By Hannah Elliott - Forbes

Jeff Gordon’s 87 Sprint Cup wins place him third among the ranks of the greatest racecar drivers in history. Last year alone he earned $12.7 million for his skill behind the wheel, plus another $5.5 million for endorsements with companies like DuPont and DVX. And in 2009 he became the first NASCAR driver to reach $100 million in career winnings.

Gordon credits his stepfather, John Bickford, for coaching him toward that success. After speaking with Bickford last week I can see why. The man comes across as unusually optimistic, diligent, observant and conscientious about details—all qualities the best athletic coaches possess—and he has known Gordon since the driver was six months old. (It was he who put Gordon on the race track at age five.)

Back then Bickford was dating Gordon’s mom, Carol, who worked with him at a medical supply company in Vallejo, Calif. They saw each other occasionally at work–but they bonded over washing clothes.

“Our friendship really developed by me going with her to do laundry,” Bickford says with a grin. “She had cloth diapers–we didn’t have pampers back then–so I’d hold Jeff and talk to Jeff’s older sister, and Carol would do the laundry. The laundry mat takes an hour and a half or so, so I was just kind of a friend, and then, you know, time goes on.”

Bickford says he saw the same characteristics in Gordon then that he does now: focus, discipline, determination and intelligence. It’s the same mentality he sees in Gordon’s three-year-old son, Leo.

“I tell Jeff now that with your son, well that apple fell very close to the tree,” he says. “Those outbursts of emotion that are often referred to as temper tantrums, those were Jeff Gordon at three. And also that absolute ability to concentrate on whatever he is doing and him trying to be better at every little game he plays, that’s exactly how Jeff was at three years old.” JG_AxaltaWinHat_600x600

Gordon says the slight separation felt inevitably between a stepfather and son, rather than a father and son, actually benefitted the relationship.

“It was that little bit of disconnect that I think allowed him to push me just enough, and I’m so thankful for that,” Gordon told me last month. “We worked together so much that if he had been my biological father I don’t know if we could have gone through the stresses that we had to go through at times. For some reason when he’d say, ‘If you want to be better you have to do this,’ I’d listen to him instead of rebelling against him.”

Bickford says much the same. He told me that he believes kids “start their personalities” somewhere around the age of two or three (“I saw the humble generosity and a quiet-like-a-fox personality way back when Jeff was three or four years old–extremely competitive”) but that looking back there was no way to tell for certain whether Jeff would become a star.

We spoke at length about how best to coach a child toward reaching elite levels of success in any sport. Bickford had plenty of sound advice on the subject. Read on for more of the conversation.

Hannah Elliott: In hindsight can you see certain points along Jeff’s early career that indicated he’d be extremely successful as a driver?

John Bickford: I don’t think a parent ever knows that. Here’s what happens: As a parent of a racer you are looking for the next opportunity to perform. It’s somewhat of a dream because the problem of it is if you don’t have adequate funding to create your plan – which we did not – you are building prerequisites. So what I used to tell Jeff is we don’t have enough money to go to the top of motor sports. In the days when we were working up, the Indy car drivers and Formula 1 drivers made a lot more money than the stock car drivers made. You have to go back and remember we were looking up at the top in 1986, so we knew that the likelihood of us going to Formula 1 is probably not a realistic goal.

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