MICHAEL KNIGHT - RACERS RESPECT RACERS ... PERIOD
Racers respect racers.
So it’s really no surprise – despite the significant differences in their types of motorsports – that five of NHRA’s best expressed their admiration for Jeff Gordon.
With all due respect to all of the straight-line sport’s competitors, this season’s biggest and most important racing story is Gordon, the NASCAR icon who says he has no plans to race after 2015. Another spotlight will focus on Gordon May 24 when he drives the Chevrolet Corvette pace car to start the 99th Indianapolis 500.
I spoke with John Force, Tony Schumacher and Tommy Johnson Jr., who know Gordon, plus Ron Capps and Doug Kalitta, who actually have competed against the four-time Sprint Cup champion.
Naturally, Force had the most amusing story.
Force said they first met about 20 years ago. Fred Wagenhals, president of Action Performance Co., which had the license to produce and sell the drivers’ souvenirs, asked Force to give Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace a lift to California (now Auto Club) Speedway in his limo. Gordon climbed in, too.
“This kid got into the car,” the Peak Camaro driver tells the story. “I didn’t have a clue who he was. He was baby-faced. Nice as could be. We took him to In-N-Out Burger. God’s truth.
“Within a year or two, he was a megastar. I was a nobody compared to how he evolved, but I’ll always remember that respect he showed to me.
“Not many get to do it the way he wants. So many (drivers) will just fade out. He’s one of the lucky ones. It’s a different world from what I live in. Jeff could come over here and drive for the next 25 years in a fuel Funny Car, if he wants a job. He don’t. He’d pack ‘em in.”
Schumacher knows Gordon from numerous joint appearances.
“Everyone in the world dreams of retiring while they are on top,” said the eight-time Top Fuel champion and U.S. Army driver. “We all want to retire before our days are numbered. He’s doing it with class and dignity.”
Johnson recalls how he almost landed a sponsorship with DuPont, long backer of Gordon’s No. 24 until its automotive paints business was sold, and now is known as Axalta.
“I was at the Brickyard (400, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s NASCAR race) hanging out with his team and they were pushing the car down pit road for qualifying,” said the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger Funny Car driver. “There was no sign of Jeff. They were, ‘Where’s he at?’
“(Crew chief) Steve Letarte says to me, ‘Well, if he don’t hurry up and get here, we’re putting TJ in this thing. We’ll fly down the straightaways but I don’t know what we’ll do in the corners.’ Jeff gets there, smacks me on the chest and says, ‘Almost had your chance, didn’t you?’”
Capps first met Gordon in 1994 at a California car show. The NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger driver has a photo of himself with Gordon taken that day stored in his mobile phone.
“I knew who Jeff was from seeing him on (ESPN’s) Thursday Night Thunder races,” said Capps. “Just knowing Jeff was from California I was watching him. He was sort of the first guy from California to do that. He broke the NASCAR mold.
“We did the World of Wheels show. I had just gotten into Top Fuel. It was cool talking to him. Later we did a lot of autograph stuff together.”
Capps and Gordon then met on-track at the Prelude to the Dream charity all-star race Tony Stewart used to stage at Eldora Speedway.
“I remember after the first practice Jeff came off the track and you would have thought he had just gotten off a go-kart at 5 years old,” said Capps. “He was so excited to race on dirt again. I said, ‘Are you having fun?’ He said, ‘Man, I wish I could do this all the time.’
“I remember going into Turn 3, going sideways, on the edge, and I’m ducking under Jeff’s car and then I look over and have Jimmie Johnson on my inside. I’m thinking, ‘This is like a dream.’”
Kalitta raced Gordon in the USAC midget series.
“I had just started (in USAC) and he was transitioning (toward NASCAR),” recalled Kalitta, the Mac Tools dragster driver. “I got to run against him a couple of times and it was a big deal.
“One thing I was proud of, it was after Jeff had moved on, and I even mentioned it to him, was (high-banked) Winchester (Speedway) and win a midget and sprint car race on the same day. Jeff did it one year, and a few years later, I did the same thing. That was probably the coolest thing I can remember about Jeff.
“Eldora, in Silver Crown cars, the guy was just incredible. He would drive the bleep out of that thing, up against the wall. He was fun to watch.”
Racers respect racers.
So do fans.
Cheers, Jeff, from the drag racing side of the motorsports world.
Follow Michael Knight on Twitter: @SpinDoctor500