A Smart And Nice Way To Salute A Career

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Last week, we learned that Jeff Gordon will be driving the pace car for the 99th Running of the Indianapolis 500 later this month. When I saw it, my first reaction was that it was a great idea. I thought it was a very nice salute to a great driver and an outstanding career. I realized just how wrong I must have been after checking the fan response on social media. There were the tirades from the usual grumps, but I also saw complaints from many whose opinions I have a great amount of respect for. On Trackside the other night, Curt Cavin said that he didn’t see many complaints. I did.

My question is – what’s the problem?

There are drivers in NASCAR that give little or no respect to the Verizon IndyCar Series. Jeff Gordon is not one of them. He has Hoosier ties and open-wheel roots. He gets it.

Although he was born in California, his family moved to Pittsboro, Indiana when he was a teenager. He was granted a USAC license at the age of 16 and became the USAC Midget Rookie of the Year. He won the “Night Before the 500” midget race in 1989 and 1990. Gordon wanted to race in CART in the early nineties, but the usual story of little funding left him sitting on the sidelines. He looked south to NASCAR.

People tend to forget that in those days, TV ratings for CART and NASCAR were practically identical. But given the size of their fields, there were more opportunities in NASCAR than in CART.

Fast forward almost a quarter-century later and we see Jeff Gordon as a NASCAR legend. His golden-boy status served as the perfect antithesis to “The Intimidator”, Dale Earnhardt. Their rivalry helped NASCAR explode in popularity as American open-wheel racing imploded into an identity crisis in the mid-nineties; setting the stage for NASCAR to become the most popular form of American racing.

Jeff Gordon may have been directly responsible for NASCAR’s growth, it wasn’t with the intent to bury IndyCar. Far from it. You always had the sense that Gordon never forgot his USAC roots and always kept a respectful eye on what was going on in open-wheel racing.

A few months ago, Jeff Gordon announced that this would be his last season in NASCAR. At forty-three, he is still relatively young but he is smart enough to quit when he is still at the top of his game.

Too many times, we see athletes stick around way past their prime as they convince themselves that they still have one more magic season in them. In my lifetime I saw football’s Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath and OJ Simpson; baseball’s Willie Mays, Tom Seaver and Henry Aaron all try to outrun Father Time. They didn’t succeed. In racing, AJ Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Darrell Waltrip did their legacies no favors by sticking around too long. Rick Mears did it the right way. It looks like Jeff Gordon wants to as well.

When I saw that Gordon had been chosen to drive the pace car, I thought it was a great way to salute an iconic race car driver that had Indiana ties. That was the only thought that ran through my mind. How naïve of me.

After scouring social media, I saw outrage and backlash from IndyCar fans saying that a driver from “that series” had no business driving the pace car for “our” race. I’m a very competitive person, but I guess I just don’t think in terms of “us vs. them”. I consider them race car drivers before labeling them according to their series. I learned a long time ago not to get too upset over the politics of racing.

It’s not like they’ve asked some mid-pack driver, a driver that retired twenty years ago or a criminal. Everyone seemed to welcome Kurt Busch as a competitor last year, so why not Gordon? He’s a lot more admirable as a human being than Kurt Busch.

As far as star power goes, they don’t get much bigger than Jeff Gordon. In the sixties, everyone knew who AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti were. It didn’t matter if they followed racing or not, everyone knew them. Today, there are a handful of athletes who are known by those that do not follow sports. Peyton Manning is one, Tiger Woods is another and the same goes for Jeff Gordon.

Since the duties of pace car driver switched from iconic drivers to celebrities, there aren’t many celebrities who have driven the pace car with more star power than Gordon. Morgan Freeman, who drove it in 2004, comes to mind but there aren’t many others that come close to having a name as recognizable as Gordon.

In fact, the list of drivers since 2000 is more forgettable than memorable. It is littered with B-list names like Elaine Irwin Mellencamp, Jim Caviezel, Josh Duhamal and Guy Fieri. Speaking of criminals, don’t forget that Lance Armstrong drove the pace car in 2006.

Whenever a non-racing celebrity is put in the pace car, the justification is that it might bring more eyeballs to the telecast. It rarely does, but this time it might. Kurt Busch’s presence made a slight bump in the TV numbers last year. I think that the best way to build the IndyCar brand is to lure NASCAR fans to IndyCar telecasts. They have a lot better chance of becoming longtime fans of this sport than viewers of The Food Network or Transformers. Curiosity of seeing one of their biggest stars drive the Indianapolis 500 pace car may lure them to the telecast. Then chances are better that they’ll watch the entire race than fans of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

And then there is this…Jeff Gordon has been a fan of the Indianapolis 500 since he was young. Now that he is on the cusp of retirement and has stated publicly that he is interested in doing other forms of racing – there is a chance, albeit a small one, that he might get so caught up in the moment of Race Day at the Indianapolis 500 that he might just want to try it. At his age, the window of opportunity is closing. If he is going to do it, it will probably be sooner than later. What better time to do it than the 100th Running next year?

