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Gordon changes his stripes

Once too shy to speak, the four-time Cup champ now is comfortable in the public eye.

Published November 20, 2004

HOMESTEAD - Jeff Gordon was in no position to critique anyone's wardrobe. In an orange, gray and black zebra-striped racing suit concocted as part of a promotion for the movie Racing Stripes, he looked like the stooge on a hidden-camera show. Steve Harvey, the movie's co-star, joked it looked "sexy" on Gordon, but he would stick to his brown double-breasted suit, matching fedora and wing tips. The "pimp suits," Harvey said, did not make for racetrack chic, but "me and my entire crew" had not known where they were going.

Gordon could not resist. Seizing the microphone after Harvey's five minutes of improvised material, he let slip one of those Muttley laughs and wondered aloud, "I just want to know where you guys thought you were going that you thought it was okay to wear the pimp suits. I want to wear one, but I want to know where I've got to go to wear one."

Harvey smiled, but Gordon had gotten the last laugh.

"Was that not cool?" said Gordon's stepfather and business manager, John Bickford. His project had come a long way.

That Gordon gets the chance to cut up with celebrities, stand astride the green at the Masters, judge the Miss USA pageant and host Live with Regis and Kelly speaks to his fame and popularity. That he is comfortable enough to excel in these situations speaks to how far he has come from a 7-year-old too shy to speak.

Gordon initially did not aspire to a life in front of the camera, but it became his reality when he was guided at a young age into a career as a racer. Sponsors want charismatic pitchmen. Winners get on television, land commercials, play with the stars.

"There's a lot of guys out here who are great race car drivers who don't want to be in front of the camera," Gordon said. "From a very young age, my parents had me in front of the camera, whether it be kid shows that focused on racing. I think that really got me more comfortable and come out of my shell.

"I'm in front of people and cameras all the time, so it's not something I hunger for, but I did get used to it."

When Gordon was 7, CBS focused on him for a story about racing children. A crew spent a day with him at a quartermidgets track outside Sacramento, Calif., and got little to show for it. Just the shot of the tiny kid with big bangs - that would be Gordon - hiding behind Bickford so he did not have to kiss the trophy girl.

"We knew he was shy, but we didn't know how shy until that day," Bickford said. "He spoke not one word. No matter what they did. They said, "We interview kids all the time. We can make him talk.' I said, "Okay ... ' Not a word uttered. Nothing."

Bickford had aspirations for his stepson even 26 years ago, and he knew this bashful side was going to be a problem, no matter how he developed as a racer.

"He struggled at banquets and things when he was 16," Bickford said. "At his first NASCAR banquet, he had a real tough time with it. Over time, things got better. Now he's 33 and he can wear a zebra uniform and everyone gets a laugh out of it."

Still, Gordon emphasizes he is a driver first: "This stuff has only come along because of racing. I want to be a race car driver and a good race car driver and because of that, opportunities come along. But I've also learned to have fun with it and enjoy it. I think I've relaxed a little so I can enjoy it, but it's nothing I want to do when I'm not racing."

Bickford, however, has had a head full of plans since Gordon was a child, and they have gotten more grand now that he's a multi-million-dollar industry.

"We certainly wouldn't shy away from his own TV show," Bickford said. "I think either a sitcom that was about NASCAR where he played himself or a show like John McEnroe's. That one's not very successful, but having someone like Jeff, who's met so many people in the world and impacted them in a variety of ways, I think it would be fun. I wouldn't be surprised at all if that came to be."

NASCAR vice president of corporate communications Jim Hunter has watched Gordon grow.

"Jeff works it, whatever he's doing," Hunter said. "He has the quality Richard Petty had in that you can tell he's really tickled by being around the fans. You can tell he really enjoys being on Saturday Night Live and all the other things his success has allowed him to do.

"And he knows it's a fun thing. But at the same time, you can tell that he has really come to enjoy his private time."

That life has changed greatly since his marriage to Brooke Gordon collapsed into a messy and very public divorce in 2002. But after a few years of reorganizing his priorities, Gordon said he is finding what he wants.

"I just want to be happy. I want to smile. I want to enjoy racing. I want to work hard at it, but at the same time when I'm not racing I'm able to have good friends to hang out with and enjoy, look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas, going skiing somewhere or going to the islands somewhere."

Maybe Gordon will marry again, he said. Maybe.

"I certainly don't have time for that kind of relationship and I'm not really interested in that right now," Gordon said. "I have people I date. Things are really good right now, balanced right now, and I'm not even thinking about that. One day when the time is right. I certainly feel like I matured a lot more than the first time I did that and know more what I want and who I am. I think the biggest change right now is I think I understand what I want out of life and how I want to approach it."

Not shying away from anything.

[Last modified November 20, 2004, 01:06:09]


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