Matt Crossman, BleacherReport.com
From 'SNL' to Last Shot at NASCAR Glory: Jeff Gordon the Ultimate Crossover Star
Jeff Gordon dances across the Saturday Night Live stage. He’s wearing a fake handlebar mustache, a mullet wig and a T-shirt that says, “1 Tequila, 2 Tequila, 3 Tequila, Floor.” He strums on an air guitar, punctuates his speech with karate chops and flits around as “Abracadabra” by Steve Miller Band plays.
That Jeff Gordon -- the one on the screen -- somehow keeps a straight face. This Jeff Gordon -- the one standing in the trophy room in his house on a recent Wednesday morning -- cracks up as he watches his appearance on SNL.
The difference between that loosey-goosey Gordon and this perfect-posture Gordon, who will run the final race of his magnificent career Sunday, is so striking, it appears that perhaps his tequila shirt accurately reports what he drank before this skit. (He had a Vodka-something before the show, but that’s it.) Even Gordon himself has a hard time reconciling the two Gordons. “I look at that,” he says, “And I’m like, ‘Who is that person? It cannot possibly be me.’”
Twelve years after Gordon hosted SNL, this skit, in which he plays an exuberant character named Rickye Funck, is the most memorable. Gordon’s racing team owner, Rick Hendrick, says when Gordon came bounding out as Funck, he thought to himself, “Oh s--t,” and wondered what Gordon had gotten himself into. But Hendrick loved it and told Gordon so in a call afterward.
Cast member Chris Parnell co-wrote the skit and appeared in it with Gordon. Parnell thought Gordon might have based the performance on someone he knew growing up in California. “He seemed to feel at home being that crazy guy,” Parnell says. “He was really gung-ho for it. He really sold it. It was fantastic.”
Throughout rehearsals, the crew at Saturday Night Live pushed Gordon to take the character to the edge and beyond. The mustache, wig and tequila shirt gave him the freedom to do so. For every other skit, he still looked like Jeff Gordon and therefore felt bound to him. But because he looked like someone else as Funck, Gordon felt free to become someone else.
“The final one I did was by far the furthest that I went,” Gordon says now, his eyes dancing at the memory. “I said, ‘Screw it, I’m going all out.’”
In that comment, the Gordon on the screen and the Gordon leaning against the bar in his trophy room connect. His “screw it, I’m going all out” attitude on the racetrack and unprecedented crossover appeal made him the most important and influential driver of this generation, if not ever. And that mentality has him on the verge of writing the greatest career finale NASCAR has ever seen, and one of the greatest in all of sports history.
Gordon long ago made plans for a going-away party for this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and now it has the chance to be much more -- a Sprint Cup championship celebration. This is a turn of events so stunning even Gordon seems shocked by it.
After a mediocre regular season, he was an afterthought in the championship race as recently as four weeks ago. But Gordon’s win three weeks ago at Martinsville clinched his spot in the finale Sunday. And now, under NASCAR’s controversial two-year-old Chase championship format, all Gordon has to do is finish ahead of the other three finalists -- Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. -- and he’ll walk away from the sport as the champion in his final season.
Gordon clearly is enjoying this unprecedented moment in time, marveling at it as if he is part of it and observing it at the same time. That he has been able to enjoy it with his wife, Ingrid, and children, Leo and Ella, along side makes it even more special for him.
“I was having a conversation this morning with Ingrid and the kids about, how often in life do you get an opportunity where you wish for something so bad, you want something so bad, and it actually comes true?” Gordon says. “Just making it there as a final four is that wish and dream that I had going into this season. But man, how cool would that be [to win the championship]?”
Gordon walks around a poker table and into the seating area of his trophy room, which is on the lower level of his home in Charlotte, North Carolina. Gray flecks pepper the sides of his dark brown hair. He’s wearing blue jeans and a gray Under Armour T-shirt. His feet are bare.
