Jeff Gordon has been a household name in my family since he made his way onto the NASCAR scene in the early nineties. Growing up in Northern California no doubt had something to do with that, and his success certainly didn’t hurt matters. Amy can attest to the fact that while I have not always followed NASCAR, I have always followed Jeff Gordon and his career. Always! So to say that interviewing Jeff in Sonoma this year is an item off my bucket list is a serious understatement. It well could be my whole bucket list, at least as it pertains to NASCAR.
In order to make this dream come true I drove from Las Vegas to meet Amy in the Central Coast. From there she thankfully took over the wheel and drove us another couple hours North, where we grabbed a few hours sleep and headed to the track super early Friday morning. Our interview was scheduled for 10:45 a.m. and I was not taking any chances that we would be late. An hour or so before Amy and I make our way down the garage area to make sure we know where the 24 Transporter is parked. Again, no need to leave anything to chance. OK, 24 transporter found! I judge it will take about three minutes to walk from the Media Center to the transporter, so I tell Amy we can hang out and take care of other business til about 10:38, but then we HAVE to go. She chuckles knowing that this is a combination of my nerves and obsessive need to plan.
Once we get to the transporter everything went off without a hitch, and all the nerves dissapated. Jeff came out and escorted us into the transporter, where things were as chaotic as one would expect for a race weekend. Crew going back and forth, a transmission being carried through the hallway. Jeff claimed all had been quite calm until we arrived, when “all hell broke loose”. He kindly led us through the chaos and into the lounge area at the front of the transporter where we could chat, both without interruption and without being in the way of the work at hand.
To say that all of this was surreal is to state the obvious, and I might even think it was all a dream if I weren’t sitting here listening to the audio verification right now as I transcribe the interview.
MISTY: Jeff, you’re celebrating 20 years with Dupont this year, the longest running sponsor/driver relationship in NASCAR. To what do you attribute your longevity with your sponsors, like Dupont and Pepsi?
JEFF: Sure. I mean I think the first thing is just the success that we’ve had. When you’re winning races and championships that gives them good reason to stay on board and helps their marketing and reach out to their customers. So we take a lot of pride in the fact that we’ve been able to maintain that relationship for such a long period of time. And I think over time you almost become a part of that company. You know, you are a spokesperson. I tell people all the time that I’m not really a Dupont employee, but I feel like one, you know. I know the company so well and know so many people and I believe in what they do so much that its very easy and natural for me to talk about Dupont and their great products. And, it’s the same way with Pepsi. I mean some things just come naturally, you know growing up as a kid out here I was a Pepsi drinker, knowing what kind of great things they have done in motorsports over the years. I can remember out here going to drag races as a kid and seeing the Pepsi Challenge Funny Car with Don Prudhomme. Being able to be sponsored by them is amazing. You know we work very hard at it. We’ve got a great team and luckily we’ve been able to give back as much as they’ve been able to help us do what we do.
MISTY: When fans approach when Ella and Leo are with you, how do they react? Do they understand what is going on?
JEFF: Leo doesn’t. He’s too young, but Ella’s funny. She gets a little territorial at times. At first it was what did they ask you, Papa? Why did they want your picture? Why did they want a signature? So I try to explain to them, well my work and what it is I do and why they’re fans and so now she starts to understand that and gets that and is cool with it, but definitely when they are at the race track she likes that attention and so when somebody else tries to take that attention away she gets a little bit territorial and wants to stay very close to me, and so it’s cute.
MISTY: In the offseason you took her to Rwanda. How did she react to that experience?
JEFF: Oh, it was amazing. I mean it’s such a long trip to get over there and then when you’re there, there are long drives on rough roads and then totally new experiences not knowing how she’s going to react. She was amazing, such a trooper. First of all, she had to get five or six shots to go, which was painful not only for her but for us to watch and yet we explained to her what it was all about and then she wanted them. We gave her that choice and she said, “I wanna go help kids in Africa.” So it’s very cool and made me so proud as a dad to see her go through that and travel all the way over there and when she got there and just playing with the kids and trying to get an understanding of what goes on in different parts of the world. I think it was a great, great experience for her and for us.
MISTY: Of your 85 wins to date, what’s the most memorable for you?
