NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jeff Gordon took part in a teleconference with Northern California media in advance of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway, June 24-26.
Jeff, thanks so much for joining the Northern California media on today's call.
JG: Yeah, absolutely. It's a pleasure. Really looking forward to coming out to Sonoma. As always, it's around my daughter Ella's birthday. So last year she wasn't able to come out because Leo was being born shortly after in August, so it's going to be great having the family out there and what a great track and the success we've had. So we certainly are looking forward to it.
Jeff, before we get started on talking about the upcoming race, maybe you can fill us in on your involvement in the movie Cars 2 and your role in there? Maybe you can give us a little update on what that's going to be all about.
JG: Yeah, it's been a busy day promoting that here today actually, but what an amazing experience just being involved with the Cars 2 movie legacy with what they're building here. Actually John Lasseter from Pixar, who's a huge race fan and comes out to the Sonoma races every year, I was able to get in touch with him last year around this same time and we started talking about being a part of Cars 2, and I just can't believe it's all worked out the way it has. I mean, it was probably a week or two after the conversation and he's presenting Jeff Gorvette to me and my potential role. So it's not a big one, but it sure is something I'm very proud of and excited about as a racecar driver being able to be the voice of a cool car and especially as a parent. So, yeah, I can't wait for it to come out June 24.
It's been a while since we’ve seen you in the Wine Country Winner’s Circle in Sonoma. I know you've won the most races and the most poles there, but lately you haven't visited Victory Circle. What's it going to take to get you there?
JG: You know, I'll say this and I really mean it, I mean we have struggled on the road courses in recent years and it's not something that we've been accustomed to and it's not something we like, so we've been working really hard at making improvements there and we actually tested at a road course back East, Mid-Ohio, and I'm hoping that that test will definitely get us closer to where we need to be to be more competitive out in Sonoma. Just haven't been able to get the balance right there and find the speed that we need, so hopefully we have that this time.
How tough is it to drive Infineon Raceway in Sonoma?
JG: Well, it's a very challenging race track. It's one that you really struggle between being aggressive and being patient. On a road course, you typically really want to attack the breaking zones. But Sonoma, with the elevation changes and the off cambered turns, it's one of those tracks where you have to be very careful at over attacking and you can drive it too hard. And plus setting up the car, there's some fast sections as well as some very technical sections, so getting the car right for that track is extremely challenging as well as driving it.
Just from 2008 through last year, you had one win total. This year you already have two. What's been the first thing that goes through your mind when you think ‘Why are we having success this year so far as opposed to the last couple years?’ In terms of getting in the Winner Circle, what is the difference?
JG: Well, I mean, if you look at especially last year, we had a lot of second place finishes. So, I think that some slipped away from us, sometimes the cautions don’t fall the right way for you. I mean I think of Martinsville last year, I mean we were 50 feet from getting the white flag and the caution came out, so I think we ran really well last year. But I think if you go to Victory Lane, it's either meant to be or it's not meant to be and so for us last year it just wasn't meant to be. And with all the changes that Rick Hendrick called for over the offseason, I think that they're definitely working out very well. I think you look at the chemistry between (Dale Earnhardt) Junior and Steve (Letarte) and Mark (Martin) and Lance (McGrew) and me and Alan (Gustafson), it's been fantastic. So I've always wanted to work with Alan, known him for a long time as he's worked at Hendrick Motorsports and he's a very talented crew chief with a great group of guys around him, so I just look at the confidence that they have in me and that I have in them. And we haven't always been great this year and yet we've won two races, so I feel like we've turned the corner on our mile-and-a-half program. Our short track program has been there through the offseason and early on and now I think we’ve got to continue with the intermediate tracks like this weekend in Michigan and then really step up our road-course program. And I think if we can do that, we're a complete team that can definitely get ourselves solidly in the Chase.
Where were you when you realized stock car racing should be your career?
