'Hallowed ground:' How Indianapolis Motor Speedway changed Jeff Gordon's life

INDIANAPOLIS - Jeff Gordon finds himself returning to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway every now and again. As a kid, he always wanted to get inside this place. As a man, he can't get out.

On this Saturday in May, he's here to look forward and to look back. It's qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, and his Hendricks Motorsports client, NASCAR Cup leader Kyle Larson, has just posted a top-six time to surge into the event Gordon long dreamed of racing but never actually did.

But here is NASCAR's all-time winningest driver at IMS, a 2019 inductee to its Hall of Fame and an Indiana native. He knows things about this course that Larson can't.

Larson is a 2021 Cup champion and one of the three to five best drivers Gordon says he has ever seen. He's won many races in many places, but he's never won here. He's never raced in an Indy car, and neither has Gordon, so they are sharing this first-time pursuit -- at 232 miles per hour.

"He is living his dream through Kyle Larson," said Gordon's stepfather, John Bickford.

Gordon still lives in Charlotte and works as Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman. He's in a business role, recruiting drivers and setting up races, like the deal he struck between Hendrick and Arrow McLaren to allow Larson to race for both teams in the same day on Sunday in the 500 in Indianapolis and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte.

Gordon is not often on the road at pre-race events, but he knew he had to come here.

Memories simmer in the heat above the tar.

"This particular race is hallowed ground to me," Gordon said.

He owes this track something. Perhaps it owed him something once, too.

This is the track that changed his life.

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'Hallowed ground:' How Indianapolis Motor Speedway changed Jeff Gordon's life

An obsession builds

For half a century, racing has run Gordon's life. What started as a way to connect with a new stepfather in his life expanded to quarter-midget racing by age 5 to 51 victories by age 9 to an undefeated record by age 11. It was becoming too easy for him in California, where sprint car racing wasn't allowed before age 18.

When Gordon's interest started to drift to waterskiing, his parents knew they needed to find a bigger track.

The biggest track in the world happened to reside in Indianapolis, one big enough to house Niagara Falls. Indiana was a racing hotbed and seemed like a decent place for Bickford to find a shop to build a sprint car. He found one in Jamestown, but now they needed tracks to race on.

They moved to Pittsboro, located 17 miles west of IMS.

"There's a lot of reasons to be here," Bickford remembers thinking, "and we might have a shot at Indy."

He was talking about the Indy race. The one that takes place every May.

As Gordon began winning World of Outlaw races in his sprint car, his name grew, and drivers invited him to the speedway. Names like A.J. Foyt and Carl Haas and Paul Newman opened the doors of their cars to him. Gordon showed up to as many events as his own racing schedule allowed. He took the bus tour and checked out the museum.

"I grew up as a kid idolizing the drivers here," Gordon said. "To me, sprint car racing and the Indianapolis 500 is what made me want to be a race car driver."

'Hallowed ground:' How Indianapolis Motor Speedway changed Jeff Gordon's life

Owners started to be asked in interviews about this Jeff Gordon kid. Could he be next on the Indianapolis 500 radar?

One day, Chip Ganassi called Bickford and asked two questions: How much road experience did Gordon have and how much money did he have to work with?

“Hell,” Bickford recalls saying, "I'm not even sure we could afford to buy another helmet.”

Ganassi explained that the CART teams, which later gave way to IndyCar, only featured a few sponsored drivers. Breaking in really came down to how much funding a driver could bring with him from the jump.

Gordon was racing and winning too much to feel bitter. Ever since his stepdad made him hand over a first-place trophy for driving over another kid's quarter-midget car to win, he was trained to earn everything he got. Those were the ideals that drew them to the Midwest, to racing, to IMS.

But now, a message was clear:

To race in this hallowed ground, Gordon was going to have to become someone in the sport first.

A new path forms

Gordon had never raced in a stock car until he attended a school taught by Buck Baker, a NASCAR Hall of Famer. That became his window into a league that was national in popularity and had the sponsors and revenue to fund drivers.

What NASCAR needed was talent, and Gordon could give it that.

