'He Didn't Fit The Mold': How Jeff Gordon Attracted New Wave Of NASCAR Fans

Oct 16, 2015
Originally published on October 16, 2015 6:55 pm
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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Jeff Gordon is in his last NASCAR season. He's retiring at the end of the year. The four-time series champ came from a different part of the country and had a different style than the racers before him, and he helped NASCAR connect with a new generation. From member station WFAE, Michael Tomsic reports.

MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: Jeff Gordon is well-groomed, polite and somewhat corporate, not exactly the spitting image of old-school racing legends.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Gordon cleared him, Jeff Gordon to the race lead.

TOMSIC: Reporter Tom Higgins has covered the sport since the 1950s, back when racing and moonshine went hand-in-hand.

TOM HIGGINS, REPORTER: They were supposed to be these rough-and-tumble, semi-outlaw figures, or at least that was the characterization they got in the old days.

TOMSIC: In the '70s and '80s, stars like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt stuck to legal activities, but kept that old-school look and mentality. Then in the early '90s, Higgins remembers a courteous, young driver who looked like he should be in junior high. His name was Jeff Gordon.

HIGGINS: He didn't fit the mold. He was a new wave.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Checkers are out and they are down. And it is Jeff Gordon, victorious.

TOMSIC: In Charlotte in 1994, Gordon won his first race in NASCAR's top circuit. The TBS broadcast showed a boyish Gordon in tears.

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JEFF GORDON, DRIVER: I'm speechless man. I mean, this is the greatest day of my life. I don't know what to say, I mean...

TOMSIC: The next year, Gordon became one of the youngest NASCAR champions ever at age 24. Sheri Griffin from New Jersey remembers how gracious he was.

SHERI GRIFFIN: I saw an interview back in the early '90s, and I just liked his style. I thought he was a gentleman.

TOMSIC: At the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, Griffin was admiring an exhibit that included Gordon's iconic rainbow-colored car from the '90s. Laura Varela from Florida was drawn to that car, how genuinely happy Gordon seemed after winning and...

LAURA VARELA: He was definitely very attractive, and that was a different look for NASCAR at the time as well (laughter).

TOMSIC: He certainly had different roots. Gordon was born in California and spent his early teens in Indiana. Fellow driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. puts it this way.

DALE EARNHARDT JR., DRIVER: Back when he started, I think 90 percent of the drivers in the field were from North Carolina, and now I'm the last one.

TOMSIC: Earnhardt is exaggerating a bit, but NASCAR has turned from a Southern profession into a national one. Today, there are drivers from Vancouver, Wash., to Middletown, Conn.

EARNHARDT: He definitely brought a new demographic of fans, a new group of fans to the sport and appealed to a different fan than we generally had back then.

TOMSIC: ...Like Tyler Blaha-Gruszka. Growing up in Chicago, he got picked on for being a Jeff Gordon fan.

TYLER BLAHA-GRUSZKA: 'Cause no one liked NASCAR. I was the only one in school that liked NASCAR. So everyone made fun of me for it, but I just held strong. I loved it.

TOMSIC: At the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Blaha-Gruszka says he liked Gordon's style and how he kept winning. Gordon has now won 92 races, third most in NASCAR history. Another driver with multiple championships, Tony Stewart, sums up Gordon's impact.

TONY STEWART, DRIVER: Jeff's really done so much for the sport that nobody will ever be able to do again.

TOMSIC: And he'll stay involved in the business side of the sport after he retires. Team owner, Rick Hendrick, says Gordon is as savvy as it gets.

RICK HENDRICK, JEFF GORDON TEAM OWNER: He can help motorsports in a tremendous way from what he does on TV to what he can do with social media, working with sponsors and so forth. I'm excited about the next level of Jeff Gordon's career.

TOMSIC: With a few races left, Gordon is still competing for this year's championship. All season, he's also been reflecting on his long career.

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GORDON: I feel like I accomplished everything I ever set out to do and more. Would I like to win another, you know, championship? Of course, but I don't have to to be able to walk away and still be completely content.

TOMSIC: Not bad for a California kid who helped change a southern sport. For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic in Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.