First Jeff Gordon wanted to be a race car driver. Then he wanted to become a celebrity.
The process of attaining both helped transform NASCAR from a burgeoning regional phenomenon into a national league.
“I wanted to take things to the next level, do things maybe a little different than had been done and pursue opportunities to get on red carpets, to get into magazines,” Gordon told USA TODAY Sports. “And I had people around me influencing me saying, ‘Hey, I think there’s an opportunity here. You’re young, you have a certain look, you have things the sport hasn’t really had and you being successful on the track, there’s an opportunity there.’
“And it made me think. And my personality was ‘Yeah, I do want to pursue that. I want to be more than just a race car driver. I want to be a superstar.’ ”
And now it’s someone else’s turn.
The 44-year-old, now-freshly retired four-time Sprint Cup champion remains a celebrity. He and wife Ingrid Vandebosch cavort with Jay-Z and Lewis Hamilton on red carpets and at charity galas. Tom Cruise fetes Gordon at banquets, country music star Brad Paisley pops in for laughs at Hendrick Motorsports Christmas parties. But in the Daytona International Speedway infield Friday, in a breeze chilled by the shadow thrown over his motor coach picnic area, Gordon continued to cast his long shadow over NASCAR even as he begins a career as a Fox analyst.
Who emerges from that shadow could do wonders for their profile and NASCAR’s.
GORDON LEAVES VOID
For most of his career, Gordon was able to exploit his on-track success, relatability and desire to attain the celebrity he sought. In the process he brought NASCAR to an amenable mainstream in the 1990s and 2000s. Gordon’s departure creates a sizable void, an opportunity for some other similarly motivated driver and a task for NASCAR as it continues to vie for interest in a market that has grown considerably more fickle in the aftermath of its explosive growth.
Gordon remained among NASCAR’s most recognized and positively viewed figures through his final season as a driver, according to Q Scores, which measures athletes’ awareness and positive perception among the total population. In a September study, Gordon was the third-most recognized NASCAR driver at 54 percent. Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s perennial most popular driver, led the series at 63 percent. Danica Patrick (51 percent) was third. Six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson was at 40 percent (tied for fourth).
Most drivers are offered to the mainstream as spokespersons for their various sponsors, tracks, or the series. They enjoy or humor it as an ancillary part of a profession in which sponsor benefaction enables their livelihood.
But there is a subset of drivers who have displayed ambition beyond the track and the commercial shoot. Drivers like Carl Edwards, 36, and Denny Hamlin, 35, have dabbled beyond a driver’s typical comfort zone, but as in most areas of the job description, Gordon set a high bar with his hosting of a 2003 episode of Saturday Night Live and his frequent appearances as a guest host of Live with Regis and Kelly.
NASCAR still has probes in pop culture. In January, Hamlin was a guest via Skype on ABC’s The Bachelor Live.
“I think it's better to have us out without (sponsor branding) to kind of get people seeing your face in something other than your driving suit or your race car. I think it is cool,” Hamlin said. “Obviously, there's a great opportunity and maybe (it) opens a few eyes here and there for people that have never seen a NASCAR race before.”
Hendrick Motorsports president Marshall Carlson said NASCAR lacks a figure that can fill Gordon’s charisma gap as a driver, although he expects him to connect as a broadcaster.
“I couldn’t point to anyone,” he told USA TODAY Sports. “We have different folks. Dale Earnhardt Jr. clearly, most popular driver many years in a row, but when you really start talking about transcending motorsport all together, or even in some cases, sport, I think Jeff is the only guy I can think of who could step outside of all sports.”
Carlson seems relieved that his organization faces no such dilemma internally, as Gordon will...
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