Jeff Gordon: From Sprint Cars to Sprint Cup

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon climbed into a sprint car for the first time at a young age.

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KNOXVILLE, Iowa - Many tributes to honor Jeff Gordon's final full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup season have been held at racetracks this season and this weekend, it will extend to the world of winged sprint cars.

Jeff Gordon, who cut his teeth racing winged sprint cars before making the move to stock cars, returned to Knoxville Raceway – the sprint car capital of the world - on Wednesday.

"I have always loved dirt track racing it's really where I got my start," Gordon said. "I'll always have a connection there and anytime I get a chance to go watch a race whether it's on the Internet, TV or in person I'm going to jump at that opportunity."

Gordon has attended the opening day of the Knoxville Nationals for the past four seasons but this time around, it was even more special.

Larson Marks Racing and driver Shane Stewart are honoring Gordon for the 55th FVP Knoxville Nationals by running a special paint scheme that resembles the first sprint car Gordon drove. Stewart, who usually drives the No. 2 entry, will sport the No. 16 for this event, which was Gordon's number at that time. The car also will carry the logos of Kick-It, a program and partner of the Jeff Gordon Children's Foundation which raises money for pediatric cancer research.

"It's extremely special," Gordon said. "I’m excited to see Shane Stewart drive it in the Knoxville Nationals. It means the world to me and we are going to get a lot of attention for Kick-It and pediatric cancer as well."

Gordon's role in sprint car racing has impacted so many and it started at an early age ...

The Beginning
Growing up in California, Gordon was introduced to sprint cars at a young age through his parents. When he wasn't racing his quarter-midget, he would attend sprint car races with his family.

"I always loved sprint cars," Gordon said. "When I started racing quarter-midgets we weren’t far from West Capitol Speedway. Vallejo, where I grew up, actually had a dirt track where some sprint cars raced."

Gordon's bedroom walls were covered with pictures of his sprint car idols and he dreamed of competing in those types of cars. After racing BMX bikes at the age of four, quarter-midgets and go-karts, Gordon was looking to advance to a sprint car. But his young age was holding him back. A door opened when Gordon noticed an article about a young driver that was racing sprint cars in Florida named Sport Allen.

"I was surrounded by sprint car racing and by being a quarter-midget racer made me look into more sprint car racing," Gordon said. "I became a huge fan through 'Open Wheel' magazine and one day I opened it up and saw an article on Sport Allen that ended up inspiring me, but primarily my parents to put me in a sprint car under the age of 16."

With a solution to the age-limit problem, Gordon's stepfather - John Bickford, who was instrumental in helping Gordon's racing career - took the next steps to get him a sprint car. Bickford contacted Lee Osborne in Jamestown, Ind., to get an Osborne chassis shipped to California, where Bickford and Gordon built it from the ground up.

The first time Gordon ever started that car was on a dirt road back from where he lived.

"It scared the heck out of me, it really did," Gordon said. "I had no idea there was going to be that much power and it was going to shake and accelerate like that. I didn't think that I could do it. I'm so glad that my Step Dad gave me the confidence to go out there and push myself, push the limits and go do it."

On Track
The 1985 season saw Gordon compete in sprint cars for the first time, at the age of 13. Bickford and Gordon unloaded their new sprint car in a Jacksonville, Fla., Red Roof Inn parking lot - to the amazement of fellow competitors. Gordon's first night on the track gave him a new perspective on the power of a sprint car.

Jeff Gordon"What I thought I was scared about in starting the engine was nothing compared to when I stood on the gas," Gordon said. "That first night didn’t go so well and luckily, it rained out. We went to East Bay where Sport Allen was, met him and had a four-day show there. It was a great track for me to learn on and all of a sudden, it started coming to me."

With the move to sprint cars and age restrictions in California, Gordon's parents moved to Indiana to help further his career. He raced at tracks primarily in Ohio and the surrounding areas.

After a year of racing under his belt, Gordon credits his fourth-place finish in 1986 at the Tampa Fairgrounds as the real start to his sprint car career. That race still remains Bickford's favorite because of what Gordon accomplished that night in the All Star Circuit of Champions.

"Jeff assumed the lead from Rick Ferkel four laps into the race. They were storming along and the next thing you know, Steve Kinser passed Jeff. But he wasn’t going to give it up and he passed Steve back," Bickford said. "They went back and forth. It was the most unbelievable race. We ended up with a yellow flag toward the end. Bobby Davis and Keith Kauffman finished in front of Jeff, and Steve won the race."