The mementos in here -- the only racing items in the house -- represent the most important events of his career. Three Daytona 500 trophies, four Winston Cups, the trophy from his first Cup win at Charlotte and two Brickyard 400 trophies are displayed on one wall. Two racing helmets -- one with the familiar Dupont paint scheme, one with the AARP Drive to End Hunger paint scheme -- bookend the trophies.
The adjacent wall has a flat-screen TV and shelves. On the shelves rest hardcover books by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen, a San Francisco 49ers helmet and a racing trophy, which Gordon grabs. It came from what Gordon, 44, calls the biggest win of his career -- the 1994 Brickyard 400, the first NASCAR race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It was the most anticipated race in NASCAR history, yet the trophy is unimpressive. It’s a metal brick on a stand and a fraction of the size of the rest of his trophies. And it’s even worse than it looks. Gordon plunks it with his finger. It echoes like he plunked an empty soup can.
“When we got this,” he says, still holding it, “I called Indianapolis Motor Speedway and said, ‘Hey, you know that really big, nice trophy you’ve got in the museum?’ Can I get a replica or a scaled-down replica? Because that trophy’s awesome.’”
The answer was no. Gordon motions at his other Brickyard trophies, enormous by comparison. “It’s obviously gotten better.”
As impressive as his wall of trophies is, it represents only a fraction of Gordon’s haul in his Sprint Cup career. He has won 93 races, the third-most of all time behind only Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105).
The 93rd win came Nov. 1, just three weeks from the end of his career, and Gordon still glows from it. He howled in delight in Victory Lane at Martinsville. It was one of the most emotional celebrations of his career -- and for good reason. Fear of failing in his final season had followed him for months. At last, that fear buckled, and pure joy came rushing out of him.
At midseason, Gordon had struggled so much he worried he would not make NASCAR’s 10-race postseason known as the Chase. If he missed it, it would have been a disastrous way to go out, like Willie Mays stumbling around in center field for the Mets when Gordon desperately longed to be Ted Williams homering in his final at-bat.
But Gordon qualified 12th in the 16-team Chase field and then strung together his best stretch of the season, including the win at Martinsville to clinch his spot in the finale. Gordon believes in energy and momentum and fate. He believes he can push himself to the edge one more time, nail his final race and go out as a champion.
And he’s not the only one who believes that. “When you show Jeff Gordon a trophy,” Hendrick says, “and it’s just one more deal, you’ve got to cinch it up one more time -- man, they better look out.”
Gordon won his fourth (and final, to date) championship in 2001. At the postseason NASCAR awards banquet, a high-ranking NBC executive handed him an envelope. It contained a letter inviting Gordon to host Saturday Night Live. He turned it down flat. He was too conservative, the show was too edgy, and he was, to be honest, too chicken. “I just didn’t have the guts,” he says.
At the 2002 postseason banquet, Gordon received another envelope. He put it in the inside pocket of his tuxedo jacket. Later that night, he went out for dinner with friends and pulled out the envelope. According to Gordon, the conversation went something like this:
Friend: What’s that?
Gordon: An invitation to do Saturday Night Live.
Friend: What do you mean, do?
Gordon: It asks me to host. But I’m not going to do it.
Friend: Are you freaking kidding me? I don’t care if you fail miserably, just to say you did it is worth it.
Entire table of friends: You have to do it.
Gordon relented, and a few weeks later, he walked into a conference room at 30 Rockefeller Center carrying a three-inch stack of scripts prepared by the SNL writers for proposed sketches for that weekend’s show. The cast and writers crowded around a table. There probably weren’t many NASCAR fans in the room, if any, but everyone knew who Gordon was.
“He was everywhere at that time and had really kind of crossed over,” says Michael Schur, one of the show’s writers who went on to write for The Office and co-created Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. “In fact, his very appearance on SNL meant he had crossed over, marketing-wise. It's a good litmus test for one's place in the culture.”
