21 years ago, almost all of us had a phone on our wall or on an end table. Email was something guys with thick glasses and pocket protectors used. On demand TV? Wasn’t that what happened when you yanked the remote control out of your kid brother’s hand? If Rip Van Winkle were awakening today from a 20-year snooze, he’d find the world has changed a lot since that November day in 1992 when Jeffrey Michael Gordon made his NASCAR Winston Cup debut.
NASCAR has seen more than its share of change. For better or for worse, the cars are different, and the tracks are too. The sport evolved further from being a sport of largely regional interest to the national stage, to even developing a little bit of an international following. The drivers and fans have changed a great deal too. NASCAR has gone from a sport populated with the good ol’ boys to a day where now there are drivers hailing from all four corners of the country. Now, instead of a sport consisting of blue collar, fresh from the garage types, you have drivers who make an easier transition from the track to the television screen.
Jeff Gordon has had something to do with it. A great deal, a huge deal.
Gordon started young, and started winning young, too. when he captured his first title, he was 24; younger than “The King” Richard Petty (27) when he won his first title, younger than Dale Earnhardt (29), and younger still than his protege Jimmie Johnson (31). With his youth came youthful good looks, making Gordon a marketer’s dream, and an ideal pitchman for the sponsors.
Think about it: Pepsi was the choice of a new generation and Gordon fit the bill to a tee. Gordon was the “Rainbow Warrior” in his Dupont Chevrolet. Could you imagine Curtis Turner tooling around in a piece with a rainbow paint scheme? Or how about Dale Earnhardt guest hosting Regis and Kelly? Don’t get me wrong, Earnhardt had a rugged charm, but he was more of a Duck Dynasty kind of guy, which once again, has a more good ol’ boy type appeal.
Though Gordon was an Indiana resident when he came up, there’s no denying the Californian influence on the driver born in Vallejo. Face it, you can’t get the four-time champion looks far more in place at a Hollywood premiere than he does at the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. With a super model wife on his arm, you look at Jeff and Ingrid and can say they could easily star as themselves in a motion picture. As wildly popular as he is, I’m not sure you could say that about the more introverted Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Of course, all the image means nothing if Gordon isn’t winner. Success? Ha! In 700 Cup starts, has has four season championships, ranking only behind Petty, Earnhardt (seven each) and Johnson (five). Only Petty (200) and David Pearson (105) have more wins than Gordon’s 87. What’s more, “Super G” has finished in the top five an impressive 43 percent of his total races, and in the top ten almost 60 percent of the time at 417. Yes, he’s won only six races since 2008, but he’s never needed the champion’s provisional either, and he’s made the Chase every since 2004, except for 2005. That kind of success earns you a pretty high platform on which to stand.
Jeff Gordon is making history in our generation. What’s more, even if you don’t care for his persona much, give him credit for shattering the NASCAR stereotype. In some ways, his career is what Tim Richmond’s might have been if AIDS hadn’t toppled the charasmatic former open wheeler. Granted, Freddy Lorenzen, Benny Parsons and Alan Kulwicki presented a departure from the caracature of the hard-drivin’ hillbillies who cut their teeth runnin’ “shine.” Yet, Jeff Gordon enjoyed a level of success in an age primed to catch every highlight on TV, computer and mobile screens across the world. It may not be hyperbole to say Gordon brought NASCAR to the world. This observer, sitting at a keyboard in Oregon is doing what he is doing right now, in part, because of drivers like Jeff Gordon.
Jim McCoy is a TV and radio sports reporter and play-by-play announcer out beyond the far reaches of NASCAR Nation in the Medford, Oregon area. Among his greatest sports loyalties is auto racing, where finding fans of similar passion is easy to do……..RG