Jeff Gordon: Formula One’s Loss, NASCAR’s Gain

Jeff Gordon at speed in Juan Pablo Montoya’s Williams Formula One car.

Perhaps this is a bold statement: Jeff Gordon is the only NASCAR driver of the modern era who could have made it to Formula One and had the potential to be a multiple World Champion.

Unfortunately, he suffered the same slings and arrows of abandonment by the open wheel world that many have. No one gave him a chance. IndyCar and Formula One’s loss, NASCAR’s gain.

Gordon’s win at Martinsville and his elevation in the Chase standings prove that the will to win, to never quit and to dig deep in the face of such steep competition are but a few of the attributes he possesses that would have propelled him to the top on the Global stage.

The villagers with pitchforks and torches aside, Gordon had/has exactly what it takes to perform at this level. The remaining Sprint Cup NASCAR drivers in the field today do not.

Many fans dont realize that Earnhardt, Sr and Gordon were friends. It was Earnhardt who gave Gordon the nickname “Wonderboy”.

When the name Jeff Gordon comes up in conversation with fans it evokes one of two reactions: They love him or ‘think’ they hate him. The flaw in these polarizing reactions is simple: They don’t know him.

That’s somewhat understandable considering the level of fame he’s achieved; it’s hard to get to know him. However, that’s for those who haven’t met him and looked beyond the defense mechanisms that celebrities have to use, which is hard to do, unless you’ve grown up around many, many celebrities. You learn how to look over the fence.

My family has been in the racing business since 1952 and I’ve met some of the world’s greatest and most unusual drivers, so I don’t have the typical reaction of most. Celebrity is a man made environment that just doesn’t matter to me. I’m more interested in the person.

I’ve met Jeff Gordon twice. Both times in settings that were not charged with the adrenaline rush of fuel and throngs of fans vying for his attention.

The first time was the year he came to NASCAR. I was staying with a friend in Lake Norman who had sold him the condo right next door to hers. Ray Evernham lived across the walk.

When she introduced us I hadn’t really heard much about him other than he was an up and coming talent. It was all there, the reticence on his part to be too open. The exuberance of being in an such an enviable position in his career. The trust of having met someone new through a friend.

A much younger Jeff Gordon learning the ropes.

My senses picked up all of these emotions, body language and speech. What he lacked was an ’enfant terrible’ attitude or sense of entitlement. That was different than what I expected.

I didn’t think much of it at the time. As anyone who knows me can attest, Formula One is my octane of choice. It never occurred to me that he had delivered on the potential in his early years that the Europeans rave about these days.

I walked away from that casual meeting impressed most of all with his politeness. That’s a learned skill, not something you’re born with, at least that’s what I have observed over the decades.

The second meeting was about 7 years ago at one of his pre-Daytona 500 parties; it was for Georgia Pacific, I believe.

My friend, who knew him, and I were early and Jeff was sitting by himself and his step-father, John Bickford was sitting at the bar in heavy discussion about hunting and Salmon fishing in Alaska. This was a subject near and dear to my heart as these were my ‘gourmet cooking’ days.

John Bickford, Jeff Gordon’s Step-Father.

After about 20 minutes of engaging John on the merits of cooking wild game, in the wild, Jeff walked up. Obviously he had overheard the conversation and said to me “Be careful, he may invite you on one of his adventures”.

I knew if that came to fruition I would be held to an impossible standard as John’s hunting/fishing crew always invited an exceptional chef or cook for just that purpose.

I decided to extricate myself from John and my friend in order to talk with Jeff. I found him interesting. He didn’t remember our meeting at Lake Norman, nor do I expect he’ll remember our second meeting.

Most stars do not approach someone else, they wait for someone to approach them. In that scenario the celebrity can mentally size up who has invaded their space. They can control the situation.

With Jeff, I must have not given off those stalker vibes. Although, probably a few women in my past would challenge me on that statement.

He was very cautious at first.  Many celebrities want to immediately dominate the conversation in order to take control. Not Jeff.

Gordon and his wife, Ingrid Vandebosch in Martinsville winners circle.

This driver was different. He actually began asking about me.  Why? Because I wasn’t asking him for anything, no need to screen me through his PR or marketing machine. Fans underestimate the pressure these drivers are under. Let’s face it, everybody wants something from them. To me he was simply an interesting person.

As the conversation rolled on I managed to hear about how he attained his position in racing, from quarter midgets on up. What struck me then and still does, is that he had every attribute that is required to be a Formula One star.

Not that being a NASCAR star is bad, quite the contrary, it’s just that the Europeans aren’t the nicest lot to us Americans when it comes to racing. Michael Andretti is a perfect example.

This is when the subject of his F1 swap with Montoya came up.

His eyes glazed over recounting the experience as he mentally took me around the Grand Prix track at Indianapolis where the swap with Montoya took place. Every corner, the traction control, the braking, the grip and the startling technology.

