LEANDER, Texas – Jeff Gordon, once the youthful, freshface stock car star from 1993 to 2016, is a bit of an elder statesman with a corporate, clean cut look.
In 1993, Gordon sported his polarizing, brunette mullet and mustache. At age 21, Gordon, an outsider to the stock car world with its Southeast U.S. pride and roots, looked more like a kid trying to look like Dale Earnhardt or Dale Jarrett.
Over time, Gordon shed his interesting looks for the polished, meticulous appearance that matched his on track success.
In the past 30 years, Gordon opts for a corporate, clean cut, salt and pepper look that suits his role as Vice Chairman of Hendrick Motorsports.
Today, “The Rainbow Warrior,” no longer sports his unmistakable DuPont fire suit. When he is at the track, he can be seen in a corporate dress shirt, slacks and vest, emblematic of a respected racing executive.
Occasionally, Gordon puts on the racer’s overalls for a sports car race like last September’s Porsche Carrera Cup events at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a beloved track for the four-time Cup Series champion.
Still, Gordon remains as amiable, outgoing and driven as he was back in 1993 when he was a rookie in the NASCAR Cup Series.
When Gordon graduated from the NASCAR Xfinity Series to stock car’s premier division 30 years ago, he was focused on making a name for himself and his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team.
1993 may seem like yesterday to those who lived and experienced that year’s exciting rookie class.
Then again, time has a funny way of reminding us of how quickly it goes by.
“I do feel pretty old about that one,” Gordon said. “But (I) also (have) a lot of great memories of those 30 years.”
Before Gordon and his team authored one of the greatest rookie seasons in NASCAR, they had a taste of humble pie on Nov. 15, 1992 in more ways than one.
In this case, Gordon’s stock car legend kicked off in the same race that Richard Petty, NASCAR’s original seven-time Cup Series champion, wrapped up his storied career.
The Humble Beginnings
When a 21-year-old mustached, mullet laden rookie kicked off his NASCAR Cup Series career in 1993, little did anyone realize how “The Kid” would redefine stock car racing in more ways than one.
Naturally, when Jeff Gordon arrived on the scene in his distinct, rainbow colored No. 24 DuPont Automotive Finishes Chevrolet, his impact would be as pronounced as the livery that still remains popular 30 years later.
In 1993, Gordon was a fresh-faced outsider who was not one of the good ole Southern boys from the Carolinas.
He did not hail from Georgia, the home state of Bill Elliott, 1988 NASCAR Cup Series champion.
Gordon was a stock car hotshot who came from Vallejo, California, a city 32 miles to the northeast of San Francisco. Along the way, Gordon and his family relocated to Pittsboro, Indiana, with the hopes of competing in the NTT IndyCar Series.
“IndyCar just looked different at that time, and when I tried to pursue it, it just was… the team owners were looking for something different,” Gordon said. “They weren’t looking for what I had to offer.”
A fateful publicity stunt at Rockingham Speedway in 1989, catalyzed by ESPN, changed the trajectory of the open wheel ace’s career and life.
Instead of his familiar open wheel cars with smaller wheels at quarter mile, high banked asphalt ovals or dirt track arenas, he tested in a stock car at the 1.017-mile, 22 to 24 degree banked blacktop speedway.
Needless to say, Gordon was elated with the experience, immediately phoning his mother to inform her that he was ready to move to North Carolina for NASCAR competition.
“You have these opportunities that you don’t know where it’s going to take you, but you’ve got to seize the moment,” Gordon recalled. “ I was so fortunate to get those opportunities and seize those moments. One thing led to another, and that just led to another, and the whole thing just snowballed.”
Although Gordon felt comfortable in the gritty stock car fielded by the Buck Baker Driving School, he had to prepare for the true test in a higher powered NASCAR Xfinity Series machine.
For starters, Gordon knew how to drop the hammer or hold the throttle wide open in the heavier stock cars as evident with his second place qualifying effort in the 1990 AC-Delco 200 on Oct. 20, 1990.
While Gordon did not achieve a strong result in due part to a Lap 34 crash in Turn 3, he made a lasting impression with his future NASCAR comrades.