JEFF: Oh, I still think it’s the Inaugural Brickyard 400. Always has been. You know, to grow up after leaving California and moving to Indiana. Even as a kid growing up here (California), to me the Indy 500 was the granddaddy of them all. I was more of an open wheel racer and just such a huge fan of AJ Foyt, Rutherford, Unser and all the greats. So my first big race I ever went to was the Indianapolis 500 and I’d been to a sprint car race, but never a NASCAR race. I didn’t know a lot about NASCAR and so getting to go there with a chance to win, with it being the first race that they’d ever had there besides the Indy 500 was a huge thing for me. It was like a dream come true. To win it was beyond anything I ever imagined, so that experience is one I’ll never forget.
MISTY: Can you tell us a little about the “Kick It” campaign?
JEFF: Yeah, you know, I’m excited about it. We’re always looking at ways to grow our foundation, to come up with more ways to engage people and get them interactive in how we can do fundraising and awareness. So “Kick It” is just this great grassroots program that was brought to us. I actually met Quinn, a little boy who really started it all, who’s in remission from cancer right now. To meet him, to put a face with it and then to see how it all started to take off – it’s very cool and it really connects us and our fans and racing and more grass roots of being able to have these fun events all around the country and make it happen simultaneously at any time. Some of them I can be a part of but I don’t have to be a part of all of them. That’s the thing we’re always challenged with is how can we do more things to raise more awareness, to reach out and help more kids without me having to be present because racing takes up so much of my time and so we try to plan big events, but this is a way where that can happen. So I’m really excited. Not to mention I can’t wait to kick the heck out of that big red ball. I’ve been practicing out in our backyard with my kids and so yeah it’s very exciting, and it’s still just getting started, has a little ways to go.
MISTY: Do you see your role in cup ownership expanding in the future? Maybe starting your own team?
JEFF: No, no, no, no (laughs)! I hope I’m smarter than that. To me it’s about partnerships and racing from a business standpoint is not a very…how do I put it… the business model is just not really that great. Racing has always been and we try harder these days to make it a real business, but it has always really been more of a hobby. That’s what got Rick Hendrick into racing, most of the car owners out here have other businesses that allow them to do what they’re passionate about and have a hobby now, and that’s where it started from. So it’s not really based on a great business model and how to keep it funded. We’ve been able to do very well, obviously, and so I’m happy with my equity position that I have – it’s been a great investment, but from the management standpoint or from being more involved, not from a driver standpoint, but more get involved with it when I step away from driving. Yeah, that part I look forward to, but as for expanding my ownership, I’ll always be partners with Rick and do it that way.
MISTY: Finally, Sonoma is a bit of a homecoming each year, do you find that stressful or exciting?
JEFF: Oh, no, it’s exciting! In the past it’s been a little stressful just because we’ve had my daughters birthday party here and trying to coordinate all that and going back and forth to the track and everything – that can get a little stressful, but this year we did her birthday back in Charlotte with all her friends from school and the neighborhood, which was great to see. We had a blast. Just my wife and I came out here. It’s just now to see family. Alot of my friends aren’t coming out this year, they have other things going on as well, so it’s gonna be pretty much just me, my wife and the racetrack. This track’s been pretty good to me over the years, so I like coming out here. It’s fun.
MISTY: And, as a fan I have to say we love the fact that you and Ingrid share the family pictures.
JEFF: Oh…thank you! We’ll see how long we can continue to do that before…
MISTY: The kids put up a fight?
JEFF: Yeah. Right. Leo doesn’t like his picture taken quite as much as Ella, which doesn’t surprise me, but yeah we enjoy it. Twitter’s been an amazing experience, getting to interact with the fans in a whole new way. I love it. It shows how passionate our fans are and the things they’re really interested in being a part of. And seeing as well as how much it pains them when we do bad just as much as it does us.
MISTY: Yeah, we definitely, as fans feel that we are part of the team.
JEFF: Sure, absolutely! That’s what I love about Twitter. It brings everyone into the team in a whole new way.
If you are interested in learning more about the “Kick It” campaign, please visit: http://www.jeffgordonchildrensfoundation.org/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=5oIDJRPyGfISF&b=5968491&ct=11797017¬oc=1
Follow Jeff Gordon on Twitter: @jeffgordonweb
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