Schur, Parnell and the rest clapped as Gordon was introduced. Gordon looked around the room and saw only one empty seat -- next to the show’s creator and executive producer, Lorne Michaels. Gordon sat in it, and thus started the “table read,” at which SNL cast and writers present 40 or so sketches; only 12 would make the show.
Someone said “go,” Gordon looked down, and the first line of the first skit was his. He didn’t know what to do. Someone told him to read it, which he did easily enough. But his next line called for him to howl like a wolf.
Now Gordon re-enacts the scene. He alternates between howling halfheartedly, like he did at the table read, because he had no idea what was going on, and howling crazily, like the cast and writers did, because they knew what they were supposed to do.
As the table read went on, it was like shaking down a new racecar. Gordon needed a few laps to get up to speed, and soon he was driving hard into the corner. Alas, Gordon’s comfort came too late to save the wolf skit. It got cut.
Gordon jokes now that if the wolf skit had been later in the table read, he might have done a better job howling and thus a better job selling the idea. And maybe instead of talking about Rickye Funck, we’d be talking about the time he howled like a wolf on SNL.
Gordon owns a DVD of the show, which aired Jan. 11, 2003, but he hasn’t watched it in years and can’t remember where he put it. That’s why he watches the skits via online links on a 13-inch MacBook Pro, which is perched on the bar.
Gordon’s hand-eye coordination and ability to drive a car on the edge of wrecking for hours at a time made him a superstar on the track. His ease and skill in front of TV cameras made him the first NASCAR personality to transcend NASCAR into the greater pop culture world.
Just as he spent years honing his driving ability, he spent years working on being a TV star. The first time Gordon appeared in front of a television camera, he did not say a word. He was seven, already a racing prodigy, and painfully shy. His stepfather, John Bickford, groomed him to be a star and wanted him to be comfortable on camera. “They’d sit and watch post-race interviews, then talk about who was boring, who was interesting, and what made the difference,” wrote Liz Clarke in One Helluva Ride: How NASCAR Swept the Nation.
When Gordon arrived on the NASCAR scene, he did not look or sound like other drivers. His post-race interviews were crisp and distinct. He gave energetic answers about racing and enthusiastic endorsements of his sponsors, all while making eye contact and speaking in complete (and accent-free) sentences. He remained friendly and approachable even while driving with a win-at-all-costs style that frustrated other competitors.
The on-camera difference between Gordon and most other NASCAR drivers was unmistakable. Soon, other sponsors and teams “demanded” their drivers copy Gordon’s style, says Max Muhleman, a marketing consultant who worked with Hendrick in launching Hendrick Motorsports. “He blazed a whole new path right down the center of Southern, old, classic stock-car racing in every way -- in the winning but more particularly in changing the culture.”
More than any driver, Gordon used television to take NASCAR and his own brand to audiences outside of the Southeast. He often was invited to do shows that would seem unlikely for racecar drivers. Gordon has appeared on the syndicated daytime talk franchise Live 27 times, dating back to when the program was called Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee, including 11 times as guest co-host.
Producers wanted Gordon on their shows initially because he won races all the time and thus brought with him a recognizable name and face. They kept asking him to come back because he was cooperative off camera and entertaining on it.
Plus, he is a genuinely nice person. “Even more than that being true, it comes off on the air, and that’s very important,” says Michael Gelman, the executive producer of Live. “He’s one of those guys who’s great off camera, but that appeal continues on camera.”
Gordon’s youth and good looks helped, too. On Saturday Night Live, one of the writers saw Gordon’s high cheekbones, crisp jaw line and steady poise and thought, “He looks like a fighter pilot.” That yielded a sketch in which Gordon plays Captain Jack “Cougar” Kelly, an Air Force pilot who visits an elementary school on career day along with a carpet salesman, who gets lost in the vast shadow Cougar casts.
As Gordon prepared to play Cougar, he thought about the military bases in North Carolina. He gave Cougar a Southern accent, the irony being the lack of a Southern accent in his real life has long been used to explain the crossover appeal that helped him land on SNL in the first place.