“Things like sitting on the outside front row at Rockingham with Hugh Connerty and Ray Evernham, that happened,” he said in wonderment.
Fast forward to Feb. 11, 1993, with the scene set at Daytona International Speedway for the first qualifying race.
Gordon, who posted the 11th fastest time in front row qualifying, rolled off from the sixth position.
In the opening 21 laps, Gordon bided his time, an uncharacteristic display of patience from a young, raw but promising racer. During those times, the established veterans such as Kyle Petty, Bill Elliott and Ken Schrader were some of NASCAR’s consistent frontrunners.
On Lap 22, Gordon decided to spoil Elliott’s efforts.
As Elliott led Gordon and the top 10 pack into Turn 1, the driver known as “The Wonderboy” made a confident, inside pass for the lead. By a slender margin of two car lengths, Gordon won the first qualifying race over Elliott, Petty, Schrader and Bobby Hillin Jr.
However, the 1991 NASCAR Xfinity Series Rookie of the Year winner awaited his big test on Sunday, Feb. 14, 1993.
Unlike most rookies, Gordon accepted the challenge with grace and poise. In fact, it was the seminal moment for “The Kid” who proved his worth against the established guard.
“The highlight was the very first race of ’93, the Daytona 500,” Gordon said. “We’re in that amazing battle there towards the end between Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett (and) Geoff Bodine. It was a really cool battle that I got to be a part of in my very first Daytona 500.”
While Gordon came up a bit short in his first “Great American Race,” he gained confidence, experience and swagger, qualities needed to be a top Cup competitor.
On Feb. 14, 1993, Gordon settled for a fifth place finish, the start of one of the greatest motorsports stories in the past 30 years.
Trial and Error
Before Gordon and his No. 24 rewrote the record books, they had to break a few cars in the process.
“I came into the Cup Series especially knowing Ray and the types of racecars he builds, the type of equipment that Hendrick Motorsports had, the horsepower under the hood, feeling, ‘Man, we’re going to go be very competitive,'” Gordon said. “I didn’t know what it took to win races, but I knew we’d be competitive, and we showed that in testing.”
Like any sports great in their first year, Gordon had some growing pains in his rookie season in 1993.
“My confidence got kind of brought back down to earth when we started crashing and tearing up things and the season not going so well,” he recalled. “But that season in ’93 was just special when I look back on it, but really nerve-wracking and stressful, because you want to make your splash in your entry in NASCAR, and you wanted to be big.
“There was hype around the rookie class that year with Bobby Labonte, Kenny Wallace, and myself, all coming from the (Xfinity) Series. And yet, I wasn’t living up to expectations – my own expectations, the team’s expectations, or maybe some of the media or fans, either.”
There were frustrating results with an engine failure dropping Gordon to a 34th place result while accidents at Darlington, Bristol and North Wilkesboro dropped the flashy rookie from fifth to 12th in the points standings after seven races.
“I just can’t even explain to folks to try to put it into words of how huge of a learning curve we were all on,” Gordon shared. “And a new crew chief, basically, to the Cup Series with Ray Evernham, and a brand new team.
“Even though Hendrick Motorsports was established, we were the third team. It was two teams prior to ’93, and then it became three cars, so it was a lot of new people, a lot of new things.”
In stick and ball sports parlance, Gordon was the thriving rookie quarterback who had to learn various plays throughout the year.
Eventually, Gordon turned the tide with one of the most remarkable rookie seasons in the modern era of NASCAR.
The Spoiler to a Stock Car Show
If Gordon wanted to be a consistent Cup contender, he had to master the short tracks.
One of the drivers who stood in Gordon’s way, in terms of a rivalry perspective, was Rusty Wallace, 1989 NASCAR Cup Series champion.
Wallace was the short track dominator in the early 1990s much like Michael Jordan making his trademark layup in Chicago Stadium.
Meanwhile, Gordon needed some time to acclimate to NASCAR’s bullrings.
In spite of his pedigree racing at various short tracks during his adolescence, he learned a lot about competing at these technical venues in 1993.
