best place for him.
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s NASCAR was still a series predominantly sponsored by beer, cigarettes and motoring products. The Fortune 500 companies involved in motorsports favored the Indy cars.
When the path to the Indy 500 was too steep Gordon turned to NASCAR and both the driver and the sanctioning body grew in lock step.
To look at the polished media-friendly legend today his early incarnation is hardly recognizable except for the easy grin.
And credit has to be given to Rick Hendrick for taking a chance on the driver, formerly known as “The Kid,” with a signing bonus that drove him out of Michael Kranefuss and Lee Morse’s Ford development program at Bill Davis Racing.
Gordon didn’t look or speak like any of the NASCAR veterans. With an almost blank record book Hendrick (on the verge of his ascendancy) took a chance.
When he held his own, on the track against the late Dale Earnhardt who also called him Wonder Boy, a funny thing happened. The scraggily mustache he used to wear was gone. More importantly Gordon was the tip of the spear for the new look of NASCAR.
You didn’t have to be a grizzled veteran to get a good ride. And, in a growing US economy, big corporations looked to sports for spokespersons. At that time the image of the dirt-kicking, moonshining, outlaw was brushed under the rug.
More importantly there were no, apparent, scandals involving off-track behavior in the stock car series.
In the mid-1990s, during the Indy car schism, the big name drivers – for the most part – went with the now defunct CART series to be replaced at the Indy 500 with many want-to-be’s. None of them appealed to the big companies who were content to let their contracts with CART run their course and go away.
Also NASCAR sponsorship in those days was less expensive.
As Gordon piled on success after success he also became more sophisticated. NASCAR exploited the vacuum in the open wheel series to gain fans and sponsors.
The fact that Hendrick and Gordon remained loyal to the Chevrolet brand helped, too. Long associations with one company made it easy to sell Gordon to otherwise new folks.
That is, what they say is, history.
And Jeff Gordon’s effect on NASCAR is too.
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