INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, July 31, 2002 -- As Jeff Gordon prepares to defend his Brickyard 400 title from last year, he is also attempting to become the first driver to win the NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a...
INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, July 31, 2002 -- As Jeff Gordon prepares to defend his Brickyard 400 title from last year, he is also attempting to become the first driver to win the NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a fourth time.
Gordon, a four-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion, recently sat down to discuss a variety of topics heading into this year's Brickyard 400, Aug. 4 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway:
Part 1 of 2
Q: Do you still consider yourself a Hoosier?
Gordon: "I don't know. 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."
Q: Indiana takes a lot of pride in the fact it considers you Indiana's own. How do you feel about that?
Gordon: "I wasn't born there and I really wasn't raised there other than the high school years. 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."
Q: Anybody from Indiana and anybody in racing, their feelings all seem to be the same when they go under that tunnel and see the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame. What kind of feeling does that give you?
Gordon: "No matter how many times they go there, especially when we are going there to test or for the race, I get excited. It's very cool. Tons of memories pop into my mind. I remember the first time I ever went there watching those Indy cars go around there. Then I can remember coming here for the inaugural Brickyard 400 and winning that race. I have a ton of memories there. It's still just an awesome facility, no matter who you are or what you have done there. You go in there and it is very impressive."
Q: As a youngster, you went on Carb Day one year and got a shirt autographed by Rick Mears. Have you had a chance to talk with him?
Gordon: "Yes, a little bit. I don't know if I've told him the story or not, but I've talked to him before. That is the neatest thing about Rick, he's a super nice guy. 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."
Q: Talk about some of your early days running in the various series in the United States Auto Club (USAC) and your thoughts on competing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway one day.
Gordon: "When you live there, driving by the Speedway is no big deal. It's something you see a lot and don't really think of it. Even though I dreamed and wanted to race there, I really didn't think it was going to be a reality because the days were gone where you drove a midget and a sprint car and your next step was Indy. You knew there were several steps that had to be taken before you could run there. I found that out racing midget and sprint cars. Everybody assumed that if you raced midget and sprint cars, you would go to the Indianapolis 500. What I found is sprint cars are more like a stock car than an Indy car in a lot of ways. I think it's important that you don't start racing in any type of one car and stick to that one. I think you have to get a lot of experience on a lot of different types of tracks with a lot of different race cars, that's how you are going to get the skills to go into Winston Cup and run good on all these different types of racetracks that we run on."
Q: Do you believe that Tony Stewart has given you competition in being a hometown favorite at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
Gordon: "I think he has a lot of fans that are supporting him there because he is from Indiana. He has done such a great job. He has a lot of laps around there. I don't know if that is going to transfer over to the stock car, but I know the way I felt the first time I went there in a stock car. He will be pumped up and excited about being there and racing there. I think that just that adds some enthusiasm to the team and his performance there. Some of my fans might have switched over to him because he really is from Indiana. I'm kind of adopted. I might be the stepchild when I go back."
Q: Although you will turn 31 on Race Day at the Brickyard 400, you have been in racing for quite a while. What are some of the lessons you have learned in racing?
Gordon: "There are so many things I get out of racing. It teaches you a lot about life, a lot about how to accept losing and winning. The thing I enjoy the most is the competition and pulling into victory lane is the thing that I do that is the most fun and being able to share that with your team, the people that have worked so hard to make that happen."
Q: Not only are there a lot of drivers from Indiana that are currently racing in NASCAR Winston Cup, but there are now a lot of drivers from California in the series. You were born in California, and now such drivers as Jimmie Johnson from El Cajon and Kevin Harvick from Bakersfield are bringing a West Coast flavor to the series. What do you think of that?
Gordon: "I think drivers can come from anywhere in the world and race here. I don't think it matters where you are from, I think it depends on what kind of upbringing you have. Jimmie and I both were in racing at a young age, but we were in different types of racing. Getting started young and racing was something that was important to you and your family, having someone get you involved in it and kept you going and heading in the right direction -- that's what it takes. It doesn't matter what state you are from."