“I felt like all the short track racing I had done had not prepared me at all for what I needed to do in a stock car,” Gordon said. “At that time, I was up against guys that were late model racers and modified racers and guys that really were in a more similar car, stock car racers that grew up racing those cars on short tracks. So I had a lot to learn, and I’m super proud of the effort that we put into that challenge, if you want to call it that, from Hendrick, from myself, Ray.”
By far, Wallace drew the ire of Gordon with his aggressive, tenacious driving style that contrasted with Gordon’s polished, almost AI-like racing approach.
“When you get back to look at it, we find ourselves laughing,” Wallace said. “More than we do saying, ‘I’m gonna get even with you,’ because there’s no meanness out of anybody that I’ve seen now.”
Nowadays, Wallace and Gordon are among the best of friends driving in the sand dunes of Glamis, California.
Back in 1993, Wallace was anything but Gordon’s friend.
After all, Wallace was focused on challenging the likes of Petty, Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip prior to Gordon’s arrival.
In his mind, the pride of Fenton, Missouri was supposed to be the anointed, chosen challenger of NASCAR’s holy trinity.
By the time Gordon and Wallace earnestly competed against each other in 1993, Wallace was one of the formidable drivers in Cup. At age 37, Wallace drove the No. 2 Pontiac Grand Prix fielded by Roger Penske, a wealthy business mogul who owned Team Penske, a racing juggernaut.
“When I first started racing, guys like Richard Petty were still driving,” Wallace said. “He was just getting ready to quit. And I did so much racing with Dale Sr. Him and I just… I think between the two of us, we had some really good runs in the ‘90s.
“There’s many races I went to and they’d call it the ‘Rusty and Dale Show.’ I was winning, then he’d win. I’d win, then he’d win.”
Fans took the “Rusty and Dale Show” at the track or at home in the manner of appointment television. Networks like ESPN, ABC, CBS, TNN and TBS highlighted the two combatants’ intense paint trading races.
As the 1993 season progressed, Gordon emerged as a spoiler to their party.
Before the close of the 1993 season, Gordon became a short track contender, placing 10th at Richmond and 11th at Martinsville.
Those building block moments set the stage for NASCAR’s stock car epic rivalry to become the “Jeff and Rusty Show.”
“The new group came on (like) doggone Jeff,” Wallace said. “I mean, Jeff, he didn’t (get) going till ’92 or ’93, I think it was. But before that, I was getting it done. I mean, ’88, six wins. ’89, the championship and six wins.
“I was racing with a whole different group of guys before Jeff came on. And then in the ‘90s, he was the guy. He was doing so fantastic. It was unreal.”
Love to Hate
After enduring some springtime swoons that dropped Gordon from fifth to 15th after seven races, the rookie went on a charge.
Gordon tallied five top 10 results in the next nine races, climbing from 15th to seventh in the points race. Impressively, Gordon kept his frontrunning form for a majority of the 1993 season, a somewhat unprecedented moment for the Cup Series.
Certainly, Gordon was supposed to cool down and cede his spot to the likes of Wallace and Earnhardt. The outsider had no place with NASCAR’s heir apparents to Petty and Waltrip.
If anything, Gordon did not yield against these juggernauts.
Ultimately, Gordon ranked 14th in the driver’s championship hunt, a remarkable result for a driver who debuted during Petty’s last hurrah in the prior year.
The 1993 season was the start of NASCAR’s eight year run that likened to the NBA’s resurgence in the 1980s. Soon, fans packed the tracks, new circuits joined the NASCAR Cup Series schedule and networks, merchandising deals and new eyes were glued to a niche sport that became as embraced as Depeche Mode during the 1990s.
