Editor’s Note: S.D. Grady will return with her weekly, Tuesday Fan’s View column inside our FREE Frontstretch Newsletter. Her first edition of 2015 is a special preview we’ve also posted on the website.
Jeff Gordon will be departing from his iconic No. 24 at the end of the 2015 season. I’m sure you’ve heard. Since the announcement mid-January, I’ve been invited to comment on the situation by friends, family and colleagues (I’ve been a huge fan of Gordon since he first arrived in the Cup series a few years back.) Yes, I’m dating myself. What does the loss of the Rainbow Warrior mean to our sport, the fan base, and even for the man himself?
For NASCAR, it is the inevitable changing of the guard. We’ve talked about this evolution for a few years now; it’s not surprising. We suffered through a dearth of new talent in the Cup level for about the past ten years — that is, until we didn’t. Now, we’ve got Keselowski, the Dillon brothers, Kyle Larson and quite a few others that have joined the ranks, injecting new faces and a younger tone to the social media covering the sport. A breath of fresh air behind the wheel accompanied other changes: the new Chase format, Gen—6 car and even the arrival of NBC in the broadcasting booth. It’s sort of like the times are conspiring to tell us that NASCAR isn’t your grandfather’s sport anymore…. which is as it should be. For too long, a large demographic, the Millennials, have eluded NASCAR’s grip. You have to admit, you can’t build a new fan base when there’s no driver out there who speaks your own language. The past few years have seen choices appear; none of them, for these new fans are Gordon.
Now, Jeff Gordon is nobody’s grandfather. He’s still got a few years to go before he can be called Grandpa. But he is the last remnant of the old guard that once made up the Cup Series. He started back when there were no HANS devices, no helmets on pit road, no live scoring on TV, when a position on the track translated into a mystical five points or so in the standings. Tobacco still reigned as corporate backing, just about nobody had a cell phone and the internet was a foreign concept. Cup cars weren’t painted as brightly and the engines had a guttural roar, one that has diminished over time.
The aging toes Gordon stepped on as a rookie belong to the history of the sport: Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip, Ricky Rudd, the Bodine Brothers, Hut Stricklin, Dick Trickle, Morgan Shepherd. Reading the entry list of the 1992 Hooters 500 is like reading a roll call for the Hall of Fame. It was that long ago. While the No. 24 still turns hot laps, painted dark red we often see a rainbow-colored version of the Chevy roaring down the frontstretch in our memories.
Gordon did prove in 2014 that he is by no means irrelevant in the newer iterations of NASCAR’s engineered competition. However, as longtime fans we’ve been wondering about that big “R” word for a few years. Physically, his back has taken more abuse than many. I’ve got a couple years on Mr. Gordon, and I can tell you that every time I flex my fingers and say, “No, they’re just stiff,” I’m acting much like the great driver when he responds to queries regarding his back. These days, I’m not twenty years old anymore and time is making itself known in my joints. How many more hits would Gordon wish to take? How many more can he? When you’ve got a personal fortune, a young family and the respect of those you work with, why taunt Lady Luck more than necessary? He’s not ready for a rocking chair; of that, I’m sure. But there is an entire world out there that Gordon has the time and means to explore.
All in all, I’m okay with Jeff’s choice to step down and appear a few times a year at some of his favorite tracks. In many ways, he belongs to a younger, less knowledgeable me. I enjoyed the sport in 1993, but I didn’t have a driver. I was just beginning to build the complex understanding of the entire cast of characters. I knew the black cars were fast, and that I didn’t personally care for their pilots. I was looking for a new way to get more involved, and Jeff Gordon provided that catalyst—as he did for many fans in the ’90s. It was his time. In the years to come, when I flip through my scrapbooks, I will recall his achievements with the pleasant fog of distant memory.
But now? It’s 2015. Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney and a few others are grabbing hold of the present in a way that belongs to this century, this version of NASCAR, to the young fans that are seeking a way to connect to the sport. When they feel compelled to visit the tracks and see their hero in person, it won’t be the same experience I had in 1996. It’ll be a little shinier, more packaged, but familiar to them. It’ll be their NASCAR. Still my NASCAR.
Because even if the T-shirts have today’s car numbers on them, the grandstands bear the names of the past. We are, if nothing else, a sport full of history, one that Jeff Gordon’s career made a goodly pile of. He won’t be gone, and indeed not missed as he enters the next stage of his racing life. I’m sure the cameras will keep him in view most of the time.
So, it’s alright. Time has passed. Drivers have come and gone, but there have always been new arrivals. It’s what keeps me tuning in week after week: I want to see the next bright star shooting for the Milky Way. Gordon’s star was brilliant, a light that shone longer than many, many others. But it did find a place in the NASCAR firmament, like every driver will over time.
Who will be the next to join that rainbow-colored No. 24 in the racing hall of memories? Only time will tell. That…. and a few checkered flags.
This year’s column post-script will be an opportunity to share a couple sentences of these past twenty-three years I’ve spent cheering on Jeff Gordon. What did certain big moments mean in his career? Did they create new ripples in NASCAR? It’ll be fun to reminisce and look back at them.
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