From photo shoots to interviews, No. 24 driver has the routine down
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For a driver with 87 career victories in NASCAR’s premier series, the routine is a familiar one. Jeff Gordon bounds up onto the podium, both arms raised in victory, a huge smile on his face. He pumps his fist, claps his hands and points to the crowd -- which on this day, consists of about a dozen people arrayed around a blank green background.
“Maybe a little wave from left to right,” he’s instructed by a member of the crew shooting promos for FOX television’s NASCAR coverage. There’s no race track, no crowd, no victory -- not yet, at least. The location is a makeshift sound stage in an airport hangar near Daytona International Speedway. And the FOX shoot is but one of the many obligations Gordon and the other Sprint Cup drivers went through Thursday, when a bonanza of media activity kicked off Speedweeks.
Print, television, radio, photo shoots, more television, more radio, more photo shoot, still more television -- no wonder afterward, Gordon joked that he felt like he had run 500 miles. In truth, though, few drivers handle it better than the pilot of the No. 24 car, a seasoned pro who first came to Speedweeks as a Cup driver 20 years ago. Back in 1993 he had no motorhome, no championships and no spotlight on him until he won the first of that year’s twin qualifying races.
“I don’t remember what it was like. But wasn’t like this,” Gordon says, bustling between one interview and another. “I don’t remember many people asking me questions until after I won (a) Duel.”
Today, his championship reputation and talkative nature make him a focus of attention from the very start, a session with print media that begins shortly after lunch. A crowd of reporters is waiting well before he sits down in the director’s chair assigned to him. Gordon is the kind of driver who is asked about big-picture topics as much as his own race team, a trend that continues given that he recently took a baseline concussion test designed to more accurately diagnose the condition should it be necessary.
Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed two races last season suffering from concussions, and Gordon took note. “I think there’s a potential for it to be mandatory in the future, so why not get ahead of the game?” Gordon says of the baseline test. “… I don’t think that NASCAR necessarily needs to make it mandatory. But if you’re a race car driver, and you feel like you’re going to be here a while, then you need to make it mandatory to yourself.”
Of course, then there’s the big news of the day -- Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. talking about their romantic involvement. “They’re race car drivers, they’re professionals, and I’m sure they’ll handle things accordingly,” Gordon says. “Listen, we all have awkward moments out there with our teammates, our friends, our competitors. There’s no doubt it’s going to happen, it’s just how they handle it. Hopefully, that conversation has come up.”
Patrick and Stenhouse will prove to be a recurring source of questions throughout the day. Sure enough, at Gordon’s next stop, a line of interviews for local television affiliates, the first question is about -- Danica. Then Earnhardt, then the new Air Titan track dryer, then the new Generation-6 Sprint Cup car. Despite being immensely popular and still competitive at 41, Gordon isn’t asked about himself all that often. The pro that he is, he offers good answers all the way down the line.
Then it’s into an elevator, up two floors, and down a hallway to rooms set aside for photo shoots. They serve different purposes -- a trading-card company, a wire service, NASCAR’s contingency sponsors -- but they’re all essentially the same: a white or black background, and a photographer who asks Gordon to stand a certain way. Arms crossed. Arms at hips. Arms down. Face left. Face right. Walk into frame. Put on sunglasses. Hold helmet. Put on a cap with this sponsor’s logo, then another, then another, then another.
“That stuff, I’ve been doing it since ’94,” he says. “I can almost do it without them telling me.” The practice shows, at almost every stop. Gordon needs minimal instruction. “Am I smiling or not smiling?” he asks during one photo shoot. At one point, while reading off a teleprompter for ESPN, he asks the operator to move the script down a line so he can see it better. Later, he’ll affix his own clip-on microphone, knowing even to hide the cord in the zipper flap of his firesuit.
“He needs his own media day booth,” one camera operator says, and it’s easy to see why. Into a golf cart, across the rainy Daytona infield, and into another facility where broadcast partners are set up to record short promos or Q&As with each driver. ESPN, TNT, CNN, Speed, Sprint Vision -- Gordon hits them all, and more. “The Triangle’s home for NASCAR, 680 WPTF,” he reads in the MRN booth. “Hola amigos. Mi nombre es Jeff Gordon,” he says to Fox Deportes. The room is a warren of camera setups, each of them tucked behind thick, soundproof curtains, with a line of drivers sometimes waiting their turn outside.