Granted, that’s a longshot. Curt Cavin poo-pooed it the other night, but Jeff Gordon is a racer. He doesn’t think about the politics of one series versus another. He thinks in terms of racing and winning. It would not surprise me if the bug bites him that morning and the planning is put into motion on the flight back to Charlotte as he prepares to race in his final Coca-Cola 600 that night. If Jeff Gordon is in the 2016 Indianapolis 500, well…I can tell you there will be a lot of eyes watching.

So even though a lot of fans seem outraged, I think that Doug Boles and Company have pulled a coup in getting Jeff Gordon to drive the pace car. Now, about Florence Henderson…

George Phillips

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9 Responses to “A Smart And Nice Way To Salute A Career”

  1. Ken Riehl Says:

    Jeff Gordon is an excellent choice and one of the very few things that this iteration of suits have gotten right…

  2. redcar Says:

    I also think that Gordon is an excellent choice.

  3. Bob F. Says:

    I will never forget Pole Day in, I believe 1991, when Jeff Gordon was interviewed over the PA at the speedway. At that time he was looking for a ride in Indycar. I was disappointed to see him go to Nascar but it was a big reason I decided to get tickets to the original Brickyard 400 race which was the first time I ever attended or even watched a Nascar race. Prior to that I had been only an Indycar fan. But it was at the best speedway in the world so I went.

    I have since become a fan of the series and followed Jeff’s career. I also followed Tony Stewart in indycar and then his move to Nascar. My favorite Nascar drivers are those that came up in USAC and open wheel racing.

    This is a great decision. It follows another great decision from last year. Two in a row!

  4. madtad1 Says:

    http://espn.go.com/racing/story/_/id/12832930/alabama-cooperation-shows-nascar-indycar-help-other

    Proving your point, George. BTW, I agree, he is an excellent choice!

  5. billytheskink Says:

    It is an odd choice for the role, historically, but that is not inherently a bad thing. Jeff Gordon means a lot to IMS and to racing itself, so I don’t struggle with the fact that he has never competed in the 500.

    Technically, he’s not even the first NASCAR driver to drive the pace car for the 500. Marty Robbins had made 23 NASCAR starts before he drove the pace car in 1976.

  6. A terrific choice and I am very happy about it. Jeff is a 4-time Brickyard 400 winner, so he is a big part of the fabulous and most awesome history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

  7. Yeah, I don’t really understand the outrage, either. As Curt Cavin also pointed out the other night on Trackside, not very many people tune into the race to see the Grand Marshall/Pace Car Driver/National Anthem Singer. Those folks are basically window dressing. Were IMS able to snare a true A-list celebrity (not likely…those folks have a zillion things making demands on their time, so dedicating an entire weekend to being in the middle of “flyover country” is basically out of the question), then you might see a slight uptick of ratings from 100k or so of their fans tuning in, but there are maybe only a dozen or so folks in the entire country who could make that sort of impact. Best to forget about getting a hold of Will Smith, Ben Affleck, Justin Bieber, Bryan La Croix or whoever it is that the kids are all mooning over these days. They’re not interested.

    In the meantime, Gordon has always been more than respectful of IMS and the 500 (though I’d make the case that back in 1990 or 1991, he was probably just trying to get his name out there for ANY kind of major professional series…he admitted during an ESPN Speedweek segment in 1988 or ’89 when he was trying a Super Vee car at IRP on the road course for the first time that his most likely career path was NASCAR…it’s on YouTube, for anybody who is curious), and there is the tiny chance that his first trip to IMS for the 500 on Race Day in 32 years (he says the last time he was there for Race Day was around 1983) might just spur him to come back and drive next year. Likely? Oh, of course not, but seeing the crowd and feeling the electricity of IMS on Race Day can do funny things to a guy…

  8. The internet would act negative if they announced a cure for cancer. The choice of Jeff Gordon as the pace car driver is a good one. I am just surprised he wanted to do it the same day he has a big race.

    Gordon is not retiring from NASCAR. He just said he is done racing full time. I imagine he will keep running at places like the Brickyard and Charlotte while skipping out on plate tracks. Chevy will find him a part time ride.

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