Jeff Gordon Talks About His New Role As Vice Chairman of Hendrick Motorsports
JEFF GORDON, VICE CHAIRMAN AND CO-OWNER OF HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS, Press Conference Highlights:
NOTE: On June 23, 2021, Jeff Gordon, the four-time NASCAR champion, television broadcaster and NASCAR Hall of Fame member, was named vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports, which makes him the second-ranking team official to chairman and majority owner Rick Hendrick. Gordon will formally assume the strategic executive management role on Jan. 1, 2022.
HOW BIG OF A DECISION WAS IT FOR YOU TO LEAVE THE FOX GROUP AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO TAKE ON THIS ROLE OFFICIALLY?
“I’m excited. It’s been in discussion for a long time between Rick and myself. My presence has been there but now it gets ramped up to a whole other level. It wasn’t a choice about leaving Fox. It was really about the opportunity and the timing of moving into this role full time. That was tough. I really enjoyed working with Fox and I had a great team there. I learned a lot about and got a great perspective on entertainment and the TV side of the sport. And I think, forever it will help me in this new position to try to keep us connected to the TV partners in a bigger way. I had a lot of fun, especially this year working with (Clint) Bowyer and Mike (Joy) and those folks. This year was a lot of fun. I’m forever grateful, really, for that opportunity and appreciate Eric Shanks and his whole team for bringing me on board. Maybe it wasn’t a mutual decision, but it was one of those things where they understand. From the very beginning they knew that I had an equity position at Hendrick and that one day this could be home. So, this is more about coming home for me.”
DID YOU ALWAYS FEEL THAT YOU WERE GOING TO BE ON THIS OWNERSHIP PATH?
“You have to understand that I’ve been a part of this since 1999. I’ve been behind the scenes, understanding and learning the business side of it. Gradually, overtime, obviously my focus was on driving throughout all those years. But as I started getting closer to stepping away in 2015 from the driving role, my interest level in the business side, the culture that Rick has created and how he’s done that and how it impacts things far beyond just what I was doing as a driver, was interesting to me. So, each year, that ramped up more and more as I had pretty much half the season to dedicate my time to it. And the more I did that, whether it was coming to the track or being back at the shop on race day or just talking to the marketing department about sponsorship or talking to NASCAR about Next Gen or any business decisions that were going on there with other owners, I realized that this is where my true passion lies. I love the sport. I love racing. But the competition and being a partner with one of the best owners there will ever be in NASCAR, that’s really what I was getting excited about looking ahead.”
WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO LEARN WITH THIS NEW JOB NOW?
“Well, luckily right now, we’re in a great position and it’s about maintaining what we currently have. But that all got started so many years ago before I even got to Hendrick Motorsport with Rick, and the culture that he creates and how he treats people and how he finds talent and nurtures that and of course right now, we’ve learned a lot about how our teams are working together more than they ever have before. And we’re seeing the success because of that. Right now, it’s about maintaining it. But as we move forward, it’s just continuing to look at the business model and try to understand how we take care of our current partners and nurture those relationships and make sure that they’re excited about NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports. They certainly are right now, and we want to continue to see that grow. But also, what new partners can we potentially look at and bring in. I’ve got to say this. Coming into this race track today got me very, very excited again. This reminds me of the older days, or that period of time that we all talk about when the sport was super-hot, that’s the feeling of energy I feel this weekend here at the track. So that certainly makes it easier to look at what we’re going to do in the future with the sport. Of course, right now, a lot of attention, besides this year, in trying to keep that going this year is Next Gen. A lot of attention is being put on how we race. Where do we put our efforts for Next Gen and try to maintain some kind of competitive advantage? That’s going to get cut down dramatically, but we’re still going to be out there racing at a high level and we just want to make sure we’re doing it the right way.”
IS IT DIFFICULT TO SET EXPECTATIONS FOR THE NEXT GEN CAR RIGHT NOW, AT LEAST FROM THE ORGANIZATIONAL STANDPOINT SINCE THERE ARE SO MANY UNKNOWNS?
