Editors Note: This is the first in a four-part series of first-person recollections honoring the legend that is Jeff Gordon. After a 23-year NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, Gordon will end his record-making run as a full-time driver in less than a month -- on Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the 2015 Sprint Cup champion will be crowned. This series gives an insider's perspective by those who have influenced -- or been influenced by -- the four-time series champion.
Many have drawn parallels between Gordon and Kyle Larson, the 23-year-old Chip Ganassi Racing driver and graduate of both the NASCAR Drive for Diversity and NASCAR Next programs. Both are from Northern California. Both exploded onto the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series scene by winning the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award. And both have introduced the sport to a wider audience. As told to the NASCAR Wire Service's Reid Spencer, below is a first-person account from Kyle Larson, the young man many predict will be the sport's 'next Jeff Gordon.'
I guess I was first aware of Jeff when I was younger, before I started racing—four, five, six years old. I just remember my parents telling me about this kid who grew up in Vallejo, California, who raced at the same sprint car tracks I had gone to as a spectator, as a kid.
I remember doing car rides to races up and down the West Coast. We’d pop in a VHS tape, and my parents had recorded all the old “Thursday Night Thunder” videos, and Jeff was on a handful of those. That was probably the start of me becoming a fan of Jeff Gordon.
Then, obviously, I followed NASCAR a lot, and he really opened the doors for a lot of new guys outside of the South to make it to the Sprint Cup Series. I’ve always been a Jeff Gordon fan, and it’s pretty cool to see all the things he’s done for our sport and, obviously, it’s pretty cool to be here racing with him now.
I probably met Jeff for the first time when I was too young to hold my head up—my mom probably has a picture somewhere. I think the first time I actually met him when he knew who I was, it was at the end of 2011. I had a breakout season in USAC, and I had just signed with Spire (a sports and entertainment management company), and I was going around to meet a lot of teams.
One of the stops was Hendrick, and I talked to Jeff Gordon quite a bit. That was definitely cool, and I was a little star-struck, I guess, because it was Jeff Gordon. At that point, I had never met anyone really famous.
Since I’ve been in Cup, he’s given me some advice as far as how to approach things off the track, with my personal life, and business-wise, which has helped a lot. He’s really opened my eyes to some things.
More recently, I’ve gotten closer to Jeff away from NASCAR, because he’s sponsored some sprint car races for our team—Larson Marks Racing and Shane Stewart—and he’s been out to Knoxville (Iowa, for the Knoxville Nationals), where he’s a lot of fun. Out of the office, he’s a fun kid. So it’s been cool to get to know him better off the track.
Next year, I don’t think it will be too different (when he retires). The 24 car will still be out there with Chase Elliott. And you’re probably going to see Jeff more than you do now since he’ll be on TV a lot (in the Fox Sports booth). He’s brought a lot to this sport, and I’m sure he’ll continue to make contributions.
As told to the NASCAR Wire Service's Reid Spencer.