JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 DRIVE TO END HUNGER CHEVROLET met with media and discussed what it takes to prepare for the long Coca-Cola 600, how he stays cool and hydrated in the car, military involvement in the sport, his Charlotte 1 Million: A Drive to End Hunger Meal Packaging event, and more.
ON THE HOT WEATHER THIS WEEKEND “Oh, it’s a challenging race on its own and then you throw in the heat and humidity in there; plus how long this race is and it definitely going to make for some big challenges. There is still a little bit of daylight out when this race starts, which can beat that race track up and makes for even more challenges on how to start the race out and how you’re going to balance it out as the temps go down and night comes and the track changes.”
HOW DOES A RACE THIS LONG MANIFEST ITSELF ON THE DRIVERS BOTH PHYSICALLY AND MENTALLY? IS IT TOUGH TO MAINTAIN FOCUS? “It used to be a lot worst. It’s just gotten so much better these days at cooling the driver and moving air around the seat and into the helmet, as well as better ways to hydrate. Now I have a button on the steering wheel. I can hit that and keep fluids in me even under green flag runs. It’s not easy, but at least if you have to, you could do that. I’ll even have maybe some different types of not meal replacement, but different things that can also put nutrients in my body during the race. All those things really help with hydration during long races. Of course the cooling on a hot weekend like this is also very important.”
SO BEFORE, YOU DIDN’T HAVE THE AIR CONDITIONER SYSTEM COMPARED TO WHAT YOU HAVE NOW, AND HAD TO REACH FOR A BOTTLE? “Oh, yeah; you had to basically get it on a pit stop. As far as eating anything, nothing at all. Now I actually have these little bottles that we do a mixture of this stuff called ‘Gu’ that runners and cyclists use, and mix it with a little water to liquefy it slightly and so I’ll take those every hour or so. We’ve had drink bottle systems and things and some guys still don’t use them. We’ve got ours pretty slick and it works really, really nice. You just hit that button and it just squirts into your mouth. And then we have the helmets now with the air coming into the top. I remember not even having that system. When we first started incorporating air into the helmet, it didn’t do much. It just blew a bunch of air around. Now we’ve got it moving over the top of your head which is where most of the cooling occurs and the fresh air part of it.
“So we’ve come a long, long way. But there are still days where it’s super-hot in those long races and the pace of this track really pushes you hard as a driver.”
DO YOU FEEL IT MONDAY MORNING? “Oh, yeah; oh yeah. It’s like I said. Some are worse than others. The road courses I think are probably the most challenging when it’s hot because you have to time to take a breath or take a drink. You can’t rest. You’re always shifting. You’re down-shifting. You’re always braking. You’re turning right and left. So those hot Sonoma race weekends and in August up in Watkins Glen. If it gets hot up there in the mountains, that’s treacherous on you. Here on the ovals, you can find a way to kind of relax your body to make it a little easier. But I definitely feel it the next day.”
DO YOU EVER SEE ANY OF THE DRIVERS EAT A SNACK OR SOMETHING DURING THE RACE? “Not that I can remember. Not when people were actually competing during the race. I can remember somebody had a problem even though I had that one time, we had issues. We were way off the lead lap and just kind of riding it out. And I got hungry and said I needed a hot dog or something. And I shoved anything I could underneath my helmet. But I didn’t have the open-face helmet. You could definitely have gotten to it. I’m sure there are guys that did it, but not when you’re trying to compete for a win.”
ON MEMORIAL DAY AND PATRIOTIC PAINT SCHEMES AND INVOLVEMENT WITH THE TROOPS “Oh my gosh I feel like every weekend is Memorial Day for us here in NASCAR. We have such an incredible support system going both ways; us for the military and the military for us every week, whether it’s sponsorship and those members of the military that are supporting that (and) the recruiting that goes on every week with the National Guard. So when you see the level that it’s taken to for this race weekend; and I credit Bruton (Smith) and the staff here at the speedway really do an amazing job of entertaining the fans and doing it in a way that really pays tribute to those men and women that have paid the ultimate sacrifice. A lot of times when you’re racing, you think it’s another race weekend; but this one is not.
