Jeff Gordon explains how his career path moved from dirt racing to NASCAR

Jeff Gordon wanted to be a World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series driver

Gordon: “I wasn’t thinking NASCAR at all.”

As Jeff Gordon was coming up, an open wheel driver had a tendency to move into the open wheel side of professional motorsports. Yet, Jeff Gordon moved into cars with fenders and went on to set record after record in the world of NASCAR.

But, why did Gordon take that career path?

“You wouldn’t have thought that traditionally that would have been the path,” Jeff Gordon stated via the Dale Jr download. “I can tell you, that was not my intention, at all.”

Jeff Gordon Sprint Car #16
#16 sprint car – Jeff Gordon Sprint Car (1985)

Jeff Gordon: World of Outlaws

Gordon his mom and his step father moved to Indiana to help Jeff Gordon with his sprint car career. That’s the hub for open wheel short track racing. Tracks in that area were generally more open to allowing a kid without a drivers license compete in high speed race cars.

In 1987, Jeff Gordon became the youngest driver to ever run a World of Outlaws race. He was 16 years old at the time. He would go on to run five races that year and make four feature events.

“All the sudden, it became my life. All I wanted to do was race these cars. That was when I first started racing professionally. Where you go to the pay window and they give you a few hundred bucks if you did ok.”

“I wasn’t thinking NASCAR at all. Actually, I was thinking World of Outlaws Sprint Cars. I wanted to be a World of Outlaw sprint car driver. My hero’s were Steve Kinzer and Doug Wolfgang. I got to race with those guys when I was like 14 and it was insane.”

Open wheel sprint cars have a power to weight ratio that’s out of this world. The cars are powered by a 410-cubic inch motor that puts out 900 horsepower. The cars have a minimum weight limit of 1400, with the driver included.

“I was kind of a scrawny kid and I realized I wasn’t going to be a professional World of Outlaw driver. I could be a good sprint car driver. Because physically, those cars were tough.”

“There’s a few races where I was fast and I fell out of the seat a little bit. I was like, ‘Man, I’m going to have to step of my game here, big time.’ “

Jeff Gordon NASCAR Hall of Fame Exhibit Jeff Gordon Winged Sprint Car Number 6
Jeff Gordon – Dirt Sprint car

Terry Winterbotham: Jeff Gordon

World of Outlaws: 1988

This would be the first time that Jeff Gordon would drive for someone other than his stepdad. The deal was that Jeff would receive 30% of earnings from a 2nd or worse finish and 50% of the earnings from a win.

“Maybe once or twice I thought I was in the equipment that was competitive with those guys. And I finish in the top two or three in a couple World of Outlaw races at tracks that I knew really well.”

In his first race of the year, he set quick time and won the A-Main. He would go on to win the track championship at Eldora Speedway, Mansfield Raceway and Millstream Speedway.

“I get this ride with this awesome team. I’m like, ‘This is my break. This is going to do it.’ “

At this time, Jeff Gordon was racing All-Star and the World of Outlaws. He was still in high-school.

“I don’t know if I just felt the pressure or if I just didn’t have what it took. But, I started wrecking the hell out of this thing and costing this car owner a lot of money.”

“I got fired.”

Jeff Gordon NASCAR Hall of Fame Exhibit Open Wheel Cars
Jeff Gordon – White Diet Pepsi Midget

Bob East/Rollie Helmling: Jeff Gordon

USAC: 1989

Soon after, Bob East expressed interest in seeing Jeff Gordon in one of his race cars. East is the owner of Beast Chassis. However, he wanted to see him in a pavement midget.

“I said, ‘Pavement? Man, all I’ve ever done was dirt. I don’t know pavement at all.’ “

Jeff Gordon took the opportunity to meet Bob East and Rollie Helmling. Helming had just fired his driver and lost a race car. He then purchased a new Beast Chassis and replaced driver Bruce Field for Jeff Gordon.

“The next thing I know, I’m getting asked to drive the car.”

On May 27, 1989, Jeff Gordon drove in ‘The Night before the 500’ which is a huge midget race at IRP. It’s hosted at a bullring oval down the road from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s a race that runs ahead of the famed Indy 500. That race was broadcasted live on ESPN.

It was his first race in the new car with the new team.

“I went. New track record, won my heat race and won the race.”

Soon after, Jeff Gordon moved to the white Diet Pepsi car that you’ve all seen pictures of. Gordon went on to claim the USAC Midget Rookie of the Year award.

Gordon quickly totaled up the numbers in USAC. He picked up 22 victories, 55 top fives, 66 top tens and 21 fast times in his USAC career.. In 1990 alone, he ran 21 races and picked up 9 wins. He became the youngest driver to ever when a USAC National championship.

“We won everything.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr NASCAR Retirement Announcement
DAYTONA BEACH, FL – FEBRUARY 23: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet (left), celebrates with Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, in victory lane after winning during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 23, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Larry Nuber: Jeff Gordon

Larry Nuber worked for ESPN. He was the voice of Thursday Night Thunder, a weekly television broadcast of USAC short track racing. Nuber had faith in Gordon and also happened to love NASCAR.

Yet, Nuber first attempted to help Jeff Gordon get his foot in the door with some Indycar teams.

“It was like, ‘Where’s the money? We’re not hiring American dirt track drivers right now. We’re hiring people from South America and Europe who are road racers.”