“Oh, there are so many unknowns. And it’s so hard to really even get deep into that conversation because we don’t really even have a chassis and a body and a car to go out there and test. Yes, we’ve been doing these group efforts with our OEM and with NASCAR, but it’s not been a full-fledged effort. So, we’re still in the development stage and we’re working hard to be ready to go in February, but there’s still a lot of work ahead of us. It’s progressing, though, and it’s exciting. You’re always going to put yourself in a position to where you want to fall back on your people and the strengths that you currently have, and I think those strengths are going to play out well for us next year. But until we get into it, we won’t know exactly how to take advantage of the areas of expertise that we have in the areas of engineering and dynamics and horsepower and all those things that are making us successful now will still be very important next year.”
“I think this is where the decision to step away from TV and be 100 percent committed and dedicated to Hendrick Motorsports, where I can spend all my time nurturing those relationships. And it goes even deeper than the drivers. I have a good relationship with the crew chiefs and drivers. A lot of these guys I’ve worked with and the people that I’ve worked with, that’s an easy thing to do. But some of the newer relationships, you want to build. Alex (Bowman) would be one of those guys that came on with (Dale) Jr., and he and I did double-duty when Jr. was out there in ’16 – ’17, and so that was a fun way to get to know Alex. But yeah, it wasn’t one of those relationships that like (Kyle) Larson. I saw him at dirt tracks, and we had that background. William Byron drives the No. 24 car and he and I built a relationship with having that in common. And, of course Chase Elliott, he originally drove the No. 24 car and he’s been there the longest. So, I want to build a strong relationship with all these guys. But I will say that yeah, Alex, it probably took us a little while where we could bond and maybe at Chili Bowl, he and I spending some time there. But now that we’ve gotten him signed up, I look forward to getting even closer with him. And a lot of that relationship, besides Dale Jr., was also with Rick Hendrick. The car enthusiasts in both of them created a natural bond. And the Midgets and the Sprint Cars are the thing that’ll create the natural bond with Alex and me, moving forward.”
AS YOU BECAME MORE ENGRAINED WORKING IN THE HENDRICK SIDE OF THE ORGANIZATION, HOW DIFFICULT DID IT BECOME TO BALANCE THE HENDRICK WORK AND THE TV WORK?
“It was tough. As much as maybe there were some of those that criticize me, I think I worked extremely hard trying to separate those two, which is why I purposely didn’t come to the haulers and spend as much time with the crew chiefs and drivers the first half of the season. I tried to be respectful of what they were focused on and do my job in the booth the best I possibly could. But of course, it’s hard not to be biased when you have that kind of relationship. Even if I wasn’t still an equity owner at Hendrick, my entire career I drove for this organization. So, I know the people more than I know the people at any other organization. They’ve always been like family and no matter what role I’m in, that’s the case. So, up in the booth I tried to be as non-biased as I could and call it the way I see it, and I take a lot of pride in the effort I put into that.”
WHAT WERE YOUR WORK HOURS LIKE?
“That’s why I say, I really tried to minimize my hours at Hendrick Motorsports during that period of time; and stay as much as I could be focused on the TV side of it in that preparation. And that’s why this decision, this is why it’s the perfect timing because right now, I know that in order for me to do this job the way I want to do it and the way I think Rick wants me to do it and be the most beneficial to the organization, is to be there 100 percent of the time and dedicate all my time. Rick and I had all these conversations when I was stepping out of the car and looking at doing TV. And so, he was comfortable with that. I don’t want to say we had a plan that hey, in 2021…. It’s I want you in this role one day. Go do TV. That’ll be a good transition. And it was. He’s a smart guy and he gives great advice. And we’ve always stayed very close in those conversations. We all knew that one day this would hopefully come and now the day is finally here. Just this week, I’m spending more time already at the shop. And that usually would happen when my duties at Fox were over. But that’s going to be year-round now, and I’m excited about that because there’s a lot of excitement in our organization right now. So, it makes a great time for me to get into this role.”
QUESTION REGARDING CHAD KNAUS
“Oh listen, we’ve got tremendous depth. There’s a reason why we’ve had the success over the years and Chad has played a big role in that as a crew chief and he’s playing a big role right now in his new position as VP of Competition. But our organization is working together more than we ever have. Again, that’s the vision that Rick and Marshall (Carlson) have set forth. Of course, I’ve been in those conversations to some degree throughout all the years. But to see that vision play out the way it’s playing out, and we’ve been behind up until the second half of last year. So, it’s exciting to see that vision playing out because of how they’ve been working together and because of the common goal and working with Chevrolet also created that with our race cars. And now that’s playing out each and every weekend. But now how do you maintain it? And the only way to do that is to have a lot of talent and bring all those great minds together like what’s happening right now.”