Gordon never frets. “I don’t even want to see the schedule,” he says, relying on publicist Jon Edwards to steer him in the right direction at the right time. “Just tell me what I have to do. I know it’s going to be a long day, so I just want to have fun with it.”
That much is evident at an ensuing stop, when Gordon sits down at the SiriusXM table with none other than Stenhouse, the topic of so much discussion on this day. “I’d like to conduct this interview,” he says. “Ricky, what’s new in your life?” They trade one-liners about Valentine’s Day dates until they’re joined by Trevor Bayne -- the seasoned veteran Gordon amid a pair of young guns.
Gordon was once one of those himself. “The sensational rookie Jeff Gordon,” CBS broadcaster Ken Squier called him during the telecast of the first Duel race in 1993, when Gordon passed Bill Elliott low on the race track with 22 laps remaining to win. Then, Gordon didn’t even know how to get to Victory Lane. He may have been eclipsed by the retiring Richard Petty and unlikely champion Alan Kulwicki when he made his debut at Atlanta in 1992, but there was no overlooking him the following February once Speedweeks began.
Then, as now, Gordon was amazed that he won in what was only his second time on the track in NASCAR’s big leagues. He backed it up in the Daytona 500, finishing fifth. It would prove to be a somewhat rocky rookie season, with plenty of DNFs and a final points standing of 14th, but Daytona two decades ago is where Gordon first sent the first message that he had arrived. He still recalls it fondly.
“It’s one I’ll always remember,” he said of the 1993 Daytona 500. “… It was a surreal experience for me that I’ll never forget. My mind wandered during that race. Of course, there we only four or five of us up there, so you could breathe a little bit more. But I just remember trying to take it all in: full grandstands, live television, Daytona 500, and I’m sitting there in a position as a rookie making an impact on the race and the sport and starting my career. That was exciting for me.”
It has been a fruitful 20 years since, with four titles and a tally of race wins that trails only those of Petty and David Pearson. His last title may more than a decade in the rearview, but Gordon has been competitive for almost the entire breadth of his career. Last year brought another Chase berth and two more victories, the second coming in the season finale at Homestead. This season, he’s aiming for more.
“I’ve gotten beat up, and beat myself up a little bit over not being as competitive the last few years as I was 10 years ago,” he says. “No matter how long you’ve been in the sport, when you’re competitive like that, it’s hard to manage those expectations. I’m so excited, the way this team has stepped up. Winning the final race of the year last year was big for us. I think I have a crew chief who can take us all the way. So the pressure is on me to step up my game and maintain that level of consistency and drive and talent that’s gotten me to this level and has gotten us wins and championships. I know I don’t have 10 more years left in me, and it’s important to me to stay competitive as long as I possibly can, and I think I definitely have a few more years left in me.”
When it comes to media obligations, he certainly hasn’t lost a step. It’s into a black SUV and over to the airport, where Fox is filming the promotional spots that will run as the network’s race coverage goes into and out of commercial. This is easily the most elaborate production of the day, with a series of curtained-off sets featuring green screens -- which will later become a digital background -- smoke machines, and numerous other effects. Once Gordon walks down a brightly-lit corridor. Then he falls backward onto a mattress. Then he climbs onto the mock podium, acting as if he’s won a race.
The last shot, though, is the big one: 96 cameras ringing a raised platform, on which Gordon stands with four shapely young women wearing white skin-tight outfits. He throws confetti into the air, waves a flag, holds sparklers, and sprays a bottle of champagne in each hand. Each camera captures the image at the same time, and the result is a spectacular 360-degree shot that on the screen can be rotated as if in slow motion.
After several hours of answering the same questions and posing for the same photos, it’s clear the driver is having a blast. Finally there’s one stop remaining, and Gordon jogs through the rain to a small tent, where he sits in a chair -- and is asked a question about the new Sprint Cup car.
“There’s a new car?” Gordon deadpans, after being asked about the vehicle for he umpteenth time in the past six hours. “Next thing you’re going to tell me, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick are dating.”
It appears Jeff Gordon is even more comfortable in front of the camera than we thought: the driver danced the Harlem Shake for Funny or Die. Check out the video below.