Jeff Gordon got behind the wheel of his first race car when he was 5 years old, running laps on a racetrack that his stepfather built for him in their hometown of Vallejo, Calif. At age 6, the future NASCAR champion piloted his quarter-midget car -- a tiny professional racing vehicle for the 5 to 16 set -- to 35 victories, setting five track records in the process.
It was an auspicious start to an astonishing career. In the years since, Gordon has won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship four times and the Daytona 500 three times. He has racked up more than 80 NASCAR wins. Only five other drivers have placed first more times than Gordon.
This year, the competition is as high as always, but he has a new source of inspiration: his daughter, Ella Sofia, who had her first birthday in June. Has becoming a father forced the legendary driver to shift gears? WebMD checked in with him recently to find out, and we learned that in Gordon’s drive to succeed -- both on the track and off -- he is not the only winner.
Jeff Gordon, Racing Champion
In Jeff Gordon’s 31 years of racing, nothing has prevented him from climbing into the driver’s seat on race day. Well, almost nothing.
“The only thing that’s kept me off the track was poison ivy,” says Gordon of his one miss. “My arm was so swollen I could not bend it.
“I have had bumps and bruises -- minor stuff compared to the accidents I have been in,” continues Gordon, who will be 37 in August. He then adds with a laugh, “Of course, I may have head injuries I don’t know about yet.”
This from a man who has had his share of scary crashes, the least of which would likely encourage mere mortals to trade in their car keys for a bus pass. As recently as March, a nasty crash in Las Vegas tore apart his car’s front end but left Gordon uninjured. Gordon pauses and, the laughter over, says, “I’m not fearless or foolish. But I use my fear to keep me from pushing the car too hard and going over the edge. After a bad wreck, you sometimes want to take a few weeks off, but unless your doctor tells you to, you don’t. You get right back on the track.”
Jeff Gordon Balances Racing and Fatherhood
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series features the league’s best racers. Though it’s gone through several name changes over the years -- before Sprint, it was the Nextel Cup; before that it was the Winston Cup -- its schedule has remained one of the most grueling in motorsports. Drivers compete in 36 races over a 41-week season. The races are hundreds of miles long, around oval tracks that only turn to the left. Gordon has been racing the circuit for 15 years. Naturally, Gordon, who turns 37 in August, had always thought racing kept his life in the fast lane. He didn’t realize how wrong he was until last June, when Ella Sofia was born.
“You think you are busy until you have a child,” Gordon says. “It turns out that my life was not busy until Ella came along.”
He’s not complaining. Quite the contrary. Gordon has embraced fatherhood and feels blessed by it. “I love being with Ella,” he says. When asked what, if any, changes his daughter’s birth has forced on his career, he jokes, “Traveling is much different” for him and his wife of almost two years, Ingrid Vandebosch. “We have to carry a lot more baggage.”
Then he turns serious.
“To me, the two are separate. When I’m at work, my mind is focused on my job, on driving. If you have a great weekend, you’re on a high. When it’s a bad day, you just want to get away from the track. But no matter how good or bad my day was, coming home, it’s all put aside. You don’t have a choice. I’m a realist. It’s tough. So is racing.”
Learning to balance one’s personal and professional life can be a great challenge, especially for people like Gordon, used to succeeding in everything they do, says Jerry May, PhD, a specialist in sports psychology and professor emeritus at the University of Nevada, Reno. May has spent the past 30 years working with elite athletes -- primarily U.S. Olympic athletes, who, like Gordon, are at the very pinnacle of their game. He has also worked with leaders in many other professions, from doctors to judges to CEOs.
Jeff Gordon’s Sports Psychology
May stresses the importance of living in the present moment. In Gordon’s case, that means always keeping his eyes and mind on his car, on the road, and on the racers around him rather than worrying about winning.