JG: Well it certainly wasn't in Vallejo. When I grew up in Vallejo, all I wanted to do was race open-wheel cars. I grew up racing quarter midgets all around the Bay Area and throughout the state and racing to me was my life since age five; and I love to go to Baylands (Raceway Park) and even Vallejo Speedway back when they had a dirt track, West Capital. I mean all around there watching the sprint car drivers and races. So that was to me my focus was there and then Indianapolis, the Indianapolis 500, and I moved back to Indiana just out of Freshman year in high school and I think doing all the racing that I did all around the Midwest racing sprint cars, midgets… A friend of mine, Larry Newburgh, who unfortunately isn't with us anymore, but he's the one that really came to me with the idea and said: "I know you're focused on trying to go open-wheel racing, but have you thought about NASCAR? You should at least think about it." And that was the first time that I really had and I went down south and drove a stock car at a driving school and fell in love with it. From that moment on, that's what I wanted to do. Again, when things are meant to be, they're meant to be. And from that moment on, amazing things just fell in place and I think that it fell in place for a reason.
I enjoyed it immensely. It was great.
Give us a little behind the scenes of this Cars thing. Give us a little bit about your role before that movie comes out.
JG: Yeah, so I play Jeff Gorvette. I mean the movie is completely different from the first movie. Obviously Lightning McQueen and Mater and some of his buddies are in there and I'm one of his new buddies, but it's an international spy thriller this time so they go all over the world and so there's a lot of international flair from the car side of it and the voices that you'll hear as well as some other racecar drivers. My role is fairly small, but still was a blast. Going into the studio, working with John Lasseter is just -- he's a genius and getting to know him and his family, but working with him on this was an experience that I'll never forget. I haven't even seen the movie. I saw some clips, but looking forward to seeing the movie. On Monday, we're going to get to go to a screening, so I can't wait for that. Unfortunately, we're going to miss the premiere, but at least I'll get to see the screening before it comes out in theaters.
Jeff, do you get to see the video clip that you're doing the sound for or do you do the sound and they add the animation later?
JG: John (Lasseter) showed some clips that they were working on that were very rough cut, but it did not have Jeff Gorvette in it. It was more things with I believe Mater and Lightning McQueen. And if you've seen some of the trailers where they show the boat in the ocean, he had some of that. But, no, when I was in the studio, it was purely John painting a picture in my mind through explaining the scene to me and then trying to emulate what he was looking for and then me sometimes just either doing it repetitively or trying to copy some things that he was doing. It's amazing because he definitely put me in that scene even though I had no idea what it looked like. I enjoyed it immensely. It was great.
NASCAR's made a lot of changes in the last few years, and one of them this year is getting the ethanol in the tanks. Have you noticed any difference with the ethanol, and what do you think of it?
JG: I guess if you talk to the engine builders, they would probably be able to explain further. From inside the car, no, not really. We've been trying to throw around some ideas on weather and how it's affecting the fuel and how it burns in the engine and whether or not we're able to maintain the power like if the humidity changes or temperature changes in the air, and those have always been a challenge. But with the ethanol, it's just a little bit different and so just the way that the fuel burns is slightly different, so adjusting around that. But from a performance standpoint, I would say "no difference." So it's great that NASCAR's taken this step and I see us moving more in this direction moving forward to do things that are better for the environment, which I think is important to everybody.
What other changes has NASCAR made in the last few years that you really like?
JG: Well I think obviously safer barriers is something we're seeing more and more around all the racetracks, so from a safety standpoint that's important to all of us. This past weekend, we saw shifting come back at Pocono and I was certainly happy to see that, and it worked very well for us as well. The new nose on the car this year, I really like. I think the cars look better and they seem to be performing a little bit better as well in traffic, so I think they continue to learn just like we do and implement some changes as we go.
I noticed after Sunday's race, you had to answer a couple questions about almost being 40 years old now, but do these wins at this stage of your career maybe mean a little bit more to you than maybe they did 10 or 15 years ago?
JG: Oh absolutely, and I don't know if it's just because I'm getting older and I can appreciate these things more because I think most people do as they get older… And I'm not old. I'm not saying I'm old, it's just I have been doing this a long time and if you talked to me through the mid-, late-'90s, I mean we were racking up a lot of wins, and we just haven't won as much in recent years. So I think half of it is that I am getting a little older and appreciating things a lot more. I'm a dad and a husband and just I think looking at life in general in a different perspective and light because of being a parent. And then looking back throughout my career and the fact that I haven't won as much, I think definitely allows me to appreciate the wins more. I work harder at trying to get those wins these days than I ever have before and I certainly don't take them for granted.
