Our grandson has been an avid NASCAR fan since he was three years old. When Bill was tired of playing on the floor he put him in his lap saying, “Let’s watch the cars go around. Which one will we cheer for: the M&M car or the Dupont car with the flames?” Nicolas quickly chose the bright fiery flames with Jeff Gordon as the driver, and that day he won the race! Nicolas was HOOKED! As a pre-schooler he begged to watch every race on TV, and when he got his first email address he even used a clever derivative of Gordon’s name for his own email address, so with every email he sent or received he could promote his favorite star!
As a teen, Nicolas saved the money he earned all year to go to some NASCAR races in person at many different tracks. Having a father and grandparents who are also avid NASCAR fans, it was easy to persuade them to take him. In November 2015 we were able to take him, now 20, to “Jeff’s Last Rodeo” at Texas Motor Speedway which is near our home. We all were excited to cheer our favorite driver in his 334 laps at the TMS 1.5 mile track. Nicolas is a walking encyclopedia of facts about TMS, NASCAR, and Gordon. With his dedicated focus he reads all the race magazines and has never missed watching a NASCAR race in Jeff’s career. It was great for Nicolas to teach us more about the track, NASCAR, and Gordon.
Q: So Jeff became your hero, and then what?
A: My granddad and I had picked a real winner because he won that race I watched in ’96 and he was Champion ’97,’98 . He averaged about 10 wins a year and 13 in some seasons.
Q: The last time you were at Texas Motor Speedway at age 13 in 2008, I had orders to write five magazine articles about a young person who lived and breathed racing, so I had to pull some PRESS strings to get you into the HOT areas and to have a meeting with Gordon, your hero. But I failed to ask the age limit or dress code. We arrived with you in sandals and shorts and had to scramble to find your tennis shoes, and you had to wear your granddad’s way-too-long running suit pants tied up at the waist! What do you most remember about that weekend at TMS?
A: Of course that was my first time and I was so excited! I heard people say, ”We know he’s not 18. How in the world did he get in here?” It was really fun to be youngest in the Hot Garage. It was very cold that day and threatened rain. You had on your long black raincoat with a hood and we nick-named you the Grim Reaper. After the first time we passed through any checkpoint they remembered the Grim Reaper coat and my special HOT pass and just let us on through! It was so cool!
Q: I had arranged for us to have a Photo Interview with Gordon after the Time Trial on Saturday, so we were at his transporter waiting. Do you remember what happened?
A: I saw Jeff’s expression as he returned from the track and realized he had not had a good qualifying race, and I figured I would not get to talk to him. But since we were there where he had to pass through us, I had my official red Gordon jacket and felt pen waiting and handed it to him, and you got a photo of him signing. I was elated! That jacket has been hanging on my bedroom wall ever since, and I never wore it…It was sacred and the center of my huge collection of Gordon memorabilia.
Q: What else was special about having the Hot Garage pass?
A: Everyone was so open and interested in me since it was obvious I was a young fan and a curiosity there. I had read so many race magazines that I knew crew faces and names. I had many questions I wanted to ask because at that time I wanted to know how they got into a NASCAR career and what steps I should take to get there. Everyone encouraged me to get a full engineering degree, not just the 10 month program, because it is too specific and there are no other options if you don’t get the job. But with an engineering degree you have options for other jobs. They cared and put thought into their advice about what would be best for a young fan wanting to make a career in NASCAR. No one gave me just glib fan answers. I was impressed and so happy to talk to each one, from garage crew, to pit crew, to NASCAR officials, to TMS workers.
Q: Do you recommend that fans buy the Hot Garage passes if they can afford to?
A: Yes, it’s really cool to be in a NASCAR garage area. I even recognized Bruton Smith then, owner of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. and got to talk to him. Even though I was a young kid, everyone does really care about fans and makes sure everything a fan could want is really accessible. I also got an autograph from the NASCAR Mascot Lugnut, a character in costume who always appeals to children. Any sport thrives on a new generation coming in. NASCAR strives to be a clean, wholesome family event.
There is usually a Charity Walk early with some drivers on day before the NASCAR race, and in 2008 we walked with some of the drivers. Even though we had to get up in the dark to arrive in time, I loved it. For a long time I walked beside the youngest driver of the Nationwide Race that day, and he told me all about his budding career and encouraged me, even though I did not want to be a driver. Later he spoke to me by name when he passed in a golf cart to the driver meeting.
Q: What were the key things you found most interesting in 2015,”Jeff’s Last Rodeo?”
