(This is the second 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 on Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Gordon will be one of the four drivers who will remain eligible for this year’s championship. This series gives an insider’s perspective by those who have influenced — or been influenced by — the four-time series champion.
NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Ray Evernham helped shape Gordon’s career during its formative years. The driver-crew chief tandem dominated the better part of a decade, combining to win three championships and 47 races during the 1990s. As told to the NASCAR Wire Service’s Reid Spencer, below is a first-person account from Ray Evernham, whose steady hand and mechanical know-how helped catapult Gordon into superstardom.)
I don’t think you ever really know when you’re going to grow into a relationship and end up really close to a person. I think that just happens. I think, in some ways, Jeff’s and my friendship is strengthening as we go through time.
But I knew from the first time I met him that I liked him and I was going to get along with him. We thought about things the same way, and he had that kind of personality, and he had that talent, that ability—all those things. He’s just an easy person to like and communicate with. He gave me good information, he was respectful, and you’ve got to remember … when I met him he was only 18 years old.
It was easy to grow into a relationship like that when you meet someone who’s open, and they’re good at what they do. When you admire someone and respect someone right off the bat, it’s easy to grow into a relationship.
It was our goal to be the best, but also—honestly and unselfishly—we knew what our jobs were. I had the part that he needed, mechanically and strategically and working on the car and that experience. And he had something that I’d always wanted to have, that amazing talent to drive that race car, that ability to do that. I think we always respected that neither one of us could do each other’s jobs.
I knew there was no way in the world I could ever drive as good as he could, and I think he understood that there was no way he could ever be as mechanically inclined with the race car as I was. It worked perfectly, because we both had some goals, and we knew that the true form of a partnership is when both partners make each other better.
That happened with us the first time we really ever got together to run the Outback Steakhouse car in 1990 (in what was then the NASCAR Busch Series, and now known as the NASCAR XFINITY Series). We just clicked, and we had speed right away. I didn’t tell him how to drive—I suggested things that I saw. He didn’t tell me how to work on the car—he told me what it was doing. I think if we worked together tomorrow, we’d still have that same kind of communication.
When you look at our sport—any sport, really—there are people that have made a huge difference in that sport in a certain time. When a sport evolves, either someone has helped it evolve or carried it through that evolution. You can look all the way back to when our sport started. As it was growing, you’ve got to see the Petty name. I’m talking from a driver’s standpoint, not the France family or anything like that.
Then you move on into the ’80s, and it’s Earnhardt, without a doubt, for what he carried and did with the sport. And then when you move on to the ’90s and into the 2000s, it was Jeff Gordon. His record is obvious, but the impact that he had transitioning the sport from a regional sport to a national sport, bringing in companies and really changing the face of what a NASCAR race car driver was—he forever changed the sport, and I think the sport will always be better and stepped up a notch because of it.
He was from California. He wasn’t the jeans, cowboy boots guy. He hosted Saturday Night Live. He was GQ, and all at the same time, he got the job done. He was young, good-looking, and he worked hard and kept himself in shape. I think that he forever changed what a NASCAR race car driver was looked at as.
The thing I’m most proud of is the person that Jeff Gordon has become throughout the years, the man that he’s become. When I first met him, he was a teenager, he was a boy. Now he’s become a man, and I’m proud of that, and I’m proud to still be able to call him a friend after all these years and everything we’ve been through.
(As told to the NASCAR Wire Service’s Reid Spencer.)