Four-time champion honored for his charitable work
LAS VEGAS -- Tears during Champions Week are nothing new for Jeff Gordon.
Seventeen years ago on the stage of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, The Hendrick Motorsports driver famously fought back emotion while accepting his first championship in NASCAR’s premier series. Thursday he did so again, for a very different and wholly unexpected reason -- receiving the Myers Brothers Award for lifetime contributions to stock-car racing, in Gordon’s case the extensive cancer-fighting efforts carried on by the foundation that bears his name.
"That was just me wearing it on my sleeve."
-- Jeff Gordon
“Oh boy. This is a surprise,” Gordon said on stage. “I’m going to have a hard time composing myself here for sure. Couldn’t somebody have warned me a little bit? Oh my goodness. This is an incredible honor.”
Gordon received the award during the Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon at the Encore Theatre at Wynn Las Vegas, in a ceremony that handed out several trophies for on-track performance and off-track efforts. But the capper to it all is the Myers Brothers Award, named in honor of former competitors Billy and Bobby Myers, and given annually since 1958. Among the most prestigious awards in NASCAR, recent recipients have included Pocono founders Dr. and Mrs. Joseph Mattioli, former Darlington president Jim Hunter, and pioneering radio voice Barney Hall.
The award is voted on my members of the National Motorsports Press Association. Since its founding in 1999, the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation has donated millions of dollars to a variety of projects ranging from pediatric hospitals in North Carolina and Indianapolis to a cancer center in the African nation of Rwanda. Gordon also received this year’s Heisman Humanitarian Award for his philanthropic efforts, which to the driver have burgeoned into a second career.
But being recognized by those in the NASCAR industry -- that’s what seemed to effect Gordon deepest of all.
“I always have the most difficulty when you’re in front of people that you know and you spend every weekend with. It means a lot to me,” he said afterward. “And also, just coming to the Myers Brothers [Luncheon] for all these years, and seeing the others who were recognized for what they did to achieve that award. To me, I don’t feel like I put myself in that category. Immediately, I’m like, ‘No, I’m not worthy of that, they made a mistake.’ At the same time, it was reality and I had to go up there and speak. I was like, ‘Oh boy. This is not going to go very well.’ That was just me wearing it on my sleeve.”
It’s not the first time Gordon has shown his emotion in the final few weeks of 2012. In this season’s penultimate race at Phoenix, a fed-up four-time champion wrecked Clint Bowyer in a move that earned him a fine and points penalty from NASCAR, and instigated a scuffle among the two crews in the garage area. Hard feelings from that instance remain, as evidenced by the lack of interaction between the two combatants during Champions Week.
“It’s been pretty awkward, yeah,” Gordon admitted. “I thought he might have gotten over it at least enough to look at me. But he won’t even look at me. You know what, this sport needs a rivalry. … It’s just so unlikely. Clint, he gets along with everybody. And up until this point, I got along with him very well. It’s not what I was expecting, but you deal with it as you go.”
In addition to the penalties from NASCAR, the retaliatory move also earned Gordon rebuke from several drivers. Thursday, Gordon stood by his code -- you race others how they race you. The Phoenix incident had its roots in another run-in between he and Bowyer, months earlier at Martinsville. “I’m definitely going to do what I feel I need to do to send the right message,” he said. “I’m here to race hard and race clean, but if that’s not the way its going to be done, then ill do it that way, too.”
Thursday’s Myers Brothers ceremony, though, evoked emotions of a very different kind, as Gordon fought back tears after receiving an unexpected but very deserving award. They came “just out of shock and disbelief and knowing how big that award is,” he said. “When you’re bring recognized by your peers in this room for something that you’ve put a lot of you heart into, it brings out those emotions.”