A: It was cool to see that even though every week these guys are fiercely competing on the track, now that Gordon is retiring I saw how much of a family NASCAR really is because all the drivers congratulated him. There is obvious respect for him in the NASCAR community as he retires. He is not only a huge name driver but also good guy and friend. He ushered in the modern era of NASCAR as the first really young person to come to racing at the top level. When he was just 18 he flew from his home to compete and qualify for his first Xfinity race. He returned home to attend his high school graduation and then flew back the next day to race in the Xfinity Series. Dale Earnhardt,Sr, joked that he would be too young to have champagne at the award ceremony…Jeff would have to have milk. So, at the ceremony Jeff toasted Earnhardt with a champagne glass filled with milk. The next year he was in 30 of the 31 Xfinity races, and his third year he won three of the 31 races and was ushered into his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at 20, just my age now!
Q: In the future Gordon will be as a commentator for NASCAR. I know at one time you wanted to be a NASCAR commentator also. You would make a good one since you can remember so many facts about each driver, race, and track. Do you have any desire to do that still?
A: It could be another career choice, and I would jump at the opportunity, but now my main goal is to work for one of the many possibilities in the hospitality side of racing. I have completed two years at the world’s top hospitality school, Ecole Hospitalitier Lausanne in Switzerland, and I will enter Johnson and Wales in Charlotte, NC, in the spring to complete my degree. Since that is the home base area for NASCAR the opportunities will abound for me in the hospitality or public relations side of NASCAR. I would also love to be a PR agent for a driver.
Q: What positive influences has Gordon had on the public?
A: He is an outspoken advocate of safe highway driving. This is very important for young race fans. He has two children and is aware of the potential dangers of young drivers wanting to race on a public road. A lot of kids look up to him and he says, “If you want to race, get on track and wear proper safety gear…never race on a public street; never drink or text while driving, and never smoke and drive.”
Gordon also has the first charity as a sponsor: AARP Drive to End Hunger. A significant portion of all Gordon merchandise they sell goes to this charity. I think this is terrific, and my hero Jeff was the first to bring sponsorship in this new direction for creating charity awareness in the thousands of fans.
Jeff has this private charity Jeff Gordon’s Children’s Foundation. NASCAR and its drivers are among the most charitable organizations in all of sports. And because racing is perhaps the most family-oriented sport, the drivers are encouraged to be upstanding in sports and in personal life.
Q: Tell me about your Gordon memorabilia collection.
A: Since all my family and friends know I’m basically race crazy, they have given me die-cast Gordon cars every year for birthdays and Christmas, and most of the money I earned mowing LOTS of lawns went to adding larger cars and other memorabilia to my Gordon collection. I have all the cars with all the different paint designs. And of course, the Gordon jacket he autographed. My entire room features Gordon: bedspread, curtains, shelves and cases of cars. I have many official track video games and spend a lot of free time racing, so I know each track, every turn very well.
But my best item in my collection is an official helmet. When I was at the Charlotte track with you I was barely 16. I had worked for months to save quite a lot of money to spend on souvenirs at the track. We walked miles looking for an official, real helmet like the drivers wear and finally found one in the hot garage area, actually available for a driver who might need a replacement, but they agreed to sell it to me. I took it to the garages and pits and asked many crew members to sign it. Even Bruton Smith signed it. We were talking to one of the official gate guards and he was very interested in such a young fan and saw my helmet and pen. He opened the gate for me to go into the area where the drivers were arriving for the Driver Meeting. I had learned not to be afraid of approaching these people and many drivers signed it for me! It is my treasure!
Q: How did you follow NASCAR when you were living in Switzerland? Nascar has nice streaming platform, NASCAR Raceview, to which you can subscribe. The price was worth it for me to feel closer to home. It features a track map, animated cars, (no live stream out of the USA.) I could keep up with NASCAR and follow it more in depth than on TV because of extras it has. I could pull up for any of the drivers I wished and be as close to live as you can get. You can buy it at NASCAR.com . It is great for those who have to work during the race or are not where you can see it on TV .
RaceBuddy is also a way to see drivers on eight cameras. This is free and you can change drivers each week so you can follow in the car, usually one who will likely be in top place.
Q: When Jeff retires will you still be a race fan? Will you still choose 24 or another Hendrick Motorsports driver?
A: Chase Elliott will now drive the number 24 car and race for Hendrick. Definitely I’ll support him! He’s young too. I’m sure he was influenced by Gordon coming in as the youngest driver 25 years ago. The successful drivers were racing in small cars since preschool. Gordon’s step father, John Bickford, had a BMX two-wheel bike for him to race when he was a preschooler, but Jeff’s mom objected because it was not safe, so Bickford bought him quarter-midget race car which had four wheels and a roll cage. Many good race drivers started that way and raced on dirt as young kids. Gordon was racing with older kids then and beating them. Jeff will always be my hero and remind me of my wonderful times with my grandparents!
About the Author:
Bonnie Neely, a professional journalist for over 30 years, has worked extensively in educational television in which she has been project coordinator, researcher, and scriptwriter. She has also been a columnist for various newspapers and magazines as well as a producer/scriptwriter for the Discovery Channel. Furthermore Bonnie is one of the “Top Book Reviewers” for Amazon.com. She founded Real Travel Adventures and built it into a leading travel blog.