Q: Are drivers from other parts of the country more accepted now in NASCAR?
Gordon: "I think they are. I will say this, though. One of the things that drew me into NASCAR is I came from the Midwest, was racing midget and sprint cars and pursued Indy cars and nobody gave me the time of day. I went to pursue NASCAR and got a ride. I was more or less accepted. In my mind, they have always been more accepting. There is a difference between the car owner accepting somebody and the fans accepting somebody. I think in a lot of ways, it took a while for the fans to get used to somebody that didn't have the typical background growing up in the Southeast and growing up racing stock cars. As the sport continues to grow, one of the things that have helped it grow is the marketing that NASCAR and the sponsors have done. You are dealing with big corporations that want somebody that appeals to as many people as possible. Then, you have these venues that we go to that are in great markets like L.A. and Texas and Las Vegas. It really doesn't matter where you are from as a driver these days; it's really what type of racing you grew up doing. I think you are accepted for that, no matter what."
Q: Because you have accomplished so much in NASCAR Winston Cup racing, and because you have an open-wheel background, have you ever thought of competing in the Indianapolis 500?
Gordon: "I would consider it if it were on an opposite weekend. I'm not doing the double. That's for other guys; it's not for me. I know how hard I've worked to win the (Coca-Cola) 600, and I can't imagine how I would have the chance of doing that by doing both. Tony Stewart made it look good a couple of times, and I take my hat off to him for trying that, but that's not anything I want to do."
Q: In the past, you have been able to win the Brickyard 400 by starting up front. Last year, you won the race by starting far back in the pack. How difficult was that?
Gordon: "I didn't think I would win it last year, that's for sure. It's such a hard place to pass at. Sometimes, things just work out, and that is the way it was last year. The cautions fell at all the right times. Pit strategy worked out. Everything seemed to work out to give us track position. When they dropped the green flag to that race, I would have never had dreamed it. It didn't seem like anything was going our way. It's amazing these days at a place like Indianapolis, you can take your car, put it in 20th place and drive it, and it will drive like the worst-handling car on the track, don't change anything, pick it up and put it second or third in line and it becomes one of the best cars out there. That's just the way aerodynamics work these days."
Q: How does the driver and team adapt to that?
Gordon: "I think you recognize when you are making adjustments to try to help the car and it's not working, it's not fixing anything, it's not doing anything different, you know it's aerodynamics."
Q: How important are pit stops in getting to the front at Indianapolis?
Gordon: "That race is so important and so big and so prestigious, you have to do everything right if you are going to win it. What's amazing is that it seems like at Indianapolis, the teams that are the strongest, it's at the middle point of the season where you start to see who is strong, who is a threat for the championship, and those teams always seem to rise to the occasion at the big events, and Indianapolis is a big event. You always see the top teams that are really on their game that year come to the front there."
Q: There is a young driver in the Indy Racing League that has accomplished a great deal at an early age -- Sam Hornish Jr. What do you think of what he has accomplished and his ability as a race driver?
Gordon: "He seems like he's doing a heck of a job. Just watching him, he's real talented. He is kicking some butt over there. I think it's important for them to keep him in the IRL. Right now, it's pretty important for them to get some guys to make a name out of them. Race teams and sponsorship, we look at NASCAR and how popular it is, but we see what a fine line it is to get sponsorship and keep this thing going in the direction it's been going. In that form of racing, you have two series fighting for the same fan and audience, and that's a real struggle. I think if the IRL keeps doing what they are doing and keep guys like Sam Hornish in the series and hold onto them, throw in some road-course races in there, they have a heck of a series."
Q: If Tony Stewart had stayed in the IRL, would they have developed a hero?
Gordon: "Probably because I think Tony would have gone on to continue to be real strong, win a lot of races and win a few championships. But I think Tony knew it would probably be a little while until that sport got to the level where NASCAR is right now, and I think he wanted to go where he felt like the best opportunity was. NASCAR has so many strong suits; it's hard to deny that right now."