Chariots Of Fire

stock-car racing, that if they didn't have a race to go to, they would be just as happy to spread a little 10W-40 on the street and watch the neighbors crash into each other. But anyone who goes to a race can see that's not true anymore, now that ticket prices have been raised enough to keep out the riff-raff. ""No sir, I don't come here to watch a wreck,'' says one man, wedged into a folding chair on a bluff above the straightaway at New Hampshire International Speedway, where the Jiffy Lube 300 was run earlier this month. He is a model stock-car fan, a living monument to American prosperity, glad to fork over nearly $1,000 to park his RV on this hillside and watch the race without the risk of ever running out of beer. He has on a Dale Jarrett T shirt that, spread out, would just about cover the hood of Jarrett's Ford. ""I don't want to see nobody get hurt, that's for sure,'' the man says. ""Even if it's Jeff Gordon.''

Big country, America. Exults in the kilodecibel roar of forty 700-horsepower engines, turns 2,000 gallons of gas into smoke in a couple of hours, just for the fun of it. America loves a winner, unless, of course, it hates him. Take Jeff Gordon, in what is invariably identified as his ""rainbow-colored No. 24 DuPont Finishes Chevrolet.'' The last two years, he finished first and second for the Winston Cup trophy, the very highest honor the nation can bestow on a stock-car driver. But Winston Cup standings do not directly correspond to first-place finishes, and in those two years he won 17 races out of a total of 62, more than the next two drivers combined. This year, out of 17 races, going into last weekend's Pennsylvania 500, Gordon had seven wins. Nobody else had more than two.

But you can't win so much you make it look easy. Racing fans like to hear those twangy minor-key guitar chords in the biographies of their heroes, like the great Cale Yarborough, who won one Winston Cup-level race in his first nine years of driving. Gordon started Winston Cup racing when he was 21, and even today, at 25, he's the youngest driver around. When he steps out onto the track, resplendent in his logo-spangled uniform, he gets the loudest cheers of any driver, and also the most sustained boos. There are some in this crowd of 88,000 who want to see Gordon's blood on the track, just as they themselves have bled for Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace over the years. ""Gordon,'' sniffs Pat Wagner, of Altamont, N.Y., ""is a spoiled little boy who never had anything go wrong in his life. What's he ever done, except win?''

For NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, Gordon represents a breakthrough, a vindication of its long effort to transcend its barefoot origins as a contest between Southern sheriffs and moonshiners. Modern stock-car racing, says Robert G. Hagstrom, a mutual-fund manager who became so enamored of the business opportunities in racing that he wrote an upcoming book on the subject, is the very soul of free enterprise, the fastest-growing professional sport in America. Unlike team sports in which licensing fees are negotiated by the league and pooled among the players, NASCAR drivers can actually sell their own T shirts right out of vans parked at the races, or any other way they can. A top driver, Hagstrom estimates, can make as much as $20 million a year in licensing. NASCAR's chief spokesman, Kevin Triplett, cites Gordon's appearance this year in a Pepsi commercial with Shaquille O'Neal himself as proof of his greatness. Gordon, he says, ""has the right image [wholesome, middle American], the right looks [handsome in a boyish, unthreatening way], the right marriage [to Brooke Sealy, a former Miss Winston, whom he met when she presented him with the trophy for winning his first race].'' He's had endorsement deals with Kellogg's cereal, Ray-Ban sunglasses and Edy's Ice Cream, as well as his car's primary sponsor, DuPont Automotive Finishes. (The exact amount is secret, but the going rate for corporate sponsorship of a Winston Cup car is said to be $4 million to $6 million.) Now his business manager, Robert B. Brannan 3d, is going for the gold medal of American celebrity endorsements, an athletic-shoe endorsement. Brannan admits this will be a challenge, because drivers don't wear sneakers.

In a way, it's easier to describe what makes Gordon a great marketing opportunity than what makes him a great driver. ""You have to know when to be aggressive, when to be patient,'' Gordon says, a description that applies equally well to chess. ""I have a good feel for the race car - but a lot of other guys do, too.'' Gordon's stepfather, John Bickford Sr., points to Jeff's ""tremendous self-confidence, relentless desire to succeed and a surprising degree of humility.'' But these fine qualities don't explain why he can steer a car into a corner at 120 miles an hour, inches away from another car going at the same speed, and then, magically, as if some trick of visual perspective, emerge onto the straightaway in the lead. Bickford also mentions Gordon's size. Racing is a sport pursued sitting down, which is why you never hear anyone say at the beach, wow, that guy's got a real driver's body. But Gordon is unusually lithe for a driver, around 5 feet 8 and 150 pounds, which might give him an edge after four hours of sitting in a cockpit that can reach more than 130 degrees.

