Interview With Jeff Gordon: NASCAR In Transition, Social Media, Technology And More

By Maury Brown - Forbes

When you think of Jeff Gordon, you might drift to the No. 24 car, the 93 Cup wins, the four Cup championships (which ranked him behind only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt at the time, with Jimmie Johnson tying Petty and Earnhardt with seven since then), his ranking as one of the top 50 drivers in NASCAR history, and his place as a 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee.

But on the Saturday before the Toyota/Save Mart 350, it was hard not to stand at Sonoma Raceway and think about where he started. Having grown up not far from the track, he perked up when I asked about the old Vallejo Speedway in the town where he was born.

“My parents — my stepdad and my mom — had their first date there,” he said. “He’s a machinist and used to tinker with cars. I went there as a kid, but it wasn’t there much longer.”

Maybe the best way to look at Gordon is as an icon in a sport that has seen rapid change. Fans of NASCAR are exceptionally loyal, and the retirement of not only Gordon but others like Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick has left a star-power vacuum.

Now in the broadcast booth and working as an analyst for FOX Sports, Gordon sees the race from outside the car, but not so far from it as to be out of touch (he last raced in NASCAR in 2016 and won the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2017).

I sat down with him before the qualifying for the race in Sonoma and talked about the health of the sport, where it’s headed given the increasing availability to consumers of electric cars, his views on social media, technology in race broadcasts, and how “shaking it up” with different types of tracks helps adapt America’s most popular motorsports series for an ever more fragmented society.

What do you see as the biggest difference in NASCAR since the end of your racing career?

There’s a lot of new faces, young talent. They’re getting some good opportunities in some really good cars because big names like myself, Tony Stewart and Dale Jr. have stepped away. That’s opening up some doors. But we’ve got to see them produce. Guys like Chase Elliott, they’ve got to win. I think the talent is there, and the stage is theirs to take. Everything is in place for them, but we’re waiting for the consistent winning to happen.

Do you think it's fair to say NASCAR is in transition?

I do. I think we’re in transition in a lot of ways.

How so?

If you are looking at how consumers are viewing sports and the television landscape, how fans are perceiving auto racing. There’s also a change in how electric vehicles are coming into their own. How does that affect auto racing like ? I still think it’s an incredible form of entertainment. But we’re no longer in a place where technology is brought from the race track to the cars on the street.

Electric vehicles are quite a transition from combustion engines that all consumers used to be able to relate to on race day.

I think now you have someone that turns on the television on Sunday, kicks back and relaxes so they can be entertained. From that we offer a lot, but we’re facing these changes. The drivers are changing, and the fans are having to adjust to the transition. And adjusting to change is difficult for a lot of people to do. I get that. I’m more of fan from afar now, not as a driver — I was always a fan — but didn’t realize how big until I moved into the broadcast booth. I love the sport, but I realize that I’m waiting for one of these up-and-coming guys to show me what they’ve got and take the sport to the new fans that are wanting to latch on.

Social media is a huge part of all sports, and NASCAR is clearly embracing it. If something like Twitter would have been available early in your racing career, how do you think you would have approached it?

I first got involved in social media when we were sponsor hunting. This would have been around 2011-12. And it coincided with the transition into how sponsors were looking at sports, how they were spending, and really the eyes that were on NASCAR. With social media taking off, a lot of the sponsors were coming in and saying, "Where is your driver’s social media numbers?" And I didn’t have any. So I said I’d go to work on it. But I looked at it as a social platform where I’d say: "Here’s what I’m doing. Here’s what I’m up to." Almost like I thought it was supposed to be bragging about my life and intimately sharing what my family was up to. And I thought, that’s crazy. I don’t want to do that, and I have no desire to talk about those things. But when I realized that it was a tool that I could reach out to my fans and connect with them on a different level, I saw just how powerful that was. As those social media numbers were growing, the sponsors reacted positively, and I realized it was a good thing.

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