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Memo: Gordon-Hating Has Passed Out Of Vogue

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 2 2011

Jeff Gordon popped out of the window of his Sprint Cup car to the cheers of fans at Phoenix International Raceway. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Let’s see what’s in the old Morning Memo today:

The airplane was on final approach and passengers had just been asked to turn off and stow all electronic equipment when the overly chatty flight attendant got back on the public address system.

Because the airplane was landing in Orlando during Speedweeks and because 80 percent of the passengers were wearing NASCAR gear, the flight attended began naming drivers.

Each name got a smattering of hoots and applause, especially from the well-oiled fans. Dale Earnhardt, still alive at the time, got loud hoots and applause.

And then, Jeff Gordon, a three-time championship at the time, got booed and shouted down fairly savagely.

“Wow,” or something like that, the flight attendant said. Some guy from somewhere in the plane offered an unsolicited explanation, shouting out, “Freakin’ pretty boy!” Except he didn’t use the word freakin’.

Such was Gordon’s standing in NASCAR Nation not that ago. Booed in pre-race intros, the target of beer cans during victory laps and the object of horror stories designed to frighten young children around camp fires.

Apparently, no longer.

A colleague working in the media center at Phoenix on Sunday said that when Gordon passed Kyle Busch for the lead eight laps from the end of the race there, the cheer that went up from the

Fans besiege Jeff Gordon to get his autograph in Phoenix. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

grandstands was so loud that the guy thought somehow Dale Earnhardt Jr. had taken the lead.

The warm feelings toward Gordon continued through post-race ceremonies and bled into media reports the following day.

Just as I could never understand the derisive treatment of Gordon in the past – I have spent considerable time with him and found him to be the ultimate gentleman (which may be what doomed him among old-schoolers) – I could not initially understand the hearty reception after this PIR victory.

But I think that is the nature of sports hero worship. The closer to retirement a top athlete gets – regardless of how much he was previously despised – the more his accomplishments come into focus.

And, up shoots the appreciation factor.

Earnhardt Sr., remember, was not always the beloved icon he eventually became. Athletes from Muhammad Ali to Jack Nicklaus were despised as snotty punks during the early parts of their careers.

Somebody suggested to me that the wonderful reception Gordon got from fans at Phoenix was pitty-based. That is, people were feeling sorry for the guy because of his two-year winless streak.

I don’t think that is it. Not completely, anyway. I think Gordon has crossed that invisible line. The guy has had an amazing career. He’s got 83 victories and counting. Four championships and counting. Multiple Driver of the Year Awards and counting.

Finally – and even thought he is still a bit of a pretty boy – NASCAR fans have said to themselves, “OK, the guy is one of the all-timers.”

And on Sunday, as the sun was going down in Phoenix, they said it to each other and to the world.

Memo to self: Send copy of this to Jimmie Johnson.

Yes, sure, of course I thought it was cool that Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 a couple of weeks ago. How could you not. Seems like a great kid with eyes forward and feet on ground.

But I was much more happy for the Wood Brothers Racing team. It was seeing them in Victory Lane

Trevor Bayne and his Wood Brothers Racing team celebrate a golden NASCAR moment. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)

in Daytona had me thinking nice NASCAR thoughts.

I grew up with the Wood Brothers. In the ‘60s, when my friends and I would fasten baseball cards on the rear wheels of our bike with clothes pins, it would be with shouts of, “the Wood Brothers”. Later, the name became synonymous with just, generally going to work on a car for us. Oil change: “Wood Brothers!” Tire change: “Wood Brothers!”

I still have a photo of the Wood Brothers pitting Jim Clark’s Lotus at Indy in 1965 as the wall paper on my laptop.

One of my favorite professional memories is of touring their old shop up in Stuart, Va. Favorite memories of that was the drive up through the culturally intense back country of Virginia and the wall of old photos in the shop.

