The year was 1993. My mom’s whole side of the family was having a giant Thanksgiving dinner, all 40+ of us (we had even rented out a school cafeteria for the occasion), and my aunt brought a cute new boyfriend. Jeff Gordon.
My brother thought it was funny that his name was Jeff Gordon, although it was all lost on me. “Why? Who’s Jeff Gordon?” I remember asking him in the kitchen.
It wasn’t the same Jeff Gordon, of course, although this Jeff Gordon did work in racing, but the only racing I knew – IndyCar racing. He later took us to the shop and I got to sit in Al Unser Jr’s race car. A pretty big deal for a little girl from Indiana. The Jeff Gordon my brother was telling me about was apparently an up-and-coming driver in something he called NASCAR.
Growing up in Indiana, with both sets of grandparents living less than 3 miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, racing was bound to be part of my childhood. I remember standing in my grandparents’ front yard in May and hearing the roar of engines during practice. And I remember when NASCAR was going to start racing on the venerable oval – the year after that memorable Thanksgiving.
While I can’t put my finger on it, a love for NASCAR was eventually born in me. Whether it was because I was in that phase of life where everything my brother did was cool (oh wait, it’s a phase? Hm…) or because I wanted something to love that was unique and different from my peers, I began following NASCAR in junior high and high school. My driver? Jeff Gordon, of course.
Eventually that love was made permanent when my dad took me to my first NASCAR race: the 2000 Daytona 500. We would return the following year, where we would witness one of the most tragic deaths in sports history.
My college roommate shared my love (we were the only two girls to put “NASCAR” as a hobby on our roommate placement survey), although not my driver… but even though her driver was Tony Stewart, we managed to overcome differences and remain friends to this day.
I know it’s an enigma to people. In college, I was that preppy girl who wore argyle socks and cardigans. But I was also the girl who tailgated in the back of a pickup truck, with a George Foreman and rootbeer, before going inside to watch the Daytona 500 on TV. In grad school, when working for Scott Hahn, one of my coworkers mentioned NASCAR in passing, and the new guy didn’t realize I was a fan. (I was probably wearing an argyle sweater that day.) Chris repeated himself. “Yeah. Joannie’s a NASCAR fan.” Matt burst out laughing. A big laugh.
“Joannie? A NASCAR fan? That’s a good one!”
“She really is!?”
I really am.
All this to say… it was shocking to hear the breaking news on the radio today- news that even took the hosts of NASCAR’s Morning Drive by surprise. (yes, I listen to NASCAR talk radio every morning.) Jeff Gordon will be racing his final season this year. It was an announcement bound to happen eventually, but I’d wager few – if any- would have bet it would come today.
Before Jeff Gordon, 20 year-olds didn’t race with the big boys. Especially not pretty boy 20 year-olds. He changed the sport forever, and I’m part of that change. He brought NASCAR to a whole different audience– an audience that includes me. When I started watching NASCAR, I couldn’t keep Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett straight. But there was something in that young driver with his rainbow car that made me start to watch and listen and research and follow. And for that I’m thankful.