“My dreams of being an Indycar driver got crushed. There really was no doors opening up unless you’re bringing a bunch of money.”

“Larry said, ‘The only thing I know to do is knock on some doors down in North Carolina for NASCAR.”

NASCAR returns to Rockingham Speedway in 2012 with the Truck Series
ROCKINGHAM, NC – APRIL 15: Nelson Piquet Jr., driver of the #30 Qualcomm Chevrolet, leads the field at the start of the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200 at Rockingham Speedway on April 15, 2012 in Rockingham, North Carolina. (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Buck Baker Driving School: Jeff Gordon

“Of all things, this blows my mind… You know nobody gets a ride from one of these Buck Baker Driving Schools or Richard Petty Driving Experience.”

Larry set up an ESPN show about Jeff Gordon pursuing NASCAR. As Gordon went to the school, he brought the ESPN cameras with him.

“I had not met anybody. I had not been anybody. Nothing.”

Gordon landed in Charlotte, North Carolina. He made the drive over to nearby Rockingham Speedway to participate in the school.

“I’m out here driving these school cars. Like, ‘Man this is cool. I like these high banks. I like to go fast!’ “

Cars at these stock car schools are generally dialed back versions in terms of horsepower. However, Rockingham Speedway is on the smaller side of NASCAR tracks. In other words, that makes hitting the limiter less frequent.

Buck Baker Driving School: Buck introduces Gordon to Hugh Connerty

“There’s this guy with his Busch Grand National car making laps around there. Now, he’s not part of the school, it’s separate.”

Upon talking with Buck Baker, the director of the driving school, he introduced Gordon to the guy that was testing.

“The next day, I show up and Buck says, ‘Hey, he says it’s ok if you want to drive his car.’ I’m like, ‘Ok.’ “

That man was Hugh Connerty. He was an owner/driver in the NASCAR Busch Series. He was a larger man in comparison to the fun sized Jeff Gordon.

“We had to stuff all these pillows. The seat belts probably had a gap of about six inches on them. I didn’t care. Whatever it took to get in these car because it was an actual real race car.”

“I got in there and I hauled ass for 10-15 laps. It wasn’t much. Just a few laps.”

“I got out of it and everybody’s like, ‘Man, you did really good.’ “

Hugh Connerty Racing: Jeff Gordon

NASCAR Busch Series: 1991

“Hugh came over to me and said, ‘We need to talk.’ “

Jeff Gordon went to lunch with the owner of the car he just tested around Rockingham Speedway. “He goes, ‘Man, I realized in that moment, watching you go around that track…. I don’t belong in this car. You were a second faster than I was. I probably need to do something a little different here. I’m having fun but I don’t need to go race it.’ “

Hugh said, “Would you like to drive it?”

Gordon said, “Hell yeah!”

As Gordon recalls how this all went he states, “It’s insane.”

Hugh Connerty was Leo Jackson’s son in law. Jackson knew Andy Petree. Petree knew Ray Evernham.

“All the sudden, I’m going to my first test at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Just a few months after that and Ray Evernham is the crew chief. That’s how insane that deal was.”

Jeff Gordon NASCAR Hall of Fame Exhibit Jeff Gordon Outback Steakhouse 67 Xfinity Series
Jeff Gordon  on the outside pole at Rockingham Speedwa

Hugh Connerty Racing: First NASCAR race

Hugh was scheduled to run three races in 1990. The white #67 car featured Outback Steakhouse sponsorship. Gordon failed to qualify for his first Busch Series race at Charlotte. Qualifying was rained out, so he didn’t get a chance.

Then, at Rockingham, Jeff Gordon returned with the same car that had been pieced together. It wasn’t suppose to be a race winning car. It was a field filler for lack of a better term. What does Gordon do with it? He parked it on the outside pole in qualifying.

Unfortunately, that race didn’t go so well. Gordon knew that Rockingham had a history to get tight on a long run. He told the crew to loosen it up, multiple times and they did.

“I was so loose. I’m coming from open wheel cars, running 40 lap races. We freed the car up. They dropped the green and this thing was crazy loose. I held onto it for 23 laps then I spun out.”

In the last race of the three race deal, Gordon made his first trip to Martinsville Speedway. Unfortunately, he again didn’t get a chance as the engine blew up.

Bill Davis Racing: Jeff Gordon

NASCAR Busch Series: 1991-1992

Gordon was told to to call the director of Ford Performance and that opened the the door to Bill Davis Racing.

He went and ran a December test session with the NASCAR Busch Series team. The track was cold and the car was fast. He impressed them and was hired to run his first full-time season in 1991.

1998 Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett
CHARLOTTE, NC – JANUARY 19: Jeff Gordon, introduces Ray Evernham after Evernham is inducted during the NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Charlotte Convention Center on January 19, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Hendrick Motorports: Jeff Gordon

NASCAR Cup Series: 1992-2016

At the end of the of the 1991 season, Gordon ran his first NASCAR Cup Series race. He made his debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway and finished 31st.

In 1992, Hendrick Motorsports hired Gordon to compete full-time in the highest level of NASCAR. He collected 7 top-5’s and had a best finish of 2nd which came at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

805 races later, Gordon collected 93 wins for Hendrick Motorsports. He sits third on the all time wins list. And oh by the way, Gordon also became a four-time NASCAR champion.

“So, I really wasn’t going to be a NASCAR driver. It just happened,” Gordon concluded.


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