Photos of Curtis Turner, Tiny Lund, Fireball Roberts, Bob Welborn, Dale Jarrett, A.J. Foyt, Glen Wood, Buddy Baker, Marvin Panch, Junior Johnson, Cale Yarborough, Ned Jarrett, Fred Lorenzen, David Pearson, Joe Weatherly, Ralph Earnhardt, Neil Bonnett, Ricky Rudd, Mark Martin, and Bill Elliott.

And Jim Clark and Colin Chapman.

Wowsers.

Then, there were Len and Eddie Wood – caretakers of history and classy acts on their own – headed for Victory Lane two weeks ago.

After years of painfully having to ask them about disappointments, it was intensely cool to see big smiles.

Memo to self: Love ya, Glen and Leonard but I hope none of those baseball cards was Mickey Mantle rookie job.

During the broadcast of the 500, television told us that Kevin Harvick, who had crashed out early, was already back home in North Carolina.

Not sure what to think about that. Were this stick-and-ball, Harvick would have been called out coast to coast for leaving before the race was over.

Good thing for Harvick that: First, there were more important things to talk about in aftermath of the race; second, stick-and-ball hairdos were analyzing “Melo’s” decision to opt for black cotton socks that day instead dark-blue silk blend.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 2 2011
8 Comments

8 Comments »

  • Johanna says:

    Sorry John not from what I have seen. ! I have not heard more boos then cheers in a few years! Like I said Gordon haters cheer up! No reason to be so depressed! Jeff is going to win a lot now, so please stop your crying till then. You just look sad and desperate now!

  • John says:

    Not true… even though Hendrix brought Jr to HMS to minimize the amount of fans who despise Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.. there are still more boos that cheers at driver introductions

  • Johanna says:

    Actually Ginger your are wrong. I was there! It was respect, oh yeah maybe 20% were cheering that anyone but Kyle, but from the many around me, it was 80% exactly what this writer said. Respect for an awesome driver. Sorry to rain your your parade. But cheer up, you can start booing him again when he wins many times this year.

  • Terry says:

    Quote correction…my bad
    old buildings …should have read “ugly buildings”
    While I’m at it….
    there are HATERS out there already for
    Trevor Bayne….HOW?…I understand not everybody is going to love this kid….he is not everyone’s version on a NASCAR driver…
    But what could he have done already to have the HATERS out this quick.
    Jeff gordon can really HELP him with this part of the show.

  • Terry says:

    Jim,
    Thank you for the part on the Wood bros. …( Dan Gurney hauled the mail for them for all wins )…..
    FUNNY….how a year ago they couldn’t get a line in the paper if Queen Elizabeth hung her moon out the side window of the #21 during a qualifying lap. Now a week later Trevor hangs a brake in practise ..pops the wall……..waalaa…USAT top of the page and ESPN Sports Center…..
    As for JEFF GORDON…. I refer to the classic movie CHINATOWN.
    John Huston say’s to Jack Nicholson
    ” Mr Gattis, politicians, whores, and old buildings become respectable if they stick around long enough.”
    Jeff fits in there somewhere.
    Terry

  • Michael says:

    I hated Darrell Waltrip back in the mid-80s. I considered him arrogant and egotistical. And I loved when someone beat him. These days, though, I enjoy Ole’ DW as an announcer and commentator. I think you got it exactly right. It is easy to hate certain athletes when they are that their peak and winning all the time. Over time, though, you grow to respect their accomplishments and the reasons you disliked them seem less important.

  • Chuck says:

    I’m sure some of the cheers were for someone beating Busch. I think Jim is spot on. I can remember Darrell Waltrip being booed with HATRED. Dale Sr. the same. They were beating the greatest heros in the sport, Petty, Pearson, Cale, Bobby, etc. Now how are “they” remembered. I was there. I booed them to. Now I miss the greatness of all those men.

  • Ginger says:

    LOL Don’t confuse the reson for the grandstand cheers. They weren’t for Gordon. They were for somebody…anybody…passing Busch for the lead. Sorry to rain on your parade.