Athlon Sports: You had gone three years without winning multiple races in a season before 2011. How did 2011 revitalize you?
Jeff Gordon: That is definitely the proper phrase. It has. This team has revitalized me. I see it happening in other sports, and I’ve watched my career … and the experiences that I’ve had and you go back through your most successful years and races and you try to think, what was happening there, why did this success happen? What I see in (2011) is that this team, as I came in, they believed in their driver and they had confidence in me as a driver and they had confidence in what they were doing as a team to provide cars that can win. When you have that, and you start to put the good performances together, it just starts to build and build confidence and momentum and that’s what we did.
What I will take out of (last) year is just the ability this team has to have winning racecars, to have what it takes — pit crew, strategy, speed, track position — to get into Victory Lane, not just luck into it one time. What I love (about what we did last) year is we did it on a lot of different types of tracks. I wish we could have thrown the Brickyard in there, too, because that would have been incredible. You’ve got Pocono, Atlanta and Phoenix. I look at Richmond and Bristol. We’ve run good on a lot of different tracks.
There was a spell at one point where you were winning at only particular types of tracks, like the short tracks or the restrictor-plate tracks.
Exactly. That’s usually the sign that your career is getting ready to come to an end. I’ll never forget watching other guys: Yeah, they’re successful in the plate tracks, (but) can’t win anywhere else. Those plate tracks — that’s usually a bad sign. I didn’t want to be in that position. These guys have revitalized me in my belief in myself and in what we’re capable of doing.
Considering how long your racing career has been, when you say you were revitalized, do you feel you were, in a way, in a rut before?
I didn’t do anything different (last) year than I did any other year, other than just trying to work harder communicating with these guys. That’s a little bit of what happens when you come into something new like I did (in 2011 with a new team). You get put into what they do as a team, and it’s a little bit unique and different.
For instance, we have a meeting every Tuesday morning that lasts a couple of hours, and it’s our engineers and myself and we break down the race that we just ran and then look ahead at races or tests. I love that, even though it’s over my head a lot of times because I can’t keep up with the engineering side of it, it’s great to be involved in those and understand what’s going on to another level. Like what I love sometimes, (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) will say, ‘We’re in the trust tree.’ So what happens is you’ve got to man up in those meetings, you’ve got to be willing to lay it out there whether you made mistakes, didn’t make mistakes, calling other people out, calling yourself out, whatever it may be — that’s that area that we can be honest with one another, and I think it allows us to be better because of it.
But you’ve been through that before.
I’ve never done it like that before. I go in there in person most of the time. Now living in North Carolina helps me do that. I’ve been absent from being in North Carolina (in the past) … because I didn’t have the home. Now, I have the home and family and everything and now we’re there a lot more, so I can make it to these meetings in person.
It, just to me, makes a difference. Plus, just when we started the season out, the effort these guys were putting in to get me comfortable — the seats, the new dash design that we had, the whole driver compartment and then going and testing and the things we were going through — just made me feel really comfortable. I love to see the effort they put out. With that, as well as going to the race track and having competitive cars, it just helps build my confidence not only in myself, but in them. It has to go both ways. The team has to believe in their driver, and the driver has to believe in the team.
What’s happening, talking about those last three years, we just were gradually doing like this (his hand arcs downward). This year it was nice to turn that corner back up. I think it’s important to have the valleys because it makes you know how bad you want it, makes you think about it, how hard you’re going to work, how bad you want it, how much does it mean to you — and it’s good. It brings the passion back. Sometimes you can lose that a little bit and get a little complacent. It helped make me realize how bad I want it and how much I enjoy being competitive.
Isn’t it easy to say it’s good to have the valleys when you’re moving up?
When you’re in the valley it’s no fun, but I say it because when you come through it … it’s good to struggle, you need to struggle to appreciate the good times, to understand what it takes to climb the mountain.
I went to this event (in 2011), I was really inspired by it, it was amazing. It was a charity event in New York that was honoring Ralph Lauren. Even though it’s not sports and it’s not our industry, he mentioned about losing his company. He almost lost his company two or three times, and he said that those were some of the most valuable lessons that he had and what really got him to where he is. I believe that. I think you have to experience what it’s like to be successful to win, but then you have to lose some, as well, to grow and really make sure you keep that passion, that you keep that desire and that you keep that work ethic. And also sometimes it forces you to make some changes whether it be team changes or maybe even some things you’re doing yourself.
