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Jeff Gluck, USA Today

Jeff Gordon overwhelmed by parade, support in adopted hometown

PITTSBORO, Ind. — The Jeff Gordon Day Parade rolled down Main Street in tiny Pittsboro, with seemingly most of the town’s 3,100 residents filling the sidewalks.

Among the crowd was a woman in a striped shirt who waved excitedly and urgently when a convertible carrying Gordon drove by. The car had nearly passed her position before Gordon, scanning the crowd for familiar faces, finally spotted the woman, pointed and waved.

She smiled and laughed. It was Gordon’s mother, Carol Bickford, who together with husband John Bickford moved the family to rural Pittsboro in 1986 in hopes of helping Gordon pursue a racing career.

Now, 29 years later, the pride of Pittsboro had returned home to be feted by the community he so loves.

“This to me, today, has been one of the best days of my life,” Gordon later told a rally held in the city’s park, his voice wavering. “I say that sincerely in every way because I get to see what not only Pittsboro meant to me, but what (my career) meant to you guys.”

But Gordon’s career isn’t over yet. He still has a chance to extend his record as the greatest stock car racer in the history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway when he goes for his sixth win there in Sunday’s Crown Royal Presents The Jeff Kyle 400 at The Brickyard (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network).

The crowd urged the defending Brickyard winner to extend his record before he steps out of his No. 24 car at the end of the season. And if official proclamations are any sign, Gordon could be in line for an Indy repeat.

Last year, the mayor of Indianapolis named race day as “Jeff Gordon Day.” The Hendrick Motorsports driver then went on to win his first Brickyard race since 2004.

On Thursday, it was not only Jeff Gordon Day in Pittsboro but in all of Indiana’s 92 counties — thanks to a declaration by Gov. Mike Pence.
Pence also presented Gordon with the “Sagamore of the Wabash,” the highest honor a civilian can receive in Indiana (Gordon was 14 when he moved from Vallejo, Calif., but is claimed as a native son by Indiana).

“We couldn’t be more proud that Jeff Gordon is a Hoosier through and through,” Pence said. “… It’s not just what he’s done on the racetrack. It’s the kind of man that he is and the kind of example he’s set. In all honesty, Jeff, Hoosiers could not be prouder of how you’ve represented us on the global stage.”

Gordon estimated he hadn’t been back to Pittsboro for a decade, but he grinned when talking about how it looked mostly the same. There was a Dollar General where the catfish restaurant used to be, he said; nothing seemed to have changed otherwise.

He’d spent the weeks leading up to Thursday texting with some of his high school friends about the event, then rode with a few of them during the parade. They pointed out faces in the crowd who Gordon remembered from more than two decades earlier when he attended Tri-West High School.

Though Gordon’s life as a Pittsboro teen was mostly about racing — he and his family would leave every Friday afternoon for a sprint car race somewhere in the Midwest — he shared fond memories of growing up in the midst of cornfields and farmland.

Like any young Hoosier, Gordon played basketball with his friends — although they called it “Barn Ball” and played on the top level of a barn. Surrounded by hay bales, Gordon would have to shoot over rafters to make it in the hoop.

He smiled at that story and recalled getting stuck in the snow while driving to school, along with the “silly stupid things that you do when you’re out in the country.”

If any of those things ran afoul of the law, Gordon doesn’t have to worry about it now; one of the other gifts he received Thursday was a Pittsboro police badge and he was named as an honorary police officer in the town.
Gordon was clearly thrilled. He held the badge high in the air and yelled, “Woo!” Then he attached it to his belt and wore it for the rest of his visit.
“They better rethink this badge,” he said with a chuckle. “And the friends of mine that are here better rethink some things. How far back can I go on some citizen arrests? Of course, I’d be pulling myself into that as well.”

Later, he shook his head when talking about how much the town meant to him and how far he’s come. The honors, the parade, the people; it was all overwhelming.

“It seems like it’s just been a blur,” he said. “It’s amazing. You go to a racetrack just hoping you can win that race, and the next thing you know, you’ve won five Brickyard 400s and four championships and you’re coming back and they’re having a day named after you and a parade.”
And there’s still more to come this weekend when Gordon actually gets into the car for the final time at Indy. He doesn’t want to put any extra pressure on himself, he said, especially since a new rules package could be a tough adjustment.

But no matter what happens in the race, Thursday will be tough to top.

“To kick the weekend off like this, there’s nothing that can take away from all the experiences I’ve had at Indianapolis after a day like today,” he said.