When Jeff Gordon visited Rio Linda this week, he walked back in time.
Suddenly, NASCAR’s most famous driver was reliving his childhood, surrounded by youngsters not much older than he was when he first drove a quarter-midget race car at tiny Roy Hayer Memorial Race Track. He reveled in their hugs and cheers, soaking up their youthful enthusiasm. He knelt down and touched the track’s packed brown dirt, confirming that he wasn’t dreaming this moment.
“This really takes me back,” Gordon said. “It’s funny how much it’s changed and how little it’s changed.”
That side trip down memory lane has been part of Gordon’s homecoming to Northern California and his final Sprint Cup race at Sonoma Raceway, Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350. It’s a last call for the man who made NASCAR cool.
No driver has changed his sport quite like Gordon. Hosting “Saturday Night Live” and appearing in countless commercials, the onetime Boy Wonder took stock car racing mainstream, particularly in his home state of California. He pulled NASCAR out of its good ol’ boy Southern roots and helped make it a national force with billion-dollar TV contracts and fans worldwide.
“Jeff means everything,” said Steve Page, Sonoma Raceway’s longtime president and general manager. “He’s a huge personality in sports nationwide, but he particularly resonates with the Northern California audience more than any other driver.”
Gordon’s appeal here is obvious. Ticket sales for this NASCAR weekend at the Sonoma road course are the highest in a decade, said Page. Attendance could top 100,000. Many fans want to see one more win by Gordon in his No. 24 Chevrolet before he rolls off into retirement at the end of this season.
“He’s local; he grew up 8 miles from our racetrack and he’s had incredible success on our track,” said Page, who has seen the full arc of Gordon’s 23-year NASCAR career. “But there’s so much more. He took NASCAR from a Southern regional motor sport to a national phenomenon. He changed the culture.”
Gordon, now 43 and living in North Carolina, also changed where and how drivers rise through the ranks to racing’s elite. More NASCAR drivers now hail from California than the Carolinas, the sport’s traditional epicenter. He also set a new standard for driver development. Like Gordon, the next generation of drivers started really young.
How young? Gordon began racing BMX bikes at age 4, then “graduated” to motorized racing before kindergarten. He won his first race at age 5 in a quarter-midget car at Rio Linda. By age 8, he was national quarter-midget champion, defeating drivers twice his age.
When he was 13, his family moved to Indiana where Jeff could race high-powered open-wheel sprint cars on dirt tracks without age restrictions and three years later, he was winning United States Auto Club races in midget cars and sprint cars against longtime pros. After more national titles before his 21st birthday, he made the switch to NASCAR full time, mastering much heavier stock cars on asphalt racetracks.
At age 24, he won the first of his four Sprint Cup championships, the most prestigious prize in American auto racing.
Inspired by Gordon, Elk Grove’s Kyle Larson – the 2014 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year – started his racing career about the same time as school. So did 19-year-old Chase Elliott, who will take over Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet next season.
“Jeff paved a whole new pathway for drivers like me, especially drivers who came from dirt racing,” said Napa’s James Bickford, a 17-year-old rising star in NASCAR who will race in Saturday’s Carneros 200 at Sonoma. The high school senior is Gordon’s cousin.
After this season, Gordon will become an analyst for Fox Sports and has already spent time this summer in the broadcast booth for practice. He’ll also keep working with team owner Hendrick Motorsports.
NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip, now a Fox Sports announcer, thinks Gordon is NASCAR’s all-time best road racer and a threat to win Sunday.
“You can’t ignore his stats at (road courses) Watkins Glen and Sonoma, where he has a combined nine wins,” which is a NASCAR record, Waltrip said. “You’ll have to go through Gordon to win at a road course. ... Jeff Gordon is the king of the road courses in my book.”
Gordon is still competitive on any track. With four victories in 2014, he almost won the Sprint Cup championship again last year. For his 23-year Sprint Cup career, he’s totaled 92 victories, 80 poles and nearly $149 million in earnings.