So when I say I’m not doing anything different, at the race track I don’t do anything different. Away from the race track, yeah, I would say that I’ve definitely communicated much closer and more than I ever have before, trying to stay in better shape. My commitment is to these guys, but I have to balance out family and business because that’s the life that I have, so I have to balance that out, but these guys are definitely a priority to me.
In your career you’ve driven different styles of cars, with different tires and under different rules. Is it easier or harder to drive these current cars than what you’ve done in NASCAR?
The competition is so much greater, so these days you’re dealing with much smaller increments of gains. Every detail matters and every hundredth of a second matters, so, to me, in that sense it’s harder. Track position is so important these days (that) once you get it, it’s almost easier (to run). To get out front and stay out front is so much easier today — if you get there. If you start in the back, it’s much harder. If you start up front, it’s much easier. That didn’t used to be the case.
The other thing is that from lap one to the final lap, you race as hard as you can. There’s no holding back. Very rarely do I ever have to say, ‘My brakes are a little hot and I’m going to ease back here (or) the fuel load I have right now, I need to take it easy and wait for it to come to me.’ You go. You go as hard as you can and you do it for every lap of every run.
In mentioning your first Cup start in 1992 …
Did you keep anything from that first start?
Yeah. I’ve got the money clip that Richard Petty gave in the drivers meeting (since that was Petty’s final Cup race). That’s cool. The other day, I was thinking about that, I wanted to know where that is because I know I have it. I went into my archives and I found it. I actually was carrying it with me for a little while because I wanted to show some people. I’ve put it back in a safe place now. I’ll never forget getting that. All I have is that and some video.
You didn’t keep the uniform or anything?
Oh, good question. I’ve got a lot of stuff. I’ll have to go back and check to see if I have the helmet. I might have the helmet.
It’s one thing for past success to provide a form of motivation for some people, but how do you keep past success from being a burden?
It’s a burden at times. I think what’s more of a burden is just that I’m competitive, and I’m competitive because I know what it’s like to have won and had a lot of success. I’ve maintained that confidence in myself that I still have what it takes to have that success. When the car is not driving the way I want it to, if that continues to happen throughout the race or throughout weeks, you get very frustrated — and I don’t know if that’s a burden that is coming from my previous success or just my desire to be competitive.
But that does get frustrating if it happens for a length of time, because you’re sitting there going, ‘My teammate is running good over here and he’s winning races and I’ve got the same equipment, so is it me or is it him or what is it?’ That can be tough at times. I’ve gone through that, and that’s what I like so much about this year. I haven’t really changed anything. I switched over to Alan (Gustafson) and his group and I’ve fit into how they’re going about things, but as a driver what I’m doing on the race track is not any different and we’re running good and we’re having success. That’s comforting to me because it makes me realize that I don’t need to change what I’m doing, I just need to continue to work hard and give the best information that I can.
I’m more thankful and appreciative of what I’ve accomplished than anything else, so when I feel that burden and I get mad and I’m pissed because we’re not running as good or we’re not winning championships, I usually am pretty good at reminding myself shortly after that of how thankful I am to have had the success that I’ve had in the sport, and it doesn’t matter if I never win another race or another championship, it’s been amazing. I do have to fall back into that mode from time to time.
It’s been documented with your crashes that you have found places that didn’t have SAFER barriers. With your clout in the sport, why don’t you seem to play a more vocal role in safety, or do you do it more behind the scenes?
I would say I do more work behind the scenes. What I’ve learned over the years is that doing it in the public and in front of the media, while it has results, it also has consequences to the sport. I care a lot about the sport and the safety of it, yet I think sometimes it can be equally as damaging to do it publicly. Usually when drivers are doing it publicly, it’s out of frustration, and that’s usually not the best time to voice your opinion — when you’re frustrated.
When it was all said and done, was turning 40 in 2011 that big of a deal to you?
