john bickford

Mother’s fear helped launch Jeff Gordon’s Hall of Fame career

Leave a comment

Charlotte, N.C — Jeff Gordon may not have had his historic NASCAR career if his mother had attended his first sprint car race.

John and Carol Ann Bickford knew it would be a bad idea if Carol Ann watched her 13-year-old son, who had only driven quarter midgets and go-karts at that point, be scared by the power of a sprint car.

Had she been at the All-Star Circuit of Champions Speedweek in Florida in 1985, she might not have seen Gordon be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame 34 years later.

Jeff Gordon with John and Carol Ann Bickford. (Daniel McFadin)

“There was a method behind John’s madness,” Carol Ann told NBC Sports after Friday’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony. “He knew what it was going to be like for Jeff to get out on the track for the very first time in that sprint car. He knew that it would scare him. He knew that it was powerful.”

So she didn’t join them on the trip from Vallejo, California. She didn’t see Gordon get the “crap scared (out of me)” in way that was never matched.

The decision to race sprint cars came in 1984 after Gordon and Bickford, his stepfather, read an article in Open Wheel magazine touting Sport Allen, a 15-year-old who was already driving sprints.

“(Bickford) had this great idea of, ‘If he can do it at 15, I know you can do it at 13,” Gordon recalled last weekend before his induction into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame.

He and Bickford’s first attempt to “prove that theory” came on a February night at Jax Raceway in Jacksonville.

That first night, Bickford was right – about the power.

“I can tell you the first time I stood on the throttle of that race car, (Bickford’s) theory was dead wrong,” Gordon said. “(I) thought my career in racing was pretty much going to go back to go-karts and quarter midgets right away.”

Carol Ann knew those thoughts could have been exacerbated had she been in attendance.

“As a mother, you see your son react to being that scared about something, (and) it’s hard to say how things would have ended up if I would have said, ‘Let’s just pack this up and let’s not do this.'”

Had that occurred, it could have had an unforeseen impact on NASCAR.

Gordon may not have made his Xfinity Series debut at Rockingham Speedway in 1990.

He may not have won the March 1992 Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he was spotted by Rick Hendrick. Hendrick would field Gordon’s Cup debut eight months later and all 805 of his series starts through 2016.

Over those 24 years, Gordon may not have won 93 races, four championships and helped solidify NASCAR’s place as a mainstream sport.

But luckily, as Gordon said Friday night, his mother is “smart woman.”

Carol Ann and Bickford were there to see Gordon receive his Hall of Fame ring from Hendrick and Gordon’s children. Gordon became emotional as he spoke of Hendrick’s impact on his life and then watched tearfully a video he had selected of his 19-year-old self speaking about his hopes for his career.

As the video ended, a career neatly wrapped, Gordon wiped his eyes and walked off stage.

“In some miraculous way it worked out ,” Gordon said of his sprint car career that led to NASCAR stardom. “I never had an injury, (I) won races and it opened up doors and it was absolutely the right move at the right time for us.

“Eventually (Carol Ann) started coming to the race track once I got some experience and then she was my biggest fan.”