The end result saw Gordon compete with the drivers he idolized in the sprint car world growing up. One of Gordon's memorable moments in sprint car racing came at the prestigious Kings Royal in a heat race, where he took the checkered flag ahead of Kinser. Keep in mind that Kinser was the driver whose name would always come up when Gordon had to do a project in school.

"Certainly being a huge Steve Kinser fan from a young age just to get the chance to race with him and beat him, even if it was in a heat race and he started behind me was pretty special," Gordon said.

"I think I finished second or third to him at Bloomington (Ind.) one year to. I didn’t get to race Steve as much as I would of like to of because when he was racing Outlaws I was racing local or All Stars."

Jeff GordonIn 1988, Gordon ran the No. 6 sprint car and won multiple track championships including one at Bloomington Speedway. He also competed in the Knoxville Nationals, known simply as the "Grand Daddy of them all," in 1989 and finished 23rd driving the No. 23 for McBride and Shoff Motorsports.

"I didn't do a lot of racing at Knoxville but the times I did run there, I'll never forget," Gordon said. "I did make the Knoxville Nationals one year and that's my Knoxville claim to fame. I had a great time racing sprint cars. I was good, but I knew I wasn't going to be great so I'm really glad the opportunity came along to go do the (ESPN) Thursday Night Thunder and also do more pavement racing to get me down South to race NASCAR."

Gordon later drove USAC non-winged sprint cars and it was those ESPN shows that helped put him on the map.

Sprint Car Community
Jeff Gordon keeps in touch with the sprint car world when he can during his busy NASCAR schedule. Since 2012, he's had the opportunity to do more and help children with pediatric cancer in the process.

Jeff GordonGordon partnered with Silva Motorsports and driver Shane Stewart for the 2012 Knoxville Nationals to help promote the Kick-It program, which is a grassroots fundraising movement for pediatric cancer research. That year marked the first-ever Kick-It event and since then, the sprint car community has raised nearly $700,000 in 40 different kickball games played in the United States and Australia.

With the help of some of his fellow NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitors like Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson, Gordon's fundraising efforts for Kick-It extended to an annual go-kart event at Slideways Karting Center near Knoxville Raceway. The event, first held in 2013, gives fans the opportunity to race against the Sprint Cup stars in winged karts.

Larson won the inaugural race with Gordon and Kahne winning in 2014 and 2015, respectively. 

Wednesday's race and Friday's kickball game will feature a 1980s theme to honor the era when Gordon raced a winged sprint car. The kickball game also features an auction for racing memorabilia and this year's big item is a side-wing panel from Gordon's first sprint car.

"That's what made this so special is the overwhelming support from dirt track racers and fans," Gordon said. "Everyone has been so supportive of not just here at Knoxville. This is our biggest event because it is Knoxville and we get to throw in a go-kart event thanks to Slideways and some great sponsors."

Opening the Door
Jeff Gordon's path in winged and non-winged sprint cars helped open the door for NASCAR owners to look not only outside of NASCAR for talent, but also to the West Coast. Down the road, Gordon and Rick Hendrick formed the No. 48 Lowe's Sprint Cup team for another California-born driver, Jimmie Johnson.

"He was instrumental in helping car owners and sponsors realize that there are drivers far and wide that can come in and be competitive," Johnson said of Gordon. "He opened the door for (Tony) Stewart; and Stewart opened the door further for myself and Kasey Kahne, Ricky Stenhouse. Now, we have more drivers from the state of California than any other state. It's wild to think in NASCAR, that's the case. Jeff is responsible for that trend."

Younger talent was another door Gordon helped open, which is now the norm in NASCAR's top three divisions.

"It changed the whole perception of how you looked at a driver," said Kevin Harvick, the 2014 Sprint Cup champion who hails from Bakersfield, Calif. "Everybody wanted older, experienced guys at that point who wouldn't tear up the cars. Then, the next thing you know, everyone was looking for the next wave of talent to be like Jeff. So it changed the way the sport worked."

Kyle Larson, also from California, is one of the latest in the Sprint Cup Series that made a name for himself on dirt. Not only is Larson a sprint car team owner, he's also a four-time World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series winner.

"Jeff was a guy I looked up to and he paved the path for dirt guys to get to the Cup series," Larson said. "Being able to race with him for his final two seasons is pretty special. To say I got the chance to race with Jeff Gordon is pretty cool.”

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