In 1992, in his first season with the Busch Series that served then as NASCAR's minor-league program, Gordon raced in Atlanta and caught the attention of Rick Hendrick Sr., who owned Hendrick Motorsports and was on the lookout for the next great young driver.

Gordon was it.

'Hallowed ground:' How Indianapolis Motor Speedway changed Jeff Gordon's life

He showed flashes in 1993, finishing 14th in points and winning the Rookie of the Year Award, but he didn't win any races. He was a talented rookie caught in the tailpipes of veterans who knew all the courses he'd never raced before.

But in April, an announcement came.

For the first time in nearly 80 years, a race other than the Indianapolis 500 would take place at IMS in August 1994. It would be a NASCAR Cup race, and it would be called the Brickyard 400.

It would feature a lineup of stars from NASCAR and IndyCar, from Earnhardt Sr. to 500 winners AJ Foyt and Danny Sullivan. And it would feature a young racer who grew up in Pittsboro named Jeff Gordon.

And so, two days after his 23rd birthday, Gordon was finally allowed on the track at IMS as something other than a spectator or visitor. A kid born in California who migrated to the midwest was in a car now, a stock car, and he was racing the giants of both leagues in front of the largest crowd in NASCAR history.

An outsider finally had his home-field advantage.

"I think all of us felt some of his pressure," Bickford said.

He'd only won one Cup race to that point, but he was on equal footing now.

"How does it feel to be leading at Indianapolis?" crew chief Ray Evernham asked Gordon in his headset early in the race.

Gordon answered, "It's an awesome feeling, man. I just want to stay here."

He later had to pit and made contact with another car on his way through, which gave up the lead. But with 26 laps to go, he passed Rusty Wallace to pull into second place behind Ernie Irvin. The two traded places until they had five laps to go, and suddenly Irvin ran over a piece of debris and blew out his right tire.

'Hallowed ground:' How Indianapolis Motor Speedway changed Jeff Gordon's life

"Oh my God! We did it!" Gordon screamed into his headset, before the tears streamed down his face.

He was the first winner of NASCAR's first race at IMS, in front of the largest crowd in history, for the largest prize in history.

But after securing that $3.1 million, Gordon chose not to attend a post-race party. He retreated back to his hotel room in Speedway, ordered a pizza and tipped the driver who fought through choked traffic to make the delivery.

One final race

That race was 30 years ago, and it set the course of his career and his life and his path back to this racing metropolis.

Gordon would go on to win his first Cup championship the next season in 1995 and then three more after that. He'd win the Brickyard 400 four more times, making him NASCAR's all-time leader in points at IMS. His final Brickyard victory came in 2014, one season before he called it a career and 20 after the one that launched it.

Over the years, this track has found a way to represent beginnings and ends to him, of side steps and sudden turns, of destiny. Nine years after he retired from racing, he's stayed connected to his sport but isn't trying to live in the driver's seat anymore. It's the balanced attachment that has famously eluded other sports icons such as Tom Brady and Michael Jordan.

'Hallowed ground:' How Indianapolis Motor Speedway changed Jeff Gordon's life

He never did race in the Indy 500. He drove the pace car in 2015, and he was asked to compete in the 100th running in 2016, but by then it felt too late in his career.

But he says his only regret was that he never won a NASCAR title through the playoff system. The Brickyard victories and becoming NASCAR's winningest driver in the modern era healed the Indy 500 scar before it ever got a chance to form.

"I'm a big believer that everything happens for a reason," Gordon said. "Whatever the reason was, that's the path that my life and career sent me on."

Yet he's back like he's never left, or perhaps because he can never leave. That 14-year-old who used to follow Foyt, Hoss and Newman like a shadow is still here. He's texting exclamation points to his stepfather and he's peppering Larson with questions about his car.

"What's it like to drive that fast?" he'll ask Larson. Larson's answers are only partial, since he's so far only qualified here and never actually raced.

They'll experience it together on Sunday, here in the hallowed ground.

Contact Nate Atkins at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.

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