In Gordon, Earnhardt saw a star and dollars
Their rivalry, so bitter among fans, was part marketing savvy.
By BRANT JAMES
Published April 29, 2007
Dale Earnhardt's fans have lambasted Jeff Gordon for a dozen years, showered him in beer cans, mocked his appearance and minimized his success.
They've missed the point, or maybe the joke, completely.
When Gordon tied the late legend with 76 victories at NASCAR's highest level at Phoenix on April 21, he had a unique opportunity. He had the win, a share of sixth on NASCAR's all-time wins list, and the forum to put it back in their faces.
But as Gordon, 35, rolled to a stop, a call came over the team radio that crewman Aaron Kuehn was rushing over a flag the team had stashed in its hauler since late last summer, when Gordon pulled one win behind Earnhardt. Kuehn handed it inside, unfurling it.
Earnhardt's iconic "3" in black and red.
This was not the gesture of a scorned man. It was the gesture of a friend, a colleague, an apprentice. And an accomplice in a ruse, a manufactured class war and textbook rivalry that benefited not only both men, but NASCAR as it readied to welcome in millions of new fans in the mid 1990s.
NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said the on-track rivalry served as the hook for a new generation of younger fans from all over the country.
"The Earnhardt-Gordon rivalry was as good as any we've ever had in the sport, " he said.
But it wasn't as nasty as many believed.
"Earnhardt was a teaser, " said Ray Evernham, now a team owner who won three championships as Gordon's crew chief. "But I think deep down inside they had a ton of respect. They did some business deals. If they were teasing and antagonistic, it was part of the show. Earnhardt was a master at selling hats and T-shirts."
A guiding hand
John Bickford knew his stepson had talent. By 1988, Gordon, then 19, had won a USAC Midget, three quarter-midget and four national carting titles. It was time to try the next step.
Gordon had become enamored with stock cars after turning laps at the Buck Baker Driving School at Rockingham N.C. Speedway. Bickford had moved his family from California to Indiana to facilitate Jeff's career once. Now what?
So Bickford asked Earnhardt for advice. Get Gordon off dirt, get him on pavement, he said. There were tips here, suggestions on whom to meet there. It was a cheat sheet to stardom.
Gordon was introduced to Hugh Connerty, an executive with Tampa-based Outback Steakhouse. Through Connerty and Andy Petree, who would be Earnhardt's crew chief from 1993-95, they met a man working part time for racers out of his shop in New Jersey: Evernham.
Gordon got a crucial early sponsor and an entry into the Busch Series that helped him eventually race for Bill Davis, then for Rick Hendrick. After becoming fast friends with Evernham at a Busch test in Charlotte in 1990, he also got a crew chief with whom he would become a star.
Earnhardt was watching the process come together from the periphery, and he told Evernham his protege had greatness within.
"Absolutely, " Evernham said. "Earnhardt and I had some conversations. ... He preached to me about some things I was doing and taking care of that kid because he could be one of the best ever. That was straight out of Earnhardt's mouth.
"So absolutely, Dale guided me through a couple things, so I know he looked out for Jeff a little bit."
Friends, rivals and business partners
As Gordon's career quickly came to full flower - seven wins and a Cup title in his third full season - Bickford, his stepson's business manager, had the funds and the clout to expand a "close personal friendship" with Earnhardt into a mutually beneficial business relationship.
"Not saying we were best of friends, " Gordon said, "but we did have some things in common, probably more things than he and I thought."
There were nonracing ventures and some in merchandising, such as a "Champ and the Challenger" campaign in 1994 that highlighted Gordon and Earnhardt's careers and increasing competition on track. There were hats, T-shirts. Trading cards from the series still fetch as much as $40 each on Internet auction sites.
"Dale didn't have a lot of close friends, but he had a few people that he liked to be friends with, and Jeff Gordon was one of them, " three time champion Darrell Waltrip said. "Dale was a smart guy. He had relationships with people that were good for both of them. Dale liked to work with Gordon because he was an up-and-coming superstar in the sport and Dale wanted to be close to a guy like that."
As Gordon evolved into a serious title contender, NASCAR's expanding fan base was separating into warring camps, with the clean-cut Californian and the grizzled Earnhardt as their warriors.
Earnhardt had once referred to Gordon as the "The Kid, " which begat "Wonder Boy." That was in keeping with Earnhardt's sense of mischievous humor. Fans got mean, though.
When Gordon revealed a relationship with future ex-wife and Miss Winston Brooke Sealey, Earnhardt joked, "Whew, I'm glad to see you've got a girlfriend. Some of us were beginning to wonder if you liked girls, " unintentionally beginning a rumor about Gordon's sexuality.
Gordon responded in his book, Jeff Gordon: Racing Back to the Front, "I'd like to think if I were gay, I would be comfortable enough to say so and get on with my life. The fact is I'm not, and I never quite understood why so many people want to believe otherwise."
"He played along with everything but the gay rumor, " Evernham said. "Not that he has anything against gay people, but people got pretty vicious for awhile."
That viciousness, Hendrick said, was limited to the fans. Bickford agreed.
"Within professional sports, you have the role you play, " he said. "It's an entertainment business. You had this established icon, statuesque representative of the blue collar, Dale Earnhardt, the guy who came from the dusty trails of dirt tracks around North Carolina and his family was in the sport, his father was a famous racer and they were all hard-nosed and didn't go to school, and 'we're just going to work on the cars all night.'
"Then you had this kid that comes from California and he shows up with an ironed shirt and proper dress and he speaks well and he's 21 years of age and he's got this boyish complexion and a sparkle in his eye and a dream, and he's driving for this premier car owner, Rick Hendrick, who owns car dealerships and the whole world perceives it as he is walking in with a silver platter, that the whole world has been given to him.
"The perception was he didn't have to work for anything, so you immediately had this gigantic separation between the two personalities. It was the best entertainment package NASCAR could ever have dreamed of. They couldn't have written a better script that would have had a better hero-villain setup. So now we've got a battle and the whole public is just drooling at Daytona. So, we're not going to let them be pals in front of the rest of the public."
Upon winning his first championship in 1995, Gordon, playing off Earnhardt's nicknames for him, toasted his antagonist with a flute of milk instead of champagne at the NASCAR awards banquet.
"For some reason, he would want to introduce me to things he got introduced to, show me things good for him that he thought good for me, like fishing, " Gordon said. "I like the big boats, like to sit back, have - I won't say what - sitting in front of me and just relax and look at the water. That was fantastic, and he introduced me to that. I'd like to have him around now and tell him how much that cost me and how I'd wish I'd never gotten a boat. But it was a lot of fun, worth every penny."
One champion to another
Dale Earnhardt Jr. reached inside Gordon's car after his win that Saturday night at Phoenix, extending a hand and warming Gordon's expression from apprehension to relief. Earnhardt's popular namesake had gotten it. The old man, Earnhardt Jr. said, would have appreciated the gesture.
"I don't like seeing Jeff win. I like to win, " Earnhardt Jr. said. "But when he honored my father, that was really cool. That was a lot of class. I wanted to make that known."