|Year||Jeff Gordon (Wins, Top Fives, Top 10s)||Dale Earnhardt (Wins, Top Fives, Top 10s)||Rusty Wallace (Wins, Top Fives, Top 10s)|
|1993||0 (7, 11)||6 (17, 21)||10 (19, 21)|
|1994||2 (7, 14)||4 (20, 25)||8 (17, 20)|
|1995||7 (17, 23)||5 (19, 23)||2 (15, 19)|
|1996||10 (21, 24)||2 (13, 17)||5 (8, 18)|
|1997||10 (22, 23)||0 (7, 16)||1 (8, 12)|
|1998||13 (26, 28)||1 (5, 13)||1 (15, 21)|
|1999||7 (18, 23)||3 (7, 21)||1 (7, 16)|
|2000||3 (11, 22)||2 (13, 24)||4 (12, 20)|
Suddenly, fans had choices from NASCAR’s tier of greats that paralleled with their personality and attitudes. For those who did not identify with Earnhardt, Wallace, Jarrett and others like Terry and Bobby Labonte, Ricky Rudd or Mark Martin, NASCAR had more than alternate choice.
It found its breakthrough superstar who stood his ground against his peers and the court of public opinion.
Much like the New York Yankees of the late 1990s, once Gordon found his winning ways, he went from the venerable favorite to the cheerful antagonist.
“I think ’94 solidified that for us by winning two huge events, right?” Gordon said. “The first win coming at the 600, which everybody knows, that’s a grueling race, and when you win that race, you earn a lot of respect, especially the way we won it.
“And then the Brickyard 400 was also a very challenging, tough race. So, I think we started standing out as a team to be reckoned with, a team that competes for big races and wins.”
A great driver like Gordon and an equally skillful crew chief in Evernham needed an on track catalyst. After three full-time seasons with the boxy Lumina, Chevrolet brought in an ace up its sleeves with a futuristic, sleek Monte Carlo that kicked off the No. 24 team’s dynastic march to stock car immortality.
“Early on in the season, I realized, ‘Wow, this car is good,'” Gordon said. “I think we won the race at Atlanta, and we were just super strong, and it was exciting. It was like, ‘Wow, we have got a real opportunity here.’ And then you build momentum as a team, right? You build confidence and momentum in what you’re doing. It’s working. Your pit crew’s on. Your strategy, and the pit calling by Ray, and the setups.
“And then my driving was matching up with that. All of a sudden, you just feel somewhat unstoppable. I mean, it wasn’t that easy. We had to go through a lot that year, and some great battles, and others had a great car too. But at the end, we pulled it out. And after that, it was game on.”
The Jeff Gordon Effect
Since 1993, car owners have looked for “The Next Jeff Gordon,” or that new, young driver with raw, coachable talents.
While most teams have struck out and missed with this, only a few have enjoyed similar successes like Joe Gibbs Racing with Tony Stewart in 1999, Hendrick Motorsports with Jimmie Johnson in 2002 and Chase Elliott in 2016, for example.
Although Stewart, Johnson and Elliott have won championships in about the same amount of time as Gordon, each can look towards their predecessor’s innovative path.
Gordon, originally pursuing a career in IndyCar racing, turned his efforts towards the Carolinas with stock car competition.
Certainly, he lacked the background and pedigree of his peers who raced late models and street stocks in the Southeast U.S. However, he made up for it with his adept, versatile skills in high powered, edgy open wheel cars on asphalt and dirt.
Simply put, he was the wheelman who could be coached to drive the heavier, beefed up stock cars.
“The owners and the crew chiefs and the people that I came across were like, ‘Man, this guy, he’d be a great fit for our team. He can get up on the wheel and make our car go fast and win races, and we want that,'” Gordon said. “And so when I look at that, I’m so appreciate of the NASCAR ownership and community, and then where my place is in the history.”
The Gordon Effect is more than a change in the driver-team owner recruitment process. It was a paradigm shift with NASCAR as a whole with its marketing and cultural standpoints.
Like Kevin Garnett in 1995 or Lebron James in 2003, Gordon brought a generational shift that lives on to this day in the world of NASCAR’s circles.
“I think that that’s just sort of the culture in NASCAR, that they always are looking for who’s going to get the results for the team, whether it be on the track, or marketing off the track,” he said. “So you’re always looking for that total package. And I do think that at that time, prior to 1993, it was about veteran drivers that had lots of experience.
“Those were the guys getting it done. And why do you want to take a chance or a risk on a young guy that’s going to tear up a lot of equipment? And yet, Rick Hendrick did that, and it turned into being very successful.”