You touched on this a little bit earlier, but obviously things are going pretty well at Hendrick Motorsports these days. Is this the way you guys felt it should've been right from the beginning with all four drivers being competitive, especially with the way Junior struggled the last couple years? Is this the way you guys thought it would be?
JG: Well, you always hope that. The more competitive each of your teammates can be, the better overall your organization is and the better chance you have of getting all four cars in the Chase and battling for the championship and sometimes you got to mix it up. I think people don't realize that it's more than just equipment or the product you put out there on the racetrack, it's such a team sport and it's about chemistry and people believing in one another and building the car to fit your style, and that's hard to do. You go all the way back to us, a four-time championship team, do you make other teams follow what you're doing? Then Jimmie Johnson comes along, wins five in a row. Do you just try to do what they're doing? And you got to be careful. There's great things to learn from them, but you also have to go out and do things in the way they work for you, and I think we're really getting better and better at that all the time.
Do you notice anything maybe a little bit different about Dale Earnhardt Jr. these days as opposed to maybe the last couple years? Is there anything specifically that's led him to have a better start this year?
JG: Well I think all drivers will tell you when they're going through tough times, because I've been there, and then things start going well, they'll tell you they didn't really change anything they're doing. It's just for whatever reason the chemistry is there, the confidence is there and great performances and consistently good performances build that confidence in one another. And I think a lot of credit goes to Steve Letarte. I mean he's a really sharp guy and he's got a heck of a personality on him and I think that has really worked well with Junior's personality and I think they just blend well together and have good chemistry, and I'm really glad that it's working out well for them and that things are working out well for us with Alan also.
As a guy who's been obviously been around the sport for a long time, we've seen a lot of skirmishes between drivers and even an owner and a driver recently, I mean is that kind of stuff good for the sport? I mean is any publicity good publicity from your standpoint?
JG: Well I think in some ways, yeah. I mean I think if you look at the history of our sport and what built it up to what it is today. I think there's a lot of interesting storylines whether it's pit strategy and fuel mileage or somebody struggling and coming from the back to the front or whether it's controversy like we've seen not only this year but recent years with people really bringing their frustration out and letting that get the best of them and, shoot, I've been a part of that myself. So I think it just shows the passion that we all have, and I think it certainly creates something good to write about and talk about on TV and that never hurts.
... a huge part of our success at Sonoma is qualifying
You're tied now for third all time with 84 wins, tied with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip. Talk about what it means to be amongst the best ever in this sport in terms of the length of your career?
JG: It means so much to me. Right now, I am so like - - I mean even today, I was in two debriefs about the race on Sunday with Alan and our engineers, then I was in a debrief after that with all four drivers and crew chiefs and when I'm not doing that, I'm either testing or I'm with the family, I just haven't been able to take the time to truly reflect on all the amazing things I've accomplished in my career. I'm so thankful and so appreciative, but to put it in words I think is so hard for me right now because I don't get that time to sit down and go: ‘Wow, and this is what it means to me,’ and I look forward to that day and I certainly hope I'm not done. But I look forward to that day where I really can reflect and truly be able to either write it down so I don't forgot it or put it into the words so I can truly express it because I was a kid growing up racing in Vallejo. I hoped one day I got a chance to race at Indy or do something special, but I didn't believe it was going to happen. So to now look back on it and win three Daytona 500s and four Brickyard 400s and the Championships and all the wins, it just blows me away and it really humbles me because I never thought that I would achieve this kind of success. In my, what, 19th season in Cup Series, here I'm still able to put some wins together. That's awesome.
Of your five wins in Infineon Raceway, it seems to me that it's such a tight race course that getting the poles is almost as important as a win. Talk about all the poles that you've won there and I think you won three of the races that you were on the pole, so I'd say that's a pretty good record in itself too.
JG: I would say unlike about every track that we go to, and that's the difference between ovals and road courses, is that I don't think it's ever been more important to start up front and qualify up front than on the road courses, and I would definitely say that especially at Sonoma. But that's been a huge part of our success at Sonoma is qualifying and we really have to qualify much better this time. That's something we have not done a good enough job of in recent years and I think that, again, to me that's half of the success you're going to have at Sonoma is having a great qualifying effort.