He’s driven more than 290,000 miles in his No. 24 Chevrolet. While other racers prefer NASCAR’s many ovals, Gordon loves the winding 12-turn road course at Sonoma Raceway, the closest thing he has to a home track. In 22 starts, he’s won Sonoma’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 a record five times and finished second last year. No one has led more laps at Sonoma, considered among the nation’s most difficult tracks.
Sonoma Raceway added Gordon’s face to its Wall of Fame in 2006, the same year Gordon last won at the road course. Sunday’s race will be his 10th since the plaque went up.
“He’s so dominated this track, there was no question he belonged on the Wall of Fame,” Page said.
Page doesn’t doubt that Gordon has a lot more miles in him if he wants to keep driving but understands his decision to walk away from the car.
92Jeff Gordon’s career wins in Sprint Cup
“You don’t do this if you don’t really enjoy it,” Page said. “He’s got back issues and young kids. He wants to spend more time with his family. He’s got options to do other things.”
Gordon never would have made it to Somona if not for Rio Linda. Before he started kindergarten, Gordon won his first competitive race at the “Cracker Jack Track,” the former name of Hayer’s 1/20th mile dirt oval. His mom and stepdad, Carol and John Bickford, lived in Vallejo and brought him to race at Rio Linda’s little speedway, the only one of its kind in the area.
Now, it seems normal for wannabe racers to jump into pint-size cars long before they’re old enough for a driver’s license.
“My son loves it,” said Joel Broussard, as he worked on a quarter-midget painted like Gordon’s famous No. 24. “He changed from wanting to be a football player to race car driver. He watched races on YouTube and decided he liked Jeff best.”
Thanks to Gordon, the Capitol Quarter Midget Association still offer races for kids age 5 to 16 at Rio Linda. In 2007, when Sacramento County considered shuttering the facility for financial reasons, Gordon stepped forward and made sure the Cracker Jack Track stayed open by helping raise $50,000 and securing a 99-year lease for the association to guarantee the track’s future.
Last weekend, on a blistering 100-degree day, Gordon arrived early for Sonoma’s NASCAR festivities so he could bring his kids to visit his roots at Rio Linda. He was joined by several old-timers, many of them friends of his parents back in the 1970s when he ran his earliest races.
As part of the surprise, Gordon’s parents also came from their North Carolina home. Ella, Gordon’s daughter who celebrated her eighth birthday at the event, waved the checkered flag and chatted with other kids about their cars. Little brother Leo, age 4, eagerly watched the racers, as Jeff’s wife, model/actress Ingrid Vandebosch, took shelter from the heat in the shade of an immense mulberry tree.
“When you look around Rio Linda, this is really where Jeff got his start, and this is where he came from,” said stepdad John Bickford, who started Jeff racing when he was 4. “Now, he’s like the ambassador for this sport. Becoming a professional driver is what all of these kids want to do. Every one of these kids racing quarter-midgets today wants to race in Indianapolis or the Daytona 500 someday, and he achieved that.”
Joining his wife in the shade, Gordon chatted with folks he hadn’t seen in decades such as driver Jimmy Boyd, one of Gordon’s first role models.
“I remember my first laps on this track and flipping the car,” Gordon said with a chuckle. “Then, I started winning and it was a lot more fun.”
At times, the memories made him blink back tears, especially while watching the young racers spin around the speedway.
“When I started, I just wanted to be a race car driver,” Gordon said. “That’s all I really thought about. It’s given me so many other opportunities and a wonderful career. Now, it’s great seeing all these boys and girls get to race and have fun, too. That’s awesome.”
Toyota/Save Mart 350
- Where: Sonoma Raceway, Hwys. 37 and 121, Sonoma
- When: Friday-Sunday; gates open at 7 a.m. each day. Sprint Cup race starts at noon Sunday.
- Tickets: $25-$35 Friday; $35-$45 Saturday (qualifying); $45-$145 Sunday (race day)
- Also: Driver Jeff Gordon will answer fans questions at 9 a.m. Saturday outside the main grandstand.
- Details: www.racesonoma.com