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Magazine
First Place

Monte Dutton, Racing Milestones

NASCAR’S Average Jeff

Almost from the moment he arrived on the NASCAR stage, Jeff Gordon was immensely successful. Yet Gordon could never seem to do enough to please the legions of fans who resented him. He was too good, too perfect, and too one-dimensional. Some saw Gordon as soulless and antiseptic. Some hated him for his success. Some hated him for any number of reasons, some exaggerated and others fanciful.

Yet, at age 32, Gordon remains upbeat and enthusiastic. He’s seldom betrayed much bitterness at even his most virulent critics. The most successful race driver of his generation is as unaffected by fame and celebrity as when he first showed up in a stock-car garage.

What on earth was there ever to dislike in Gordon?

Did he win too much? Was he too perfect? Too handsome and too unblemished? Have we actually reached so inglorious a depth in our society that good becomes bad and wholesome becomes seedy?

In a span of five years, Gordon won 47 races, three championships and $29,316,703. That was back in the 1990s, by the way, when $29 million was pretty good money. In the four complete seasons since, Gordon has won 15 races, one championship and $26,657,378. He also had his name run through the mud in a messy divorce that saw that good name tarnished by lurid headlines in supermarket tabloids.

Here’s a surprise. People started to come around. King Arthur staggered into the throne room wearing a two-day beard and somehow earned a bit of affection from his subjects. In the loss of Camelot’s “one brief, shining moment,” Jeff Gordon turned into a regular Joe and found, to his surprise, that a few chinks in the armor made him seem like one of the guys.

What’s more, Gordon came out of his travails a better man. “It’s helped me really understand who I am,” he says. “The most important thing about getting through life - ’cause it’s not easy to do - is to be yourself and enjoy it. There are a lot of things in life that I’m enjoying now that maybe in the past I didn’t enjoy enough.

“I’m very comfortable with where I am in life. I’m comfortable to be in my 30s. I’m comfortable with my career. Things are good for me, and I think it kind of shines through. I don’t blame anything or anybody. You learn from every experience you have in your life. I hope those experiences help me grow into a better person.”

Gordon has grown up, and if it took marital collapse and having his private life run up a public flag pole, then at least it had the benefit of teaching him a few lessons. Gordon became as adept at making the most of a tarnished image as he already was at getting the most out of worn tires on a greasy short track.

“When you’re young,” says Gordon, “you’re so worried about making mistakes that, when you make those mistakes, you just eat yourself up. As you get older - and I’m not saying I’m old, but, as I’ve gotten into my 30s - I realize that making mistakes is a natural part of life and, as long as you learn from them, that’s what’s important. You’re going to make them, and you’ve got to become comfortable, knowing mistakes are natural.”

Boos never brought Jeff Gordon down. Divorce didn’t bring him down either. What he learned was to be true to his own feelings.

“I can’t control what other people think,” he says. “I try to do what I think is right. I can’t control what other people think. It’s important to do the right thing, but if what I think is right isn’t what others think is right, I can’t control that. I’ve just got to be true to myself. That’s my philosophy, as true and clear as it can possibly be, on life.”

It’s not like Gordon slid down a gutter into a bowl of cherries. He still gets his share of boos, but the irrational hatred has dissolved. Even those who do not like him now grant him a measure of respect.

“I’ve got a lot more friends now,” Gordon says, laughing. “It makes you more human, and unfortunately, a lot of people either thought I thought I was better than everybody else, or they put me on a pedestal or a different category and didn’t really look at me as normal.

“I’m not just talking about competitors; I’m talking about friends and people whom I know well. They’ve said, ’It’s good to know you are normal and you make the same mistakes everybody else makes.’ It’s like they were glad I wasn’t some superhuman. I had so many wonderful things happening on the race track, but it didn’t really mold me or give a clear indication of who I was off the race track.”

No mention of Gordon should be made, of course, without noting that he also brought hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of fans to the sport by being young, photogenic and almost antithetical to the image previously associated with stock-car racers. Among those who came to resent his every move, a considerable element would have done so no matter who it was. Gordon upset the sport’s applecart. He began the sport’s great generational shift. He was a somewhat unwitting personification of drastic changes taking place in the framework of the NASCAR culture.

Gordon, once referred to disparagingly as Wonder Boy, became human overnight. Although he remained marvelously successful, adding a fourth championship in 2001, he hasn’t reeled off a season of double-digit victories since 1998. Whereas once he seemed to have walked out of some 1950s-era sitcom - praising God for every victory, offering almost absurdly humble explanations of every virtue - in the new century Gordon had the carefully crafted image assaulted by all sorts of revelations of human frailties.

It all helped him. Gordon learned every lesson, the most important being that he had to be comfortable with himself. Gordon never asked anyone to place him on a pedestal. The humility was always genuine, if the image sometimes wasn’t. There was a time when the boos baffled him.

How come they boo me? I’m doing all the right things.

“You know what? That’s one thing that did take me some time to learn,” Gordon says. “People always ask me about the boos and why that happens. One thing that helped me get through it is that the fans are basing their opinions on a perception that comes across as two-dimensional; what happens on TV. There’s only so much that can be picked up from that. If someone gets an opinion of somebody else – and then concludes that it really is that person – it’s unfortunate.

“But that’s something that’s out of my control. I can only do and be the best I can in a one- or two-minute interview and hope that people like what they see. Some do and some don't, but everybody is going to form an opinion that I can’t change. I’ve had to learn to accept that. Like me. Don’t like me. This is me, and you don’t really know who I am, based on that.

“I’ve never judged anybody that I’ve ever met based on what I see on television, but yet our world and our society revolve around public opinion based on that medium, whether they’re celebrities, an athlete or whatever they are. Everybody bases their opinion on what they see on TV. They don’t get to meet that person. Image isn’t everything in regard to what kind of person you are, but you can’t do anything about the people who just see the image and that’s all.”

So the great American sports star, held up before the masses in grand repose, found himself exposed as flesh and blood.

It wasn’t a bad thing. “I’m no different than you and everybody else,” says four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon. “I have skin. I have feelings, heart, blood ... I’m made of the same stuff you are. I’ve been put in a position that offers me a lot of opportunities, and I do the best job I possibly can with what life has brought me.”

Just like everybody else.