Jeff Wackerlin, MotorRacingNetwork.com
Gordon and DuPont Celebrate 20 Years
Twenty years ago, a global science company took a chance on a young, up-and-coming open-wheel racecar driver who was beginning his transition into NASCAR.
That particular partnership – between sponsor DuPont and driver Jeff Gordon – has grown into the longest and one of the most successful relationships in the Sprint Cup Series.
Although the 2012 DuPont primary paint scheme won’t debut until the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 11, Sunday’s 54th running of the Daytona 500 will kick off Gordon’s and DuPont’s 20th anniversary.
It all started in 1992 when owner Rick Hendrick first noticed Gordon when he raced to his first of five career NASCAR Nationwide Series wins in the spring race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, driving for owner Bill Davis. The performance prompted Hendrick to reach out to Gordon for a meeting.
Gordon, currently a co-owner for five-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson’s car, ironically received his first call to meet Hendrick from the team’s former general manager Jimmy Johnson.
“To know that I was going to get the chance to talk to him just was mind-blowing to me and from that day on, it was a magical experience,” Gordon said, "sitting down in front of Rick, seeing what a special person he was, hearing his excitement and commitment of starting a new team having me as a driver.”
At the time, Gordon lived with two roommates including Andy Graves - who worked for Hendrick Motorsports for 10 years and helped launch the Research and Development Department.
“When he (Graves) came to work at Hendrick Motorsports in the R&D department, I came down to drive Bill Davis' car,” Gordon said. “He would share with me all the things they were doing at Hendrick Motorsports, telling me how great things are being engineered and why they should be winning a lot more races then they were.
"I knew from Andy how good Hendrick Motorsports was and that they were really on the brink of being the team to beat for Sprint Cup championships in the future.”
Another one of the key factors in Gordon’s decision to move to Hendrick Motorsports was Ray Evernham.
"I had Ray as my crew chief at that time and I didn’t have anybody to turn to - to tell me whether a team, a car, personnel or equipment was top-notch other than Ray or my stepfather; and my stepfather didn’t know a lot about NASCAR,” Gordon said. "Ray visited Hendrick Motorsports and when he came back to me and it wasn't 'Mmm ... well, I don't know,’ but he was like, ‘Oh my gosh, the possibilities are endless. If we go there and put the right people together, we can win a lot of races,’ that’s what we did.”
With Gordon as the driver and Evernham as crew chief, the pieces came together quickly to form the new No. 24 team at Hendrick Motorsports, but one thing was missing - a sponsor.
In comes DuPont, which at the time was looking to put a deal together with Hendrick.
“To hear the stories about the meeting with DuPont and to hear about how originally, they were being talked about just doing an associate or maybe some product sponsorship and someone in that meeting said, ‘Do you have a sponsor for this car?’ and they said, ‘No we don’t.’ All of a sudden, that conversation turned into what we have today which is pretty cool,” Gordon said. “For Rick and DuPont to take a chance on a young kid like me, that was unproven, was very, very special and still to this day, being with them for 20 years is absolutely any racecar driver's dream come true."
Gordon debuted the DuPont colors in his first Cup Series start on Nov. 15, 1992, in Atlanta and as they say, the rest is history.
In his first nine full-time seasons driving the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet, Gordon captured four championships and 58 of his current tally of 85 career wins. The 1994 season not only saw Gordon score his first career victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway but also a win in the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“The inaugural Brickyard 400, that was such a cool event,” Gordon said. “As a kid that grew up going to high school in Indiana, who wanted to be an Indianapolis 500 driver ... to go there with the inaugural stock car race and to just compete was, to me, a dream come true. But to go there and actually win it was amazing.”
Along with leading a Hendrick one-two-three finish in the 1997 Daytona 500, Gordon’s 1995 and 2001 championships rank among his highlights in his first 20 years with DuPont.
“1995 was awesome because it was a great year and to win the championship battling with Dale Earnhardt and winning my first,” Gordon said. “2001 really stands out to me, to be able to do it with a different crew chief (Robbie Loomis) and a different team. It meant a lot to me personally to go and win that championship that year and to show not just what our team is made of, but me personally.”
Gordon’s distinctive DuPont paint scheme, created by renowned motor sports artist Sam Bass, was instrumental in helping him establish himself as one of NASCAR’s most iconic drivers.
“It’s been quite a ride with Jeff,” Bass said. “I remember it just like it was yesterday, just meeting him for the first time and to see all the success that he’s achieved in his career; and all the accomplishments. You know what a superstar in sports he is and just to know him and call him a friend is very special to me.”
Bass got the opportunity to design Gordon’s paint schemes after meeting Evernham when he came into his gallery looking to buy Jeff a birthday present.
“A couple months later, Ray called me up and said 'Hey, DuPont would like to look at what you submit' and he gave me my chance,” Bass said. “I submitted three drawings and to my amazement, they had 43 others that they had taken in to look at. So what later became known as the rainbow warrior car, my car, was what was chosen.”
This year, Bass has created a special 20th anniversary DuPont paint scheme that will have design elements to celebrate the milestone.
“I thought the great way to do it would be to make it relate to almost every single car Jeff has driven,” Bass said. “There are elements of the rainbow in the graphics, the way the oval kind of works around the windows. There are elements of the flame tips on the front of the car. I tried to (merge) all of the cars that have preceded it but yet be totally different.
“Really, a career highlight is to have been with Jeff Gordon for 20 years and worked for DuPont and in all that time, creating the base paint schemes for the DuPont cars. It was an honor to get the chance to design the 20-year logo that is on the car and to design that paint scheme for the car," Bass continued. "I was asked to create something that would definitely scream 'DuPont' and its 20-year relationship with Jeff. I'm really proud of the way it turned out.”