Career Advice from Jeff Gordon
The name Jeff Gordon is synonymous with winning – not only in NASCAR, but in numerous racing series since he first got behind the wheel of a racecar at age 5. Remarkably, Gordon has not missed a single race since the start of his NASCAR Cup Series career in 1992, making 690 consecutive starts and counting. During that time, he’s garnered four Cup Series championships and won 87 Cup races, placing him third on the all-time wins list behind NASCAR legends Richard Petty and David Pearson.
At the relatively young age of 41, the future hall-of-famer is now balancing his racing career with family life, as well as his work as founder of the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation, which contributes millions of dollars each year to programs focused on pediatric cancer.
Q. You started racing at a very young age. I think your daughter, Ella, is about the age that you were when you started racing.
A. She is.
Q. What would you say to either of your kids if they came to you and said they want to be a NASCAR driver when they grow up?
A. My daughter has certainly already mentioned that to me. I think that there is a difference between seeing what your dad does and watching it and saying, “Oh, I want to do that,” and then actually showing the signs of, “No, really, I really want to do that.”
We’re close to putting her in a quarter midget like I did and letting her experience it and see how she likes it. If she really likes it and does well in it and wants to do it, then we’ll absolutely pursue it. And the same thing with my son when he gets older.
I can only comment on my own experience, where I got introduced to it by my parents and it was something that I was nervous about the first time because it was an unknown. But, then, when I got in there it was very natural and lots of fun and something that I wanted to do more of. I was fortunate that my parents recognized that and wanted to pursue it as well and see how far we could take it.
Q. Do you see a big difference today in the demands that are placed on young drivers and the fact that development drivers are signed at such a young age compared to when you were coming up?
A. I think now you’re starting to see it more like other major sports, where the talent pool is greater and getting younger. As a car owner, if you can get your hands on a young, talented driver early and develop them into the driver that you want them to be, to fit into your organization, then you’re going to do that and I think that’s fantastic. If you look at Formula 1 and how they go about it, the NFL and the NBA and all of them – look at LeBron (James) and Kobe (Bryant); these guys came along at a very young age.
Q. When team owners are looking at young drivers today, is there more of an emphasis on some of the things besides driving talent – their marketability and things like that?
A. Oh, absolutely. I think that’s the biggest challenge is to try to find a driver who has talent and knows how to go out there and win, works hard at it, is passionate about it, but also understands the media side of it, the marketing, and, these days, the social media interaction.
Sponsors drive our world and you can have all the talent in the world, but if you can’t be marketable, your chances of getting to this level are probably pretty slim.
Q. Money is a part of it from a young age these days – having the money to buy the equipment and travel and all those things.
A. To me, that’s the downside to our sport. When you look at other sports, there are programs that can get you into basketball, football, soccer, all these other sports, but there is no racing program. It’s kind of a goal and a dream of mine to one day see more programs like that. But, it does cost money. The cars are not cheap, you have to maintain them, you have to keep them safe, there are race tracks, there are all these things that would go along with trying to get more kids interested and show them racing at a young age and then see what kind of talents they have. So, yes, unfortunately, it does cost money and that money can run out very fast.
Q. Is that something that you’re really seriously interested in setting up, some type of program like that?
A. I can’t set it up by myself. I’ve mentioned it to a handful of people over the years and when I’m no longer driving full-time, it’s probably something I will talk more seriously about.
Q. Well, that was my next question. When you are done driving – whenever that day comes – do you know what you want to do afterwards? Maybe broadcasting or team ownership?
A. I’m open right now. I’ve been very fortunate with my driving career to create a lot of great opportunities outside of driving, and I only hope that – as I get closer to that time – I can sink myself into something that I’m as passionate about as I have been from the driving standpoint, because that’s truly what it takes to be good.
It doesn’t matter how talented you are, you have to work extremely hard. You have to go that extra mile to be in a competitive world and it’s competitive not just in racing or in sports, but outside of sports as well. So, I hope that is something that will be narrowed down.
There are a handful of things right now that I am interested in, and I feel so fortunate to have a handful of those things. But, what are those one or two things that I’m really going to be excited about doing? I don’t believe in retirement.
Q. You’re much too young to retire.
A. No, I don’t believe there ever is a retirement, even when I’m old enough. You need to have something that keeps you busy.
Q. Something that you’re passionate about and that gets your heart going.
A. Yes, mind and heart.
Q. In general, what is the best career advice you ever got, either as a young person or as a professional driver? Is there something that stands out like a quote that runs through your mind?
A. I don’t know if there’s really a quote or anything that sticks with me. It’s just that, when I look around me and what has helped me get to this level – and others that I’ve seen be successful – yes, it’s important to find something that you really like.
If you like something, you’re going to be willing to put as much into it as it takes, and it does take a lot. You’ve got to work hard at it, but, if you enjoy it, it’s not like it’s work. That effort just comes on its own, and I think that’s the way it has to be.
I love what I do and, while not every result I have on the weekend is the goal that I set out for that weekend, when I step away from it and I get over what kind of finish we had – whether it’s a win or a 25th – I still think, wow, I love driving a racecar. It’s important to try and find that in whatever it is that you do and know that you have to be willing to do whatever it takes – sacrifice, dedication, hard work.
Right now, that’s something I’m trying to teach my kids. My daughter is in gymnastics, she does karate and she does all these things and I see her do things and look at other kids and she recognizes when somebody does something better than her. Then, I see her starting to try to practice at home and I think that’s the key – you’ve got to practice. If you want to be good at that one thing, you’ve got to work hard at it and practice, practice, practice. I think that’s true for anything.
Q. In a career as long as yours has been, there have been ups and downs and years that you struggled. What helped you get through those difficult times?
A. I think the difficult times are the times that really help you understand how much you enjoy what you do and how hard you are willing to work.
Along the way, I’ve had some things go extremely well for me and, when that happens, you tend to get a little complacent and your focus can get off a little bit. The years when I’ve struggled, I’ve gotten frustrated and I had to regroup with my own dedication and say, “Okay, do I want to go out there and run 20th or 15th?” And I realized, no, I don’t.
What I love about racing – what got me into racing – was seeing that checkered flag wave and I was the first one across the line. And I realized that you’ve got to have fast raceccars, a great team, and you have to be willing to take your talents and make the most of them and work really hard at it.
I’ve actually enjoyed the hard years and the tough years I’ve had because I think it’s given me a greater appreciation for the good times that I’ve had and it makes me realize that I don’t enjoy running mid-field. I want to be at the top and I’ve got to work harder than anybody to do it.