I knew that he enjoyed it, but I couldn’t yet ascertain whether or not he could have pulled off going to Europe and enduring the full contact fighting that takes place in the lower formula’s leading up to a prized spot on the Grand Prix grid.

When Jeff Gordon retires from NASCAR, let’s hope he keeps racing. The LeMans prototypes would be suitable.

The conversation didn’t last long as more and more people filed into the room demanding his attention, but the information that had been passed to me coupled with his obvious intelligence had piqued my interest. I set out on a mission to learn more about the path he had taken.

From the very early years until the move to Indianapolis, I was intrigued.

Why would I say that Gordon is the only driver in NASCAR’s modern era who could have been America’s GP star? You have to look at the dedication, the mannerisms, the passion and many more attributes that aren’t verbally communicated. Jeff Gordon is a sponge. He soaks up everything, if he finds it interesting.

Stewart is a great driver, but he lacks the total and unflappable dedication to such a foreign discipline.

Jimmie Johnson didn’t have John Bickford calling the early shots. Yes he’s incredible at what he does, but how many families would buy a quarter midget to drive in front of their talented son in order for him to learn how to pass the other car? Not many.

Allmendinger? Talented yes, but his attitude wouldn’t have gotten him far enough in order to have the very best rides in Europe. He would have, in short order, rubbed the Europeans the wrong way.

The rest of Gordon’s accomplishments are in the history books.

When Jeff finally decides to step out of the drivers seat at Hendrick, he may very well take on another role with the team. After all, he does have equity in the operation.

However, something tells me that despite his eventual departure from the grueling schedule of NASCAR, this driver won’t be done.

He excels on road courses and truly seems to enjoy the prototype racing. His ability goes beyond what is offered in Grand Am.

Gordon is a full blown candidate for the LeMans prototypes, the LMP1’s. They dwarf the Daytona Prototypes and LMP2 cars in power, speed, torque and technology.

With Gordon, the skill is there, the technical understanding, the passion and not to mention the fact that landing a top notch Mercedes, Porsche or Audi ride wouldn’t be a stretch. They still sell most of their cars in the United States.

Who better to carry Old Glory to the Europeans?

 

 

 

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About Michele Rahal

Michele Rahal began his career as a professional racing driver in the United States driving for top road racing teams and owners such as Tom Gloy Motorsports, Lever Brothers and the Championship Group. His professional racing career continued from 1980 to 1987. In 1988, Mr. Rahal retired from active driving and moved on to create motorsports insurance packages for teams, events, facilities and drivers developing and instituting programs through such world renowned institutions as Lloyds of London.

Comments

  1. Byrne-Drift_Lift says:

    Very great article!! I grew up with an almost famous F1 driver my father Tommy Byrne and I went to all the races growing up meeting various drivers and my favorite in Nascar being Earnhardt. I met him a week before he died and after he passed I said to my father “dad I cant stand Jeff Gordon.” He looked at me in almost disgust and I knew then that Jeff Gordon was a great driver. After that I always looked up to him and I remember me and my father watching him drive the crap out of the F1.

    • Michele Rahal says:

      Your Father Tommy is famous and a great and dear friend of mine whom I hold in the highest regard. Had he not been screwed by the F1 elites….your Dad would have been a World Champion….no doubt in my mind.

      Michele

  2. DanW says:

    Interesting article that offers a completely different perspective than most canned articles based on a single driver interview that’s heard by many writers and rewrittten ad infinitum for weeks. While I originally was not a Gordon fan, I’ve come to respect him on many levels…from being a driver’s driver to his many charitable activities. And I would like to see him continue racing in some capacity after he hangs up his NASCAR gloves. He’s does have the talent to be successful in road racing, whether its in the US or Europe. But I have the feeling his after-NASCAR worklife would still be much too busy to race full-time in a European/Global series, but I’d love to see him participate in that newly-combined ALMS/GrandAm series called USRC…he’d be an excellent addition to help that new series develop a fanbase.

  3. Gregory Howe says:

    …but what about Scott Speed?

  4. Ken says:

    This article reads a little like F1 is the big time and Nascar is a lesser form of racing. There are many of us who would dispute that though. F1 is much more about technology than driver skill in fact, where Nascar works hard to look to limit technological advantages and even the playing field to a much larger degree. I think it would have been a shame if Gordon had pursued his career in Europe, this format has allowed his dedication to the sport to stand out even more and be truly recognized as one of the all time great racers in any format.

    • Michele Rahal says:

      Not lesser, but not as big on the world stage by a long shot. The competition to make to F1 is 10 times that of NASCAR. F1 gets over 500 million viewers per race…NASCAR…maybe 6 million on a great day. I know both sports quite well and many in-between. NASCAR is EXTREMELY competitive, but if we want to stand out on the world stage…as we should…then we need a horse in the F1 field. Gordon’s first pick was Indycar, they ignored him.

  5. Linda Marie Lang says:

    Love this article

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