The Continuation of the Rainbow Warrior
Though many recall Gordon because of his title runs, his flashy paint schemes or off track work with his charitable outreach with his foundation, it can be easy to forget the 1993 season.
After all, in recent years, Gordon’s 1993 rookie season has been eclipsed by the likes of Tony Stewart’s 1999, three win rookie efforts and Jimmie Johnson’s trio of victories in his sterling freshman campaign in 2002.
However, without Gordon’s unprecedented, unusual and uncharted debut Cup season, there is no telling where NASCAR would be today.
It was Gordon who normalized the reality of a first year driver contending for victories on a consistent basis.
Before that fateful 1993 season, rookies were expected to struggle for several years, paying their dues and settling for the occasional top 15 result at the bullrings of NASCAR.
When Rick Hendrick plucked Gordon from the Ford Performance camp in mid-1992, signing him to his brand new No. 24 team ahead of the 1993 season, it was a bit of a shock. The talented but unproven kid from California, by way of Indiana, was seemingly gifted with a top ride without cutting his teeth as a midpack story.
Those naysayers were proven wrong when Gordon and his band of brothers approached each race weekend with a seasoned veteran’s approach. They belonged because they felt and knew they were as worthy as each of the top stars of NASCAR Cup Series racing.
Once Gordon gained the respect of his peers and on track rivals, the court of public opinion began to warm up to the new kid in town.
Those who appreciated Gordon’s efforts and commitment realized that they had another formidable, dedicated rival who upped their game on the track. Similarly, fans realized that Gordon was a cut against the grain of the fraternity of Southern boys of NASCAR fandom and mythology.
If 1993 was the start of Gordon’s greatness, his run from 1995 to 2001 was the peak era of NASCAR’s popularity boom to even the most casual sports fan.
Anyone who had a TV or a passing knowledge of sports and pop culture likely saw a racing highlight from ESPN SportsCenter, saw Gordon on talk shows like The Late Show with David Letterman and witnessed his best attempts as the host of weekend comedy staple program, Saturday Night Live.
Today, Gordon’s hair is salt and pepper, somewhat styled to resemble his youthful looks from 1995 to 2001. While Gordon’s championship quests may be over, he pursues stock car glory similarly in his role as the Vice Chairman of Hendrick Motorsports.
“I’m super excited about the 75th anniversary,” Gordon said. “I think this year’s going to be… so many things are going to be pulled into this year that showcase where the sport has come from, how it’s gotten to where it is today, and where it’s heading in the future, and its staying power, and how it’s continuing to grow, even today.
“I mean, I look at North Wilkesboro, right, as sort of that nucleus of what the 75th anniversary is all about. You’re going to take a track that hasn’t had a Cup race in… well, since 1996, which is crazy to think, and we’re going to have an All-Star Race there, and I think the fans are going to get one heck of a show.”
While Gordon may be 51 and occasionally drinking his cup of coffee in a sports car race, he still gets a thrill with pursuing success as a catalyst for Hendrick Motorsports’ latest driver and team championship quests.
“I’m excited to be a part of it, and certainly to be a part of it from Hendrick Motorsports’ standpoint of us going out and competing in the 75th anniversary,” he said. “I was a part of the 50th anniversary as a driver, and I know our teams are extremely excited to do what they can to continue to grow the sport in their 75th year.”
In the case of Gordon, there is no end of the rainbow. Rather, it is more of a continuation of “The Rainbow Warrior” as he writes the latest chapter of his storied motorsports career from a different but equally important seat with Hendrick’s executive team.
All of this and much more would not be possible without Gordon’s journey in 1993 as the ambitious young racer who just wanted to belong in NASCAR.
Special thanks to Jeff Gordon, Jon Edwards and Jesse Essex for making this longform story possible. Moreover, special thanks to Gordon for taking the time to tell the story of his 1993 rookie season and inspiring into the world of motorsports! Catch more of the interview with Gordon via the full, unedited clip and look for more stories about Gordon later this year as we will dive into Jeff Gordon’s 1998 championship season.
Thanks to my family, friends and the entire St. Bonaventure University community for their support pursuing this lifelong bucket list story.