Gordon: Legend Of The Brickyard

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. – For young boys growing up in Indiana, you do one of two things: play basketball or dream of winning the Indianapolis 500. Sometimes you do both.

You either dream of playing at the University of Indiana’s Assembly Hall, or you dream of racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Jeff Gordon, even though he was born in California, dreamed of Indy. That was a good thing, for he probably couldn’t hit a 15-foot jumper if his life depended on it.

On year, Gordon went to Carburetion Day at the Speedway. He had a T-shirt he wanted autographed by Rick Mears, his hero. Mears was one of the leading Indy-car drivers around and is one of three drivers to win four Indianapolis 500s. A couple guys named A.J. Foyt and Al Unser are the others.

Of course, Gordon could add his name to that list of four-time winners if he were to go back-to-back in Sunday’s Brickyard 400.

Chances are he’ll sign a few T-shirts Sunday, but it isn’t likely there Mears/Gordon-like meeting like there was a few years ago.

“That is the neatest thing about Rick: he’s a super nice guy,” said Gordon, obviously still impressed by the meeting. “It’s not that he was just a great race car driver; he is a guy who makes time for everybody. I’ve gotten a chance to talk to him. He is somebody I’m proud to say I was a fan of at a young age.”

Gordon said he still thinks about that day, still gets that feeling of awe when he drives into Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“Every time I go there, I think of taking that bus the day after the Indy 500 and seeing the names of the drivers that competed – names like Unser and Foyt and Rutherford and Mears,” Gordon said. “I always thought that was so awesome to visit that place. There is no doubt I have memories of the Indy 500s that I went and watched, and Rick is a huge part of that.”

Now, Gordon is a big part of the history. No, the Brickyard 400 isn’t the Indy 500. But anytime you can win four times at Indy, you’ve obviously done something special.

Gordon, though, shrugs it off. The history of Indy is the 500, he said.

“It’s hard for me to compare the Brickyard 400s to the Indy 500s,” Gordon said. “When I was a kid and came here for the first time, you look for the driver you want to look up to, and you walk through the museum and you see A.J. Foyt’s name written on there four times, you think, ‘Wow, this guy must be really good.’ You become a huge instant fan. Rick Mears won four of those races, and I became a huge Rick Mears fan. I got a chance to meet him and get his autograph, and I’m still a big admirer of his.

“For me, I guess there’s still a lot about the history of the Indianapolis 500 and how it started from the bricks and how there were very few three and four-time winners. For me, to compare myself to an Indy 500 winner as a Brickyard 400 winner is kind of difficult. I’m just thrilled to be able to say I’ve won three of these races. I hope that someday I’ll get the opportunity to say that I’m a four-time winner. But even if I am, I don’t think I’ll put myself in the same category as those guys.”

That would be up for debate, especially at tracks that aren’t in Indiana. Around these parts, Gordon isn’t the anti-hero. His fans drown out the few boos he’ll get during driver introductions.

It’s as if he’s a Hoosier. In many respects, he is – adopted, perhaps, but he is a Hoosier.

“I wasn’t born there, and I really wasn’t raised there other than the high school years,” Gordon said. “Tony Stewart was born and raised there. What I consider a Hoosier is that. It’s almost not fair for me to say I am, but I’m glad that the people of Indiana feel like I am.

“When I look back at that part of my life, it was only like six years that I lived there. What I respect so much about living in Indiana, why I like it so much and why I’m glad I have so many fans in that area that feel like I am a Hoosier is because the reason we went there is racing was so important to us. We wanted to be able to dedicate as much time to it as possible. We got so much support from the community. People wanted to either help us on our race team or the school would help us achieve our goals. We raced a lot in that area, and we were very successful.”

That success has obviously followed Gordon up the ranks, and now he’s a Winston Cup champion four times over, a superstar of superstars. But there’s a grounded-ness to Gordon that seems to appeal to his Indiana fans.

Maybe he’s not one of them, maybe he is, but the ties between Hoosiers and racing go deep, almost as deep as the ties between Hoosiers and basketball. Wonder why Bob Knight had so many supporters in Indiana, even after all the controversy? Indiana folks adopted him, and loyalty is still important.

That makes the Brickyard 400 that much more special to Gordon. As if winning at Indianapolis wasn’t special enough, Gordon hears cheers when he wins.

“I do have a lot of people that support me, and that is awesome, especially these days for me because I go to a lot of places and don’t get that kind of support,” Gordon said. “Anywhere we go where people are pulling for you, it’s awesome. But it’s also one of the places where we’ve had success at, love the race track, love the whole part of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The whole town is geared up around it. They accept it and love it. It’s a part of life, and you have to like that.”

It’s a big part of Winston Cup life, perhaps only second to the Daytona 500 as the race everyone wants to win.

“A win there or a win at Daytona, those can make your whole season,” said Gordon, who has yet to win this season. “Those can make it all worthwhile. There is no doubt that it sticks out as something very special. When you pull into victory lane, you feel the adrenaline and the rush of winning and the excitement of the team and everybody. But when you back and think about it afterward, hours later – man, that’s a big race.

“It’s such an awesome event; we want to win it any way we can. We don’t really look at statistics and be a four-time winner. I just say, ‘Let’s go there and win.’ ”

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