Earlier you talked about what it was like to grow up in Vallejo and race at the local tracks. You mentioned West Capital, the old track in West Sacramento, but you also raced in Rio Linda and some of the quarter-midget tracks. Talk a little bit more specifically about the Sacramento area for our fans out here, what it was like as a kid growing up in these small dustbowls and kicking butt.
JG: The first track I ever went to was Rio Linda. I mean the very first time I ever drove a racecar was at the Vallejo Fair Grounds. My stepdad, John Bickford, just took me out there and we went around the gravel and the next step was we went to Rio Linda, so that was the track that I really got started with and I’m I pretty sure I won my first race there. I never raced at West Capital, but I watched Sprint Car races there. But to me, quarter-midget racing is an awesome way to get started in racing, and I did some go-kart racing, but to me quarter midgets, especially because they're on ovals, really taught me about being the racecar driver that I am today and I mean it was in the Sacramento area, even further north up near Eureka and then down further south. You go all the way down to Pomona and Visalia and of course around the Bay Area and Baylands and Hayward, but to me Rio Linda is where it all really got started, and I was so thankful to be a part of saving that racetrack. I heard that there was a chance it was going to go away and I did everything that I could to try to keep it there because I think it's vital to kids growing up in that area, not only for entertainment but for future racecar drivers in our sport.
How old were you when you first had that victory when you started racing?
JG: Well I started racing there when I was five, and I'm guessing that the win came somewhere between five and six. My stepfather put it in my blood, so I'm thankful for that. He's been a huge part of keeping the racing going through all these years. So he and my mom, I couldn't thank them enough for introducing me to it, but the sacrifices they made to keep me in it was huge.
... It is a very special time for me in Sonoma.
Was there ever a time when you kind of felt burnt out? Like maybe 14/15-year-old, you hear these stories these year-round sports guys, football players, basketball players, they just get burnt out. Was there ever a time in your career as a young driver that you said, "You know what, I want to do something else?”
JG: I don't know if I ever thought I wanted to do something else, but there was no doubt there were moments in my life that, like thinking back to people having birthday parties on the weekends that I was missing out on, my prom or graduation from high school, there were moments where I was like, “Man, I wish I was doing what other kids are doing.” But I look back on it now and I think my parents were really smart and recognizing certain things that they said, "Okay, we need to take some time off and do this." I mean one summer we took off and we did waterskiing. Now my family, they’re all about competition, so everything we did was very competitive, even waterskiing, but it always came back to racing and I never got tired of racing. I always loved going to the racetrack. But there were times when I wanted to do other regular things and I got the chance to do enough of it and now I look back and I'm thankful I put as much effort and time into racing as I did or I wouldn’t be where I am.
Jeff, we were speaking earlier about how Infineon Raceway is a difficult track and it's been awhile since you've been in the Winner’s Circle, but I was wondering if you still feel any kind of advantage or extra motivation with it being a sort of homecoming for you?
JG: It is a very special time for me in Sonoma. It's just magical when I'm there from having my daughter's birthday party that we do every year out there, as I mentioned earlier, my biological father and other family I get to see that I don't get to see very often, friends that I went to elementary school with, friends I raced with out there, so it's a very, very special time and plus the racing has been extremely good at the track too. So it's just, we come out there, we thoroughly enjoy the weather, the wine country, and then reminiscing with friends and family and then get to go to the racetrack and hopefully experience going to Victory Lane again because we've been able to do it a number of times out there. And my wife and I also announced our engagement out there, so there's no doubt it's probably my favorite weekend of racing regardless of what happens on the racetrack, but I will say that because of all those fun activities and things that are going on, it puts me in an incredibly positive frame of mind going into that race on Sunday. I'll never forgot when Ingrid and I did announce our engagement and I -- this is not something that I do, I feel like I'm a very low-key, humble guy when it comes racing, especially, and the morning of the race after Ingrid and I announced our engagement, I'll never forgot calling Steve Letarte, who's my crew chief at that time, and I said, "Buddy, we're going to win this race today." And it was just me being on this incredible high because of the time that I had that weekend and I just felt so positive and I get that feeling just about every time we're out there because of all these great moments.