“Over time I’ve gotten a greater appreciation for those men and women and what they do and how fortunate we are to do what we do because of them, that it really hits home with me now on this weekend and Monday of what we’re really celebrating.”
YOU’VE ALWAYS BEEN GOOD AT DOVER AND THERE WAS A STRETCH THERE WHEN YOU WON TWO OR THREE IN A ROW. WHY WAS THAT BEEN ONE OF YOUR BEST TRACKS? “It’s a very fast race track. It’s a challenging race track. Our team has always excelled at the tracks that are the most challenging. So, we haven’t been successful there recently but I do think that certain teams and driver combinations get on a roll at certain tracks. That was one where we really got on a roll. And I always go back to when you find something that works, if there are very little changes, it can work for a long period of time. That’s kind of what we went through in the late ‘90’s. We’re kind of in that place again now where things haven’t changed for a little while so I think the same guys who have been running good, you’re going to see continue to run good. So many things have changed since I ran good there that we’ve been constantly looking for that combination to get back to our winning ways.”
HOW WILD WAS THE TEST AT MICHIGAN? “Oh, the test at Michigan was extremely fast. It wasn’t that wild of a ride because you’re not going to go that fast if it’s that uncomfortable. It actually was very comfortable. The track had a lot of grip and I’m anxious to see what happens when we get back there with multiple cars. And the temperatures are probably going to be a lot higher too. It’s going to be challenging to maintain the pace that we’re going to be able to run there. But I’ve always loved Michigan and I was just happy to know that other than new pavement and a smooth race track, not a lot had changed, which I was happy to hear.”
YOUR TEAMMATE DALE EARNHARDT JR. CAME VERY CLOSE TO WINNING HERE LAST YEAR. HOW DOES THAT CHANGE THE APPROACH WHEN YOU RETURN TO THE TRACK? “I think just the year that Junior is having and (crew chief) Steve (Letarte) are having, they are really building consistency with some good runs. And all that builds confidence. And it just makes your team just that much stronger and allows you to go to the next race with a shot at winning. I think last year they ran good here, but they were going to win that race on fuel mileage. This year, I think they’ve got a legitimate shot to win it either way. And so I think that’s just based on the teamwork they’ve been building on.”
THERE IS A YOUNG 12-YEAR-OLD BOY WHO RECENTLY DIED IN A RACING ACCIDENT. WHEN I THINK OF HOW YOUNG YOU WERE WHEN YOU STARTED. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT YOUNG KIDS RACING? “Well, accidents happen. And I don’t know all the details about that accident but I had friends that lost their lives when I was racing Quarter Midgets. It rarely happened. But it did happen. Just like in any other sport, those accidents can happen. We constantly evolve with technology and making things safer and so I only think about it myself. I wouldn’t think twice about putting my kids in a race car if I know what kind of car it is and I know it’s sanctioning body that’s organizing the events and the race tracks and doing everything I can to make sure that they’re in a good environment as well as a safe one. But even with that said, you know that there are still risks involved.
“But I don’t think any more risks than there are at any other sport. I think of football, and I was actually talking to some football players at a golf tournament the other day about these head injuries and what’s going on with NFL right now with the concussions. Where in our sport, you’ll get some of that from time to time, but we’ve improved it so much over time. But it’s always tragic when it’s somebody young who has his whole life ahead of him. Without me really knowing the details of the series and the kind of car he was in and the safety features that are there, I really can’t comment on it any further than that than of all the sports that I was involved with as a kid, I think racing was probably the safest one.”
DID YOU, AT THE TIME, HAVE ANY THOUGHT THAT YOU WERE IN A DANGEROUS THING? DID YOU KNOW DANGER? YOU WERE SO YOUNG; LIKE 5 OR 6 YEARS OLD “You, know, I didn’t. When those accidents happened like what happened to a friend of mine; a kid named Jimmy Gerardo, and I’ll never forget that day. I was in the race and I’m not sure what happened but he went straight into the wall and hit a 4 x 4 post and broke his neck; and kind of the same kind of injuries we’ve seen in this sport. And that was my first experience of it. I didn’t quite grasp and understand it. But what I did know is that it was an accident; and it was one that we could learn from on how to build the fences and how to build the cars. We were a long ways from Hans devices and things like that back then; so I think it was my first indication of that there are risks involved. But as a kid, it didn’t slow me down at all. My heart really went out to his family and the fact that my friend wasn’t going to be there to race with or to hang out and play with when we weren’t on the track.”