The Cougar skit features Gordon’s best line of the show. When the kids groan about how boring carpet is, Cougar says, “Let’s focus up here. Carpet’s important. I’ll never forget the time I walked down that long red carpet and met the president.”
As the Gordon on the screen says “president,” the Gordon who is watching claps his hands and pounds on the bar in delight. Timing is everything on SNL, and he’s proud of how he delivered that line. His wife is, too. She emailed a link to the sketch to their son’s teacher and told her to call Gordon “Cougar” when he showed up for career day.
The Jeff Gordon on the laptop is playing a waiter in a spoof of a reality show in which a woman wins a date with Gary Busey. One thing leads to another, and soon Gordon drags Busey out of his seat and beats him up.
Gordon’s TV appearances always cast him as an All-American, clean-cut, goody-goody corporate spokesman. This skit reveals a truth those who have raced against Gordon know intimately: He is ruthless on the track.
Gordon has had on- and off-track altercations with Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Ricky Rudd, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer and more. Yet because he won so often for so long and seemed so polite in doing so, Gordon’s reputation remained sparkling. The reality is he is an All-American, clean-cut, goody-goody corporate spokesman … and a down-and-dirty, cutthroat competitor who relishes using his bumper to move opponents out of his way.
“He has a mean streak about him,” says Burton, now an analyst on NBC. “I’m not in any way saying Jeff Gordon is a bad guy. I’m saying he has so much passion for the sport that when you couple that with his fiery personality, which most people don’t think about with him, you have those moments in time where he finds himself in situations you wouldn’t think he would get himself in.”
As Gordon punches Busey, an ever-so-faint smile crosses his face on the screen -- so small, you’ll miss it if you aren’t looking for it. It is the closest Gordon comes to breaking character, and in truth, it’s not close at all.
“I’m the type of person that, when I’m performing, I want to be as flawless as I can be, whether it be on the track or in a commercial or whatever. I’m going to stick to the script and do what I said I’ll do,” Gordon says. “Looking back, I would have liked to just crack. Because on the inside, I was cracking up.”
The show, like his driving career, comes to an end. The Gordon on the screen thanks the audience and waves goodbye. The Gordon in his house did the same thing at every track this season.
Gordon announced his retirement from driving in January. The questions about whether he was having second thoughts started immediately and won’t stop now that he’s ending his career on a high note. His answer remains the same: No. This was not a sudden decision. Though he didn’t always have an end date in mind, Gordon has been preparing to stop driving for more than five years.
After the 2009 season, he met with Zak Brown, executive chairman of Just Marketing Inc. Gordon knew that the end of his driving career was near, and he wanted to hire an agency to manage business ventures for him that would go beyond a patch on his shoulder or a sticker on his car.
Brown has worked in motorsports marketing for more than 20 years. Going into the meeting, Brown felt a blend of intimidation and awe. He soon realized Gordon knew nearly as much about him as he knew about Gordon. “He was very knowledgeable on what we had accomplished, in detail -- my background, the agency’s background, the various relationships we had around the world,” Brown says. “Preparation -- that’s his secret.”
What’s next for Gordon is slowly being revealed. He will continue his charity work -- the Jeff Gordon Foundation has raised more than $15 million to fight children’s cancer. He will work in the Fox broadcast booth for NASCAR races next year. Brown will continue to look for “commercial slash business” opportunities for Gordon in the United States and abroad.
Before all of that, Gordon will try to finish his unbelievable career with an unbelievable ending. Now he looks again at his wall of trophies. Conspicuously absent is a Sprint Cup. All of his championships came when Winston was the title sponsor of NASCAR’s top series.
When Gordon built this house five years ago, he designed the shelves in this room to be able to handle the weight and size of a Sprint Cup trophy. Right now, there’s no room for one.
“We’ll make a spot for it,” Gordon says. “Right there in the middle. At the top.”