Sturbin: Gordon Dropped A Bomb On Vegas Speedway
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Fort Worth, Texas – It has been my contention that the NASCAR fans who love to hate Jeff Gordon never have spent quality time with the man.
In this business, “quality time” usually is defined as a group scrum behind Gordon’s hauler or in the media center during a race weekend, or via NASCAR’s weekly national teleconference. Given Gordon’s crowded list of Hendrick Motorsports and sponsor-related duties, true one-on-one interviews have become rare.
That’s why a day in the life of Sir Jeff, spent riding around in a Lincoln limousine during a promotional visit for Texas Motor Speedway, remains one of my favorite moments in journalism.
Gordon’s visit in March 2006 was built around a tour of the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, Air Force Plant No. 4, in Fort Worth. And before the six-hour junket filled with cell phone interviews, photo ops and autograph sessions was over, I watched Jeff Gordon bomb Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
We’ll get to that anecdote in a moment.
First, recall that Gordon created his last big race-day headline in the Sprint Cup Series on April 4, with a victory at TMS. That win snapped a pair of streaks that had seen Gordon go 0-for-16 at “The Great American Speedway” and a career-worst 47 races since his most recent Cup win.
Never mind that Gordon, driver of the No. 24 DuPont/National Guard GED Chevrolet, now has been leading the Cup driver standings for five consecutive weeks. In these days of the 24/7 news cycle, race-winners rule…at least until the next qualifying session…and Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte were seriously overdue.
“It feels like the very first time I’ve ever won. It’s been a long streak,” said Gordon at TMS, sounding more like a rookie than the driver who had just posted his 82nd career victory. “For us, we were measured against our success. But when you have the high expectations that this team has and you go through what we’ve gone through with all the wins and then you don’t win and you have to hear it each and every day, every weekend…’When are you going to win? When are you going to win?’…you know, you go long enough and you feel like you’ve never won a race.”
Through eight starts, Gordon leads Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson, the three-time/reigning Cup champion and race runnerup at TMS, by 85 points.
“It’s great to be leading the points,” Gordon said. “But you want to be the guy to beat for the championship. If you’re going to win this championship, you’ve got to show that you’re strong, you’re consistent and you can win.”
At one point during his post-race news conference in Texas, Gordon was asked if he ever bought into the written and spoken suggestions that he can’t drive the Chevy Impala SS iteration of NASCAR’s Car of Today…specifically, that he can’t drive a loose race car anymore… that he can’t relate to the setups which have carried Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to three consecutive championships…that Jeff’s second marriage and new lifestyle as a daddy have softened him…that his championship mettle has been compromised.
“I thought about it a couple of times,” said Gordon, 37, sixth on the all-time winner’s list but only one behind the legendary Cale Yarborough. “Never looked at it that way. And the facts are the facts. We had opportunities. We didn’t win, sometimes it was my fault. Sometimes there were other circumstances. And so it doesn’t surprise me that was written, and it’s OK. It’s our job as a team to come together and prove that wrong for ourselves, not for anybody else. Honestly, I think it inspired us to go through that. It made us angry, not because things were being written about it, because we know we’re better than that.
“I don’t know how many more years I’ve got left. And I’m giving these guys everything I’ve got.”
Gordon also was asked if, as the losing streak grew legs, he sensed some of his detractors actually were beginning to root for him – thinking big-picture that when Jeff Gordon wins it’s good for the sport.
“I can’t say I ever saw that,” Gordon said with a laugh. “I kept telling NASCAR that, you know. Tried to. I’m sure there’s probably some people out there that maybe weren’t big Jeff Gordon fans that saw us struggle enough and said, ‘Hey, it would be good to see them win.’ But I also know there’s some that are just loving it that we were never winning.”
Asked what he learned from the streak, Gordon said it was all about motivation.
“It was motivation because it really makes you question how bad do you really want it,” Gordon said. “I realized through last year that I didn’t want to just be somebody out there riding around. I didn’t want to be somebody that never won again.”
Now, back to that limo ride. In between those “live” cell phone interviews with various Texas sports radio personalities, myself and a fellow colleague got to question Gordon about his inability to win at TMS (he was 0-for-10 at the time), his post-divorce personal life, his growing interest in real estate (think Colorado) and his favorite street cars (with big ups for his Corvette Z06).
Once inside the Lockheed Martin plant, Gordon was ushered into the cockpit of an F-16 Fighter – one awesome piece of machinery when you’re so close you can touch it. That was followed by additional seat time in the cockpit of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Jet simulator, where Gordon flew a “mission” in what was then Lockheed Martin’s newest project.
The flight program chosen that day had Gordon darting up and over the mountains surrounding Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Once he got the hang of that, Gordon declared: “I want to bomb something.” The flight instructor dialed up a virtual image of LVMS, as seen from several thousand feet above the 1.5-mile layout and its grandstands. The original idea was for Gordon to strafe some buildings, including the garages and infield media center. Hmmm. But in one of those, ‘Hey, what’s-this-button-do?’ moments, Gordon launched a bomb attack that reduced the facility to smithereens.
Memo to track-owner O. Bruton Smith: Consider it a case of your tax dollars at work.
“I bombed the Las Vegas Speedway,” Gordon stated for the record, gloating about his markmanship. “I had a lot of fun in there and could have been there all day.”
Afterward, Gordon spoke to more than 300 Lockheed Martin fans disguised as employees on the importance of teamwork. “There is a lot we (drivers) could learn from here,” said Gordon, working from a stage and without the help of notes. “I recognize for our safety and freedom that our men and women are over there serving to protect us, and it takes these types of vehicles and this type of technology to be at the top. And I feel very safe.”
He exited the hall to a standing ovation, signing autographs all the way to the golf cart that carried him through the massive plant back to his limo. At Gordon’s insistence, that cart stopped several times to allow employees chasing after him perhaps their only chance to shake the hand of their driver, and get that No. 24 hat or die-cast or photo signed.
Throughout the long day, Gordon was flawless. He was accommodating, articulate and amped – an ambassador for everything NASCAR is and wishes its image-shapers could be.
Back in the limo, as another “live” radio interview was being cued-up from somewhere in Texas, Gordon offered a self-observation.
“You know what?” Gordon said with another laugh. “I’m not smart enough to be a pilot.”