(The party) was awesome! I had a great time. It was great spending time with friends. To me, turning 40 has been fun. I like being 40.
I feel very settled in a good way. Two kids, amazing wife. Life is good, and racing (last) year was really good, I mean the Chase … eh. The three wins and the way we ran (in the regular season) — turning 40, friends, family, the charitable work we’ve done — it was a good year.
You went on a fact-finding mission to Congo last year with your work through the Clinton Global Initiative. What is going to come out of that? What will your role become now that you’ve been there and the seen the conditions?
We’ve got a plan in place. There’s a couple of different products we’re going to help fund and get them out there to that area. Those sticks that purify water (and) there’s some mosquito netting — those are like the small first steps that we can do immediately and then we’re working through the long-term plan.
It’s a slow process. You can just jump on something and say we’re going to fund this and do this, but I think it will get lost in the shuffle. We’re doing some of those things that will immediately help a lot of people, but if you want to truly save lives and really reinvigorate their economy and get involved with the government, it takes time.
We went to Rwanda with the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation — Ingrid, myself and Ella. We went in December after the (championship) banquet. That was for children’s pediatric cancer. What we’ve funded is a pathology lab. What’s happening is there’s a lot of misdiagnosis going on over there. They don’t really know what the children have because they don’t have the proper equipment. We’re actually helping to transport some equipment over there.
While you’ve been involved with children’s charities for years, how did that work change once you had children?
It’s made me realize how important the work is, and there’s certainly a portion of that in seeing what life would be like as a parent to go through that and how tough and devastating that must be.
What I see is the work that I’m doing and the effort being put into it — how it is affecting Ella, my daughter. She is just fascinated with people that have injuries, and she’s like, ‘What’s wrong with them? Can I help them? Why are they here? What are the doctors doing?’ She’s just really interested. Just like going to Rwanda, we said to her, ‘We’re going to help some children and we’re going to go over there and visit them.’ She’s like, ‘Can I go? I want to go.’ We said, ‘You have to get shots.’ At first, she was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want shots.’ We said if you really want to help these children, then you have to have shots. (She said) ‘OK, I’ll do it, I’ll do it for the kids.’
My parents, while they were really good people and taught me how to treat others, we didn’t go that far into philanthropy, and I think that what they did helped me get to where I am and now I can take that to the next level and help my children. Especially for my kids, because I didn’t grow up with the luxuries that my kids are going to grow up with.
I think the only way you can balance that out where they don’t get spoiled or take that for granted and not appreciate it, is for them to volunteer, to go see what is happening in the rest of the world — especially when it comes to sick children, because I think that it will inspire them to want to help, but it also will balance out the lifestyle that they have and make them understand that that might not always be the case, that there are other people suffering and it could happen to them as well.
How can your relationship with Alan Gustafson grow in his second year as your crew chief?
I’m really excited about (2012). I feel like we’ve really jelled. The chemistry is there. I really like him as a crew chief, his personality, as well as how hard he works and the team he’s surrounded himself with. He’s already been making some adjustments and some changes in plans for (this) year to make us better. Those are things that would be happening whether we were leading the points or not leading the points (during the Chase). That’s how he works. So, I’m very excited about (2012).
This season will be your 20th full season at the Cup level. How much do you have to reinvent yourself or keep up with the young guys? How much is the sport changing, and what do you have to do to keep up?
I think the thing that I look at that I can do better for these guys is give more detailed and valuable information. We started doing a numbering system this year where you break down the levels of tight and loose in three or four different segments of each corner, and that’s kind of new to me. I want to progress with that a little more. They’re looking at sections of the race track that are in 100 feet, in shocks and springs and loads and all those things; so the more detail I can get with them on, the better they can tune the car.
What I’ve learned this year is if I give them the right information, they have the tools to fix it or at least make it better. I think what some of the top drivers are doing in this series are doing a good job of that. Let’s be honest, the cars are extremely important: They have to be pretty close when you unload. You can only do so much, but in those moments when you’re not right on, all they have is me to give them information. I want to be able to give them the proper information. I’m getting older. My body is definitely not what it was 15 years ago, so I have to stay sharp with that as well. I think that we’re very capable. I think we showed (last) year that we can be stronger this year.