Or maybe, Bickford suggests, the edge comes from experience and savvy, imparted in large part by Bickford himself. He bought Gordon his first race car at the age of 5, a ""quarter midget,'' a closed-cockpit relative of the Go Kart that went around the track at about 20 miles an hour. The family lived in Vallejo, Calif., where Bickford owned a small manufacturing company, and over the next eight years Gordon entered hundreds of races against other grade-school kids, sometimes winning every single race at a local track. In 1986 Bickford sold his business and moved the family to Indiana, where the 13-year-old Gordon could race professionally. With no other regular income, the family, including Jeff's mother, Carol, depended on what Gordon earned at the racetrack. ""We slept in pick-up trucks and made our own parts,'' Bickford says. ""That's why I think Jeff is misunderstood by people who think he was born to rich parents and had a silver spoon in his mouth.'' Thus Gordon's emergence as a prodigy: he started racing years before he was old enough for a license. ""The laps he drove when he was 6 or 7 years old, he's still applying them,'' Bickford says.

And, of course, he's got a really fast car. Actually, 11 cars, in four or five different models engineered for different racing conditions. The cars are ""stock,'' in the sense that they resemble in silhouette a Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and they use some standard parts, such as hoods and engine blocks. But each is hand-built to elaborate and ever-changing NASCAR specifications. Each has a single seat, surrounded by a sturdy cage of steel rods, a door welded shut so it can't pop open in a crash. The dashboard has a tachometer, but no speedometer; a race-car driver doesn't need to know how fast he's going, as long as it's faster than the cars behind him.

Fifteen mechanics work full-time on Gordon's cars, in a vast, hushed garage in Charlotte, N.C., where Gordon now lives. The cars, garages and equipment all belong to Rick Hendrick, often described as the largest Honda dealer in the United States, who also owns two other Winston Cup cars: the No. 5 Kellogg's Corn Flakes Chevrolet of Terry Labonte and the No. 25 Budweiser Chevrolet of Ricky Craven. Everything related to Gordon's car and race is under the supervision of his crew chief, a rangy, soft-spoken former driver named Ray Evernham, who gets something like 50 fan letters a week himself. Besides the mechanics who travel with the cars to the race, there is a separate ""over the wall'' pit crew of seven who actually work on the car during the race, recruited in gyms for their ability to lift a 70-pound tire into place or jack up one side of a 3,400-pound car in a single motion. They drill during the week and fly up on race day, where they perform something less than two minutes' total work, changing four tires and filling the gas tank in 18 seconds or less.

Once, according to NASCAR lore, Lee Petty, father of the great Richard, drove his race car to California for a race, raced, won and drove it back to Level Cross, N.C. Gordon travels to New Hampshire in his own Learjet. The two days before the race are devoted to practice, to endless tinkering with the car and to qualifying - a single timed lap that determines the order of start on race day. Gordon qualifies poorly in New Hampshire. His car is running ""loose,'' which means the rear tires slide out a little on the turns, and he finishes his lap of just over a mile in 29.806 seconds, 0.4 second behind the leader. Anything over a hundredth of a second is a lot. Evernham frets over tires, springs, gearing ratios, the temperature of the track surface and a computer screen showing each car's lap time as the drivers take their practices. On race day, Gordon will have to pass 28 cars to win.

Sunday, a little after 1 p.m., he strides onto the asphalt, holding hands with Brooke, who looks exactly like what she is: a model on her way to be photographed. When they reach No. 24, they chat for a moment, while cameramen jostle a few feet away. Brooke tells him to be patient, it's a long race. His stepfather, who now works for a sports-marketing firm whose major client is Jeff Gordon, advises him more or less the opposite, that the first 100 laps will be crucial. Forty-two engines spring into sputtering, angry life. Gordon gets a good start and his car is running well. Evernham watches the race from an elevated perch in the pits, and as Gordon flashes by they exchange a few terse words by radio. On lap 19, Gordon is closing behind a driver who doesn't seem inclined to get out of his way, and he yells into his microphone in frustration. C'mon, Elliott, let me through! Evernham calms him: You have to be patient, buddy, the race is early, just pick your spot. ""I'm a little on the loose side,'' Gordon says, a few laps later, ""but runnin' good.'' He pulls in for a tire change on lap 85, and the crew springs into action like the backfield of the Green Bay Packers. Dig, dig, dig, Evernham exhorts him as he pulls back onto the track. Go! Go! Go! Then, disaster: on lap 108, Gordon's right rear tire starts to go soft, he's slipping all through the turns. He pulls in for two more tires, putting him two laps behind the leaders and with stragglers ahead that he can't get around. He runs strongly right up to the end, but finishes 23d; Labonte, who finishes seventh, edges ahead of him in Winston Cup points.

The fans watch in apparent stupefaction, numbed by sound; stock-car fans are forced to behave, even when they disagree, because an insult loses its sting when it has to be shouted three times directly into the ear of the other person. And aren't they all, drivers and spectators, no more different under their caps than one Chevy is from another? One in seven Winston Cup drivers is named either Jeff, Rick or Ricky. The fans are united in celebration of American largesse, a million dollars' worth of T shirts on their backs, an equal amount of Pepsi sloshing around inside, so that whether you cheer for Jeff Gordon or boo him, what does it matter, as long as the fans go home satisfied, and everyone else makes money?

YR.    RACES    WINS    WINNINGS



1993    30       0      $765,168

1994    31       2     1,779,523

1995    31       7     4,347,343

1996    31      10     3,428,485

1997*   17       7     1,997,979



*THROUGH 7/13. SOURCE: NASCAR   

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