Wednesday, February 12, 2003
Gordon is downright giddy during his first Daytona ride
By KEN WILLIS
DAYTONA BEACH — In a decade of Winston Cup racing, Jeff Gordon has become a racing legend. Much of that legend was built on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.
He first arrived here 12 years ago as a 19-year-old rookie in the Busch Series, unknown to anyone except those who followed his decorated open-wheel career in the Midwest. Now, he´s arguably the most recognized racer in North America, with four Cup titles and two Daytona 500 championships.
“My first time here was in 1991. We were testing our Busch car in January. I´ll never forget driving into the track. That was the first time I´d ever seen it.
The banking, how large the track is, it was just so overwhelming and intimidating. I remember the first time I got out there on the track in the Busch car. They said, ‘OK, you can hold it wide open all the way around.’
I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’
I went out there, and I kept pushing the gas down further and further and further. Then I go, ‘All right, I´m gonna go wide open now,’ and I was already down to the floor. It was already wide open and I didn´t even know it.
That was certainly fun.
My first real memories are probably from my first-ever Daytona 500. Being in the top five there at the end. I think I may have taken the lead on one of the very first laps that year, so that was pretty cool, leading the Daytona 500 in my first one.
Then, at the end, riding behind Earnhardt with a chance at winning, it was amazing. I got taken to school, of course, but I´m just sitting there going, ‘Wow, I´m in the Daytona 500.’ And you just start thinking about everything, almost getting emotional, because it´s such a cool experience.
And getting to go to Victory Lane here twice...even though the first one (1997) ended under caution, it was pretty spectacular in those last 10 or 20 laps. And the one I won in ´99 was spectacular right down to the finish.
Believe it or not, I never got the chance to watch the Daytona 500 much as a kid. I may have watched some 125s, but I was always racing. I remember one year we were down here racing in February around the same time as the 500. I knew it was going on, knew it was a big event, but I was caught up in my own kind of racing.
We´d come to Florida and race the Sprint cars. I remember racing in Jacksonville, and we used to race at the Tampa Fairgrounds track.
The Daytona 500 wasn´t quite like the Indy 500 to me, because I didn´t know anybody racing in it. I didn´t know much about the stock cars at that time.
I´ll tell you when stock cars started becoming a bigger deal to me was when I was racing midgets with Rich Vogler, and Rich Vogler came down here and started qualifying for some of the NASCAR races. That´s when I first started thinking about this. He was the man to beat in my series, so that was my first eye-opening experience with it.
When I first came down here in the early ´90s, we could go out to restaurants and maybe eat in peace a little more than you can now. Early on, we´d eat anywhere. If I was with a buddy, we´d just go somewhere.
Back then, if there was something going on where there would be Winston Cup drivers, or where there´d be car owners, that would be a cool deal. And usually free food, and that was always good.” -- Jeff Gordon