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Racing's biggest turn

Gordon's switch from open wheels continues to have affect.

By JOANNE KORTH and BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 26, 2002


He was 18 when he packed a bag and left his home in Indiana for a stock-car racing school in the humid south. He had no notion what the future might hold, no inkling what he found in rural North Carolina would change his life.

And many others.

Gordon matriculated in the ranks of open-wheel racers, slinging sprint cars and midgets around the grass-roots tracks of Indiana, beating all the older kids and fantasizing about the Indianapolis 500. But when he fell in love with stock cars at Buck Baker's driving school in 1990, the landscape of racing in America shifted.

To fenders.

To NASCAR.

"I used to say, and it was almost kind of fed to me, "You've got to go to Indianapolis.' I remember watching it as a kid and saying, "Someday, I want to race in the Indy 500,' " Gordon said Thursday. "But things worked out so well for me here that I can't imagine doing anything different."

The 86th Indianapolis 500 starts at noon today at historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but Gordon won't slip into his racing uniform until almost five hours later, when NASCAR turns on the lights for the Coca-Cola Racing Family 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C.

Gordon's unprecedented success the past decade -- 57 victories and four Winston Cup championships by age 30 -- corresponds, not coincidentally, with NASCAR's boom and open-wheel racing's swoon. The first to break ranks, Gordon led a migration of young drivers nationwide into stock-car racing.

Open-wheel racing in the United States has yet to recover.

"Ten years ago, if you asked a kid to draw a picture of a race car, he would have drawn an Indy car," said Casey Mears, 24, nephew of four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears and a rookie in NASCAR's Busch Grand National series. "Now, that kid will draw a stock car."

Before Gordon, NASCAR drivers came almost exclusively from the South, with names like Petty, Earnhardt and Allison. Most in stock-car racing held narrow opinions of open-wheel racers.

Gordon opened eyes. And doors.

"I think he's the one that really changed the mind-set of the car owners," said Robbie Loomis, who left Petty Enterprises in 2000 to be Gordon's crew chief on the No. 24 Chevrolet. "Before, owners always thought they had to get somebody with stock-car experience, but now you want a driver who can drive anything."

And those drivers want NASCAR.

Tony Stewart, the 1997 Indy Racing League champion who grew up in the shadow of IMS, became Winston Cup's 1999 Rookie of the Year and is a contender for this year's championship. Stewart, 31, has gone to great lengths to keep his Indy 500 dream alive, twice racing in both events on the same day, but this year chose not to jeopardize his NASCAR title chances with the grueling double.

Indiana native Ryan Newman, the first driver to win all three major United States Auto Club divisions, is competing for Cup rookie honors this season at age 24. Last weekend, he joined phenomenon Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the only rookies to win the Winston all-star race.

Mears, who raced well in the IRL and CART last season but did not receive a full-time job offer, went with his head over his heart in picking a career path.

"The pros about open-wheel racing is the car's better, but NASCAR has everything else: more cars, more sponsors, more fans, more races" said Mears, who, along with Winston Cup driver John Andretti, brings one of open-wheel racing's most famous surnames to NASCAR. "My heart's at Indy, but what's the smart thing to do? The split between CART and IRL in 1996 diluted the sport and got people thinking in other directions."

IMS president Tony George created the oval-based IRL, in part, because he was tired of seeing young American drivers come up through the ranks but never make it to Indy. Most were turned away at the elite level in favor of foreign drivers with road-course experience and million-dollar bankrolls.

Including Gordon.

"Even though I was in open-wheel racing sprint cars and midgets all around Indiana, which used to be the thing that opened up doors to get you to Indianapolis, that wasn't the case anymore," said Gordon, who won more than 500 short track races in his youth and moved from his native California for increased opportunities.

"My name was out there; my face was out there and people were starting to recognize me. But people were saying, "You need to go look at some other things to pursue and see how far you can take this.' "

Pretty far.

Gordon is NASCAR's all-time leading money winner with more than $45-million. He leads active Winston Cup drivers with 57 victories, and his four titles trail only the seven each won by legends Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

By the time George founded the IRL, Gordon's example presented promising American drivers a more lucrative option. As comfortable in a New York board room as behind the wheel, clean-cut Gordon introduced NASCAR to new markets, new locations and a new breed of fan. As a result, money poured into the garage.

Drivers followed.

Sponsors looking to capitalize on the young fans drawn to Gordon rather than NASCAR's established, 40-something stars sent team owners out in search of the marketable fresh faces. Collectively, they are taking Winston Cup by storm this season.

"That's the Jeff Gordon factor," said Benny Parsons, 1973 Winston Cup champion and NBC television analyst. "Now, sponsors all want that 25 year old."

For several years after the open-wheel split, the Indy 500 was a hollow imitation of the World's Greatest Race, with no-name drivers in unreliable cars. Today's running is expected to be one of the most competitive in years, thanks to the return of CART teams that began last year and an influx of talented Brazilians. But it won't automatically be popular.

Last year, the national television ratings for the Coca-Cola 600, won by Jeff Burton, nearly eclipsed those of the Indy 500, won by electrifying Brazilian Helio Castroneves, 5.3 to 5.8. In the Tampa Bay market, NASCAR held a decided ratings edge, 6.1 to 4.7.

Indy needs an American superstar.

It needs Gordon.

"What the presence of Jeff Gordon would do is offset the influence of all the Brazilians and foreigners who have no fan base here," said Chris Economaki, respected journalist and editor of National Speed Sport News. "(Pole-sitter) Bruno Junqueira's a fine guy, and so is Helio Castroneves, but they don't bring any fans with them. There is nobody from their hometown getting on a bus and coming here, as you would get with Jeff Gordon."

Is he interested? Maybe.

"I wouldn't want to do the double," Gordon said, referring to the past efforts of Stewart and Andretti, and today's attempt by former open-wheel star turned NASCAR hopeful Robby Gordon. "But someday I might, as long as it didn't interfere with winning Winston Cup championships."

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