DID WORKING THE TV-SIDE GIVE YOU ANY PERSPECTIVE TOWARD THE BUSINESS SIDE THAT MAYBE YOU DIDN’T EXPECT?
“Oh yeah. That’s one of my goals is to really connect with our TV partners and make sure that our drivers and crew chiefs recognize that their personality, their performance, the show on the race track, that it means way more than you think. As a competitor, you get very narrowly focused on the competition. And this sport wouldn’t have the fans and wouldn’t be as big as it is if millions of people weren’t watching it on TV. And they want to see rivalries, right? They want to see personalities and frustrations and excitement. I think that my perspective, coming from the last six years doing TV, it is definitely going to be present at Hendrick Motorsports and how we move forward. And I think our guys do a great job with that, but there’s no doubt we can do more.”
REGARDING DIVERSITY, WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO DO IN YOUR NEW ROLE TO HELP THE SPORT?
“Well, diversity is important for every business and every company in every sport. We’ve already seen it take great leaps forward and just what’s happened in the last few years. I’ve got to get in there and really understand how that group works. And listen, I feel like I come from an interesting background in coming from California, where I grew up and the type of racing that I did before I got into NASCAR. So hopefully there is some small relatability there that I can bring to the table. But I’m more about listening and hearing. There are some incredible people on that committee and that board. I’m excited about joining it and continuing to bring more of that diversity to NASCAR on every facet, from the driver’s side, pit crew side, sponsorship side, and it only benefits all of us to do that.”
YOU HAVE BEEN ONE OF THE SPORT’S MOST INFLUENTIAL FIGURES FOR DECADES. WHAT DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU CAN BRING FROM THAT PERSPECTIVE TO THIS ROLE?
“I think that’s where Rick and I share the passions. He’s done it from his own time behind the wheel, but more so than anything else, as an owner and as a business owner. That’s what I love about Rick. He does not like to finish second in anything that he does. And that’s the way I was as a race car driver. So, the experience behind the wheel as a race car driver, not just in NASCAR but going all that way back to being a kid, being with one team and seeing the way that Rick operates the team and his leadership and how he focuses on the people working together, as well as what I see that he does at Hendrick Automotive Group, he’s a hard-working guy, too. I’m sure if he was here right now, he would say I’m just going to get Jeff to work a little harder (laughter).
“And I plan on doing that. I’m really excited about this challenge and this role. I feel like I’m at the place in my life where I’m really, ready for it. And most importantly, I’m just fortunate to work side-by-side with a guy that’s shown us all how to do it right for so many years and will continue to do that for a number of years to come. Yeah, it’s the same old basics. That’s the thing about Rick. It’s common sense. It’s hard work. And it’s people. And all I want to do is continue to compliment that moving forward.”
RICK PROBABLY CONSIDERS YOU FAMILY. BUT IS THERE ANY AWKWARDNESS WHERE IT’S KIND OF LIKE RICK AND THEN YOU AND THEN MARSHALL?
“You know what? Marshall has been somebody I’ve worked side-by-side with for many years. He, Jeff Andrews, Chad Knaus, and so many people at Hendrick, and Marshall is 100 percent supportive with me in this role. We both have strengths that we bring. Some that I can’t bring that he does; and because I was a driver at one time that he never experienced. I can tell you we make a great team. To me, it’s not about titles. It’s about how we’re going to work together as an organization and Marshall is 100 percent on board with it and I’m 100 percent on board with the role that he plays, which Is very important.”
IS JIMMIE JOHNSON GOING TO BE INVOLVED?
“Well, he’s up there driving at Watkins Glen. Rick Hendrick is up there for that 6-hour race. Obviously Ally, one of our partners, is part of that and Rick Hendrick is a part of that. So, in some ways, yes. I don’t know. We’ll see. If he is ever wanting to step away from INDYCAR; hey listen. He’s been a tremendous asset to us over the years. We would love to have him on board in some way."