Jeff Gordon knows how to win. The numbers don't lie: four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships, three Daytona 500 victories, and more than 80 NASCAR wins.
But in Gordon's drive to succeed, he is not the only winner.
Although he waited until he was 35 to start a family -- his wife, Ingrid, gave birth to daughter Ella Sofia last June -- caring for children has been a priority for quite a long time.
In 1992, Ray Evernham, then Gordon's crew chief, came to him with bad news: Evernham's young son, Ray J., had been diagnosed with leukemia. "That was a sad time," recalls Gordon, who witnessed Evernham's struggles to get his son the best possible care, followed by years of chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants before Ray J.'s cancer finally went into remission.
That experience gave Gordon a new purpose: Together with Evernham and the rest of the Hendrick Motorsports auto racing team, Gordon sought opportunities to raise awareness about the disease. At events across the country, he signed autographs while describing for fans the desperate need for bone marrow donors. "The relationship between driver and crew chief is a unique bond. For Jeff, it was like having someone in his own family going through this," says Tricia Kriger, director of The Jeff Gordon Foundation.
His commitment has only increased with time. As his fame and fortune have grown -- he has earned more than $95 million in career winnings -- Gordon has drawn on each to help children with life-threatening and chronic diseases. In 1999, he started his foundation, which is dedicated to supporting the work of organizations such as The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Gordon's foundation has raised $6 million since 1999, including $1 million in each of the last two years, and it provides major funding for the Jeff Gordon Children's Hospital, which opened in December 2006 in Concord, N.C., and the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.
His foundation's work is not limited to treating the illnesses themselves. It also seeks ways to improve quality of life for sick children and their families. For Gordon, no race weekend is complete unless he grants at least one child's wish to meet him. He has made 200 such wishes come true during his career.
The National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP), based in Minneapolis, is one of the many benefactors of The Jeff Gordon Foundation. An estimated 10,000 people a year develop the diseases for which bone marrow transplants are the only cure. Most have forms of leukemia or lymphoma, but more than 70 diseases are treated with marrow transplants. The program connects patients with donors and doctors, as well as supporting them during treatment and through the lengthy recuperation period.
"We are asked to participate when there is no other cure," says NMDP Director Jeffrey Chell, MD. According to Chell, only 25% of those needing transplants find a match within their immediate family. Most have to depend on strangers. That's where the NMDP fits in. One of its priorities is recruiting donors for a marrow registry. When a person donates marrow, a hollow needle is used to withdraw liquid marrow from the pelvic bone. Soreness in the lower back, discomfort while walking, and tiredness are the most common side effects, and they normally last a few days. The body generally takes four to six weeks to replace the donated marrow.
Gordon himself has registered with the NMDP. "Jeff's DNA is in the registry, and he could be called on at any time to be a donor," Kriger says. "In fact, he has gotten all of us on the foundation staff to register as donors. Actually, it was a pretty easy thing to do when you meet some of these kids."