ON SHORTENING POCONO, DO YOU THING THAT’S GOING TO HELP IN TERMS OF THE RACING ITSELF? “I think every driver in here (garage) has been asking for that race to be shortened. Five hundred miles there is like 600 miles or maybe longer here. Pocono is such a long lap. It’s a great race track but it doesn’t offer the same type of racing that you see here. I think a shorter race is going to be a better and more exciting race at Pocono.”
WHAT IS THE MOST CHALLENGING PART OF GETTING ON PIT ROAD AT DOVER? “Dover, to me, is the pit road that you want to be conservative. You don’t want to attack. This (Charlotte Motor Speedway) is a pit road you can attack. There are a lot of tracks you can just really go after. Dover is that one track where you’re better off being conservative and losing a little bit of time getting there safely than trying to get there super, super fast. Let the smooth and consistent entry and exit off pit road and the pit crew do their job. Let that be what keeps you in your position or gain spots. Let other people make mistakes, I guess.”
ON YOUR BAD LUCK THIS YEAR, HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN SUCH AN UPBEAT ATTITUDE? “What are you going to do other than just keep your head up and work hard and go to the next race and try to change it. We’ve got too good of a team and too good of race cars to try to get down on the way things have been going. It’s tough. It’s challenging because every one of those races where you get out of the car and you see the dejection on the team’s face. You know what you’re going through and they feel it from you as well. To me, I think the All-Star race was way tougher on us than Darlington was. At the All-Star race, we just didn’t perform well enough. That’s way tougher to go through than this having bad luck because we’ve been running really good this year. And I keep saying that, but if we don’t get the results too, it is going to really be tough to get out of this hole and get ourselves back to where we need to be.
“So, the timing gets tougher and tougher all the time and the more races that go by that we don’t get the results, the harder and harder that mountain is to climb. But we’re just relying on our team and keeping the communication open and stay positive with all the guys and just say hey, this is our week; this is our week. And you can only do that for so long, but we’re still doing it. So, hopefully we’ll see the results.
“I’m excited about this weekend. I feel like we really learned a lot at that All-Star race. Obviously the No. 48 (Jimmie Johnson) dominated and they were really strong, so we could learn something from that as well. But we learned a lot as a team on what we can do to be really, really good this weekend.”
DO YOU NEED VOLUNTEERS TO HELP WITH YOUR DRIVE TO END HUNGER MEAL PACKAGING EVENT? CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT SPECIAL EVENT? “Yes, we need volunteers. We started this morning. We already packed probably about 200,000 meals already. But it’s a steady changeover of crews. It’s a very team effort. It’s amazing. I had the best time going. It’s downtown Charlotte at the Convention Center. It’s called the AARP Drive to End Hunger 1 Million Meals. And it’s basically where we’re going to package a million meals to donate to all the local food banks in North Carolina toward older Americans with hunger issues.
“But it truly takes a team. All the pit crews at Hendrick are going to be competing tomorrow at Hendrick Motorsports on who can package the meals faster and so that’s going to be fun. But today I got a chance to get in there with (tennis legend) Martina Navratilova. She was there helping us as well as hundreds if not thousands of volunteers that were there. It was so much fun; I mean it truly is. You’ve got to do your job and do it fast, but it’s got to be precise because they weigh each bag at the end and then when you get a certain number of bags, they go into a box. So it’s a lot of fun and very exciting to see that many people come together to do something for a great cause. There’s soy and rice and dried goods, and a vitamin pack and about five different ingredients that make up each pack and you can go to DrivetoEndHunger.org to learn all that’s in there; how to volunteer and how to become eligible to be involved. Our goal is 1 million meals. Each one of these packets is one meal. We’ve packaged up 100,000 so far today (2:00 p.m. Friday) and we’ve got until 6:00 p.m. today and then tomorrow at the Convention Center as well as at Hendrick Motorsports tomorrow. We need lots of volunteers!”