DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The Motorsports Hall of Fame of America induction ceremony Tuesday evening was crowded with a black-tie assortment representing the Who’s Who of auto racing – from emcee Mario Andretti to Trans Am champion Tommy Kendall to Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi to sports car great Scott Pruett and NASCAR champions Rusty Wallace and Terry Labonte.
They all gathered to celebrate a long list of racing’s very best. One of those being honored was four-time NASCAR Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who sat on stage listening to acceptance speeches with a wide grin, many laughs and lots of spontaneous applause as one-by-one his induction class was introduced.
It included the late aviator Howard Hughes, sports car great Bob Tullius, motorcycle champion Fred Merkel, open-wheel hero Pat Patrick, drag racing’s John Buttera and the Carl Fisher who is historically credited with helping build the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It was as accomplished and diverse a class as you could hope to belong to and Gordon clearly enjoyed being a part of the evening, genuinely honored to be recognized among such a significant group of people.
As NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton took the podium to formally introduce Gordon, he couldn’t help but acknowledge “the stories told tonight are incredible.”
Then he delivered a well-received introduction of Gordon, reminding the room not only of the 45-year old’s 93 Cup wins and four championships, but of Gordon’s equally impressive gift of influence and transcendence.
“The statistics validate any recognition Jeff Gordon gets,” Helton said, stressing that Gordon, who retired from NASCAR after the 2015 season, may be “a once in a lifetime” competitor and wondered aloud if “a person will ever have a single impact on our sport as Jeff did.”
As Gordon stood up to approach the podium for his acceptance speech, the entire room spontaneously and enthusiastically rose out of their seats in applause.
A smiling Gordon – who now works as a broadcaster for NASCAR on FOX telecasts – stood for a few moments at the podium and took in the adoration, still looking humbled to be a part of the esteemed group of competitors on stage and in the audience.
“How much better can your night be than to get to sit next to Mario Andretti,” Gordon said, grinning and breaking the ice.
Then he addressed the room, summing up his feelings and sharing his experiences. He made a point to thank the Hendrick Motorsports team – whose executives turned out in full force Tuesday evening – and to express his deep gratitude to former crew chief Ray Evernham, who guided him to three of his four titles.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it turning out as it has,” Gordon said.
As he closed out his remarks, he made a point to smile and offer something from his heart.
On a night celebrating the nuance and achievement of different racing eras, Gordon proudly acknowledged, “I’ve got to admit, mine wasn’t bad.”