Worry can clutter your mind and slow you down, says May, who often advises athletes to use what he calls the “stop-think technique” to eliminate unwanted thoughts. It’s quite simple. Whenever a negative or distracting thought enters your mind, say “Stop.” Then picture something positive and peaceful, such as a beautiful beach. “It’s a conditioning technique,” says May. “With practice, the image becomes a reward for stopping negative thoughts.”
For Gordon, being ready to compete means being relaxed.
“I’ve been racing since I was 5 years old, and I think it’s all about being relaxed in your environment, being comfortable in the race car, and having been involved in nearly every possible scenario in the race car over the course of 30 years. I try to block out any distractions that could mentally affect me before a race. It’s a routine I’ve had in place for many years.”
May also says most athletes overtrain, believing the more they practice, the better they will perform. That, says May, is a myth. An athlete’s goal should be to find his or her own optimal training level and stick with it. “People need to figure out that sometimes less is best,” says May, who urges the athletes he works with to take regular breaks from their training to remain fresh.
“Performance will drop without diversity,” he warns.
Jeff Gordon, Champion for Children
Gordon’s 2007 season may be proof that diversity pays off. After several lackluster seasons, Gordon started the 2007 Sprint Cup Series as a newlywed. Halfway through, his wife, Ingrid, a Belgian model who recently appeared in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue spotlighting top athletes’ wives, gave birth to Ella. While adjusting to his new roles -- first husband, then father -- he drove all the way to second place, his best finish in years.
Clearly, Gordon has found a way to balance his career with family, something he doesn’t believe he would have been able to do as a younger man. “I’m so glad I waited until I was older. I appreciate it much more than I would have at the beginning of my career,” explains Gordon. “I’ve had a lot of success over the years, and if I had had a child early on, perhaps I would not have accomplished as much.”
His accomplishments have not all been on the racetrack. Though he waited until he was 35 to start a family, 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 new purpose: Together with Evernham and the rest of the Hendrick Motorsports auto racing team, Gordon sought out 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."
The Jeff Gordon Foundation
"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 like 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.
One of the many benefactors of The Jeff Gordon Foundation is the National Marrow Donor Program, based in Minneapolis. An estimated 10,000 people a year are stricken with diseases for which bone marrow transplants are the only cure. Most suffer from forms of leukemia or lymphoma, but more than 70 different diseases are treated with marrow transplants. The NMDP 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 aftereffects, 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.”
The foundation, which turns 10 next year, is already planning its strategy for its second decade. Its core mission of providing funds to the nation’s most prominent centers for pediatric research and care will remain the same, and, says Kriger, Gordon will likely become even more involved. Chell agrees: “He understands the complexities of the problems and communicates them so well to a broad spectrum of people. He’s gone to Capitol Hill and served as an advocate there, helping members of Congress understand the scope of the issue.”
The Rising Need for Children’s Medical Care
This is a crucial time to address children’s health. The number of U.S. children with chronic health conditions has risen dramatically in the past four decades, according to a study published in June 2007 in The Journal of the American Medical Association. “We have 80 million children in America today, and about 8%, or 6.5 million children and adolescents, have chronic conditions that interfere with regular daily activities,” says James M. Perrin, MD, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, the lead author of the study. The top three problems are obesity, asthma, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
In addition, the June 2008 edition of Pediatrics reports on the results of a new study that tracked childhood cancer cases in the United States from 2001 to 2003. Leukemia is the most common. Although childhood cancer is rare, it’s the leading cause of disease-related death for U.S. children. “It’s a scary thing,” Gordon says of childhood illness, “but it’s great to see success stories.”
Jeff Gordon on Sports Nutrition
Over the past few years, Gordon has also learned to take better care of himself.
“I’m getting older,” he says. “I have to stretch just to get out of bed these days.”
Though he loves to ride a bicycle, his schedule doesn’t allow him to do it on a regular basis. And he’s never been much for going to the gym. But he has been working at improving his diet. “I used to eat terrible stuff all the time, like hamburgers and hot dogs. And I wondered why I got sick!”
