When Jeff Gordon announced last week that the 2015 season would be his last, it brought back the memory of the first time I had the opportunity to see him in person. You have to remember that the year was 1992 and back then it was all about the pursuit of racing memorabilia, getting pictures and autographs of every NASCAR driver.
My partner in crime and I were both teaching school at the time and decided that we would take a Thursday off and drive to Bristol and spend the day around Bristol Motor Speedway. Track security back then was not what it is now as we were able to get in the infield and spend the day taking pictures and watching as track officials prepared the track for that weekend’s running of the Food City 500.
The day at the track just proved to be the beginning of what would be one of the best days that we ever experienced as Winston Cup fans. Later that evening at a high school baseball field in Kingsport, Food City was holding one of its early Race Nights that gave fans the opportunity to meet the drivers and get their autograph. When we went through the gates that evening we had one thing on our mind and that was to get a picture with Richard Petty and obtain his legendary signature.
That was the King’s last year and by the time the series rolled into Bristol, his Fan Appreciation Tour was hitting on all cylinders as the crowds surrounding any of his schedule appearances were overflowing. Lucky for us, we had a friend working for Food City who arranged for us to meet him away from the crowd and get that picture and autograph that we so desperately wanted.
Once that was accomplished we went about meeting other drivers who were located in a series of tents on the field. This is when we met Jeff Gordon for the first time. We were actually in line to get Bill Elliott’s autograph when we looked over at the next tent and noticed that there was no one in line. We agreed that if my friend held my spot that I would go over and get the driver’s autograph and then he could do the same. When I walked over to the tent there stood a very young man with a thin mustache wearing a white sweater with Baby Ruth monogrammed on it. I got my autograph and picture before heading back to the other line to let my friend go and do the same.
Lucky for us, his handwriting was good enough that we could make out that it read Jeff Gordon. We then knew that he was the driver of the #1 Baby Ruth Ford in the Busch Series, but we didn’t know until the final race of that year at Atlanta when he made his first start at the Cup level that he was going to be driving for Hendrick Motorsports.
That race was the last of Richard Petty’s storied career but the beginning of a career that will one day very soon find Gordon claiming his own spot in NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. He will enter this, his 23rd season, with some numbers that we may never see equaled again in the sport. His four series championships trail only Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and his Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson. He also has posted a staggering 92 points-paying races wins that puts him third on the all-time list behind Petty’s 200 and David Pearson’s 105.
His list of accomplishments go on and on, but I believe one of the greatest things that he did for the sport was that he was the driver that began to move the sport from more of a good old boy sport in the Southeast to one that every walk of life throughout the country started to notice. Gordon started at a time when the sport needed that one driver that could appeal to a wide fan base and with his youth, good looks and winning ways, he quickly became the face of the series. The sport owes him a debt of gratitude and it would only be fitting as his last season begins to unfold that at every stop on the schedule it turns into a giant celebration of Jeff Gordon and his remarkable career.