Rick Hendrick recently recalled his first meeting with Jeff Gordon. His future driver, barely in his 20s, showed up carrying a briefcase with a stock-car magazine and a Nintendo Game Boy.
So, what was with the briefcase, Jeff?
“I mean where else am I supposed to put my Game Boy?” Gordon asked with a laugh during Wednesday’s episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast (and adding he also had an open-wheel magazine). “I did want to look professional. I guess I needed more than a briefcase. Somebody told me, probably my dad, you really need to get a briefcase to look the part. He forgot to tell me all the other pieces like the suit and tie and shaving the mustache.”
It didn’t hurt his chances for a ride at Hendrick Motorsports.
That first meeting in Hendrick’s office at his Charlotte dealership headquarters (Gordon remembers being “pretty nervous and intimidated. (Hendrick) was the coolest, nicest guy, and that certainly helped the decision”) began a business relationship and friendship that has lasted more than a quarter-century.
After four championships and 93 victories in Hendrick’s No. 24 Chevrolet from 1993-2015, Gordon retired to become a NASCAR on Fox analyst in ‘16. He remains actively involved with Hendrick Motorsports in an executive-level position, though (and once in the temporary role of substitute driver).
Calling it a “balancing act” that he has learned to master partly as a member of multiple councils in NASCAR (team owners, drivers, format changes), Gordon said his role shifts at the start of each year for six months.
“When January comes around, my attention focuses really primarily on Fox and the broadcast that’s going to go through June every weekend,” he said. “But in between that I’m doing all that I can whether on the marketing side, the PR side, the competition side with Hendrick to give my input and thoughts.
“So usually once after June is up, and I take a little time off, I’m really heavy into a lot of those meetings and decisions, working with (Hendrick president) Marshall Carlson, (competition executive) Jeff Andrews and (vice president of marketing) Pat Perkins in any way that I can assist and help.”
Gordon said he is hoping to ease the burden of Hendrick, who founded the powerhouse team in 1984 and restructured its competition department in the offseason.
“Rick has done this for so long and been so involved, and he still likes to be involved, but I think he’d like to take a step back at times, and he’s earned and deserved that and can enjoy life,” Gordon said. “So if I can take a little pressure off him whether it be interacting with sponsors or taking a specific meeting, then I’m there to do it.”
Gordon said it can be tricky at times to walk the line between broadcaster and team employee, noting that Hendrick’s “crew chiefs and engineers look at me slightly different” when he is doing preseason research on competition to help be better prepared and informed on air.
“I’m not trying to pull anything out for TV, but I can’t help but think in the back of their mind they’re going, ‘Well, is he going to retain this and use it on TV?’ I’ll say at the same time, that’s not the job,” he said. “The job is all about what is something that isn’t the obvious about the skill level of the driver, the crew chief, the pit crew, what the car is doing. I actually started out trying to get more on the technical side because I do like that. It’s a part of what you do as a driver. But sometimes that gets lost in the broadcast real quick because it can get too much. I think there’s just the right amount. All I want to do is be knowledgeable about it, not ‘Hey let’s reveal something that is a top-secret thing.’ ”
Being objective but also candid and critical of drivers when necessary also is important to Gordon, who kept some professional distance from his peers while in racing.
“I hope that if anyone listens to the broadcast and my point of view, that they realize I’m doing my absolute best to call it the way I see it and try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but also be as non-biased as possible,” he said. “And that becomes a challenge at times, too, because of my relationship with Hendrick Motorsports and the years I drove there, but I also have come to realize that everybody has a bias to some degree. It is a balancing act.”
Among other topics discussed on the podcast:
–His recent humorous encounter with an angry motorist on I-4 in Florida;
–The need for drama and emotions from drivers;
–His potential candidacy for the NASCAR Hall of Fame;
–The youth movement in the Cup Series (“I’m so anxious to watch what’s going to happen with some of these young guys … I see a lot of fans out there that love the sport and looking for that next driver to pull for to pull for the next 15-20 years.”);
–The best race he ever drove;
–The likelihood of his kids racing in the future;
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