In his early 30s, Gordon reports he went through a long period during which he constantly felt run down. Colds would grip him and refuse to let go. Then, shortly before she became pregnant, his wife encouraged him to see a nutritionist. It was an eye-opening experience.
“I realized I had to start treating my body with the same care that I treat my car if I wanted it to perform,” he says.
Now Gordon is a big fan of sushi and sashimi. He eats plenty of salmon and other fish. While he is no vegetarian, he mostly steers clear of red meat. Every morning, he downs a pomegranate-and-banana shake. “When I’m disciplined, I stay away from carbs and eat a lot of green vegetables, even though I’m not big on vegetables.”
A good diet is crucial to every NASCAR driver, agrees Roberta Anding, RD, a sports nutritionist at Memorial Hermann Sports Medicine in Houston. She says that although race car drivers may not have to run, jump, or kick a ball like traditional athletes, their sport demands the same sustained physical exertion and mental acuity. And to maintain peak performance, drivers need to eat right. That means getting lasting energy from oatmeal, apples, and other high-quality carbs rather than snacking on sugary foods that give quick highs followed by lows.
“A race car driver does not want to feel fatigued,” says Anding. Staying hydrated is perhaps even more important. With the high heat from hot days at the track and inside a fast-racing car, plus the physical stress that comes with racing, drivers lose fluids and sodium.
And if you are not properly hydrated, Anding says, you will be physically and mentally compromised. “Diet makes a huge difference in terms of being able to maintain alertness,” says Anding. “For athletes like Gordon, who have their lives on the line, losing focus can be fatal.”
“We practice and race almost every weekend,” Jeff Gordon says. “We’re ‘conditioned’ -- you’re relaxed, your heart rate is adjusted, as are your breathing patterns. I don’t have an issue until the summer months, when I really focus on staying hydrated.”
Jeff Gordon’s Racing Future
Even after three decades of racing, Gordon is not yet ready to talk about retirement. Life on and off the track is simply moving too fast right now to speculate about that. And while many things have changed in his life, especially over the last year, some aspects have remained constant.
“What got me into racing was seeing that checkered flag,” Gordon says. “When I first saw that flag waving, I said to myself, ‘I love that.’ And that hasn’t changed.” Then he adds, a bit wistfully, “But competition is so high at this level, you don’t see it as much as you’d like.”
How Safe Is Car Racing?
A NASCAR race is no Sunday drive, but what does it take to pilot a car to victory -- or at least to the finish line?
“Many people think the drivers are just sitting there, but it’s quite aerobic,” says John Melvin, PhD, a bioengineer at Wayne State University in Detroit and longtime safety consultant to NASCAR. He says racers push their heart rates to near maximum levels for hours at a time. “You don’t have to be particularly strong to race cars,” Melvin says, “but you have to have a lot of endurance. These drivers burn oxygen at the same rate as soccer players.”
According to Melvin, drivers feel a g-force (the force of gravity on the body during acceleration) of up to 3 g’s around the banked curves common on NASCAR tracks, where speeds average 180 mph or more. Isn’t that dangerous?
Race Track Improvements
Yes, says Melvin, but not nearly as risky as it was just a few years ago. Following a series of deaths, including that of legendary driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001, a number of safety improvements to cars and tracks were put into place, vastly reducing injury rates.
The most important was the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device inside race cars. Melvin describes it as a carbon fiber collar integrated with restraining belts. It locks the driver’s head in place so that in a crash it moves with the body rather than whipping forward or to the side. That prevents the most common fatal injury: a fracture at the base of the skull.
For race tracks, SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers were introduced in 2002. Square steel tubes filled with crushable foam, these barriers absorb some of the impact when drivers crash into them, reducing the severity of the crash.
Both safety measures seem to be working. There have been no deaths or serious injuries since these safety upgrades were introduced, says Melvin, but “we cross our fingers, because it’s still a very dangerous sport.”