As final NASCAR Cup race approaches, Jeff Gordon looks back – USA TODAY
NEW YORKÂ âÂ After Jeff Gordonâs final Sprint Cup Series race Sunday, more than 100 of his family members and friends will gather at a party in downtown Miami to share the end of a landmark day âÂ and career âÂ with Gordon.
Now, they may have something else to celebrate: a fifth championship.
It would be hard to imagine such a scene without Gordonâs parents, stepfather John Bickford and mother Carol. But there was a period in Gordonâs otherwise golden career during which many would have assumed they would not be included in what is likely to be one of the racing yearâs biggest parties.
In the careers of many successful athletes, there are dark clouds, and for Gordon those hovered in the background over several years, generally beginning with his first championship in 1995 and, fortunately for almost everyone around him, ending in 2002, a year after he scored his fourth title.
As Gordon, who won the Sprint Cup rookie of the year title in 1993 and first race in 1994, began the rocket ride that would carry him to international motor sports superstardom, there was a parallel âÂ and toxic âÂ journey developing. Gordon, or âWonder Boyâ as many on the circuit called him, seeing a bright future and the expanded responsibilities and dramatic change that would come with it, looked to move away from a family structure that had defined his life from the age of 4 months.
In 1995, approaching his first of four championships, Gordon began a separation process from his parents, one that, he admitted, saddled him with an anvilâs weight of guilt.
âI remember sitting on my parentsâ back porch that day,â Gordon told USA TODAY Sports. âI had written down all these things I had issues with that they were doing that I felt that we needed to hire other people to do. At the end of that meeting, John looked at me and said, âWell, you pretty much just listed everything that I do, so it sounds to me like you just need me to step aside and let somebody else do this.â
âI said, âUh, yeah, I guess itâs kind of something like that,â â Gordon said. âThe meeting didnât go well, and it was a clean cut.â
Describing the moment, he brought his right arm up and down in a chopping motion and said, âIt was like this, whack!â
His parents would miss some of the defining moments in Gordonâs career.
Bickford, who came into Carolâs life when Jeff was 4 months old, was the godfather of Gordonâs racing career. He put 5-year-old Jeff on the track with older racers and guided his career from the first green flag to the first Sprint Cup checkered flag, at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
He put Gordon in a quarter-midget racer at a 1/20th-mile quarter-midget dirt track in Rio Linda, Calif., â then known as Cracker Jack Track â and Gordon learned quickly. Hundreds of wins in quarter-midget followed.
âI was there the first day he came to the track,â track official Tom Van Inwagen told USA TODAY Sports. â…John put him in a car more than any other person Iâve known. Heâd pick him up from school and theyâd go do laps. When he got here, he already had a ton of laps in a car.
â… It takes dedication. … Between John being involved and with what Jeff was able to do, they had it.â
Gordon already knew the racetrack flag colors, having learned on a makeshift track at a nearby fairgrounds lot.
âWe did that every chance we got,â Carol Bickford told USA TODAY Sports. âWe had friends of ours who had kids about that age, and weâd invite them over. Just about everybody brought their kids out, and not one of them would get in a quarter-midget. Jeff got in without much hesitation.â
As Gordon continued winning, the family decided to move to Pittsboro, Ind., where Gordon, then 14, could compete against stiffer competition. Just eight years later, he had reached the nationâs higest level of stock-car racing, notched seven top-fives in 30 starts and was named rookie of the year.
It was clear to almost everyone in the sport that he could be the star of his racing generation. That first win in 1994 and his riveting victory in the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway later that year âÂ the first of a record five he would win just a few miles from where he grew up in Pittsboro âÂ set the stage for a two-decade run of success through the sport and began a flow of dollars that would soon require the involvement of several accountants.
âMom was sitting there, and she added a little to the discussion,â Gordon said. âI didnât realize how much it meant for John to be involved in that position. I looked at him as the guy who ran our racing team, was involved in the setups of the cars âÂ basically, a car guy. I felt like when it started getting further away from him doing that part of it that the other wasnât something he was interested in doing and maybe he had other things he wanted to do.
âI was wrong. He really enjoyed what he was doing more so than I ever imagined. He liked being involved. It was fun and challenging and exciting.
âThere were some things then that needed to be discussed, to be expressed. Iâm usually a person who doesnât have any regrets about things Iâve done, but I do sometimes have regrets about how Iâve done them. What happened was going to happen, but there was a more respectful, different way of going about it.â
PHOTOS: Jeff Gordon through the years
Reconciling and making amends
Gordon was just 23 and full of himself at that point in his career. He had married Brooke Sealey, a former Miss Winston victory lane beauty queen, in 1994. They had collapsed into each otherâs arms in tears when Gordon scored his first win in the 1994 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, Gordon resting his head on Sealeyâs chest in exhaustion after completing NASCARâs longest race as the victory lane celebration began.
Theirs seemingly was a fairy tale marriage, but it was destined for rocky shoals. It would end with Sealey filing for divorce in 2002 and the couple agreeing to a settlement that awarded Sealey $15.3 million the next year.
As Sealey became more of a force in Gordonâs life in the early years of their relationship and later marriage, the Bickfords faded into the background, a juxtaposition Gordon would come to regret greatly even as his racing career exploded with three more championships in 1997, 1998 and 2001.
The Bickfords were missing from much of that joy. Although their communication link with Gordon had not been severed, they largely were on the outside looking in.
When Gordon left the Sprint Cup awards banquet in 2001 with the big trophy but an empty feeling, he began moving toward a different future.
âThere were a lot of things that were building up inside of me that made me realize I wasnât going down the path that I envisioned,â Gordon said. âI had just won the championship in 2001. This should be the greatest time of my life. I wasnât feeling that. There was something missing.
âWhen I started adding things together and started trying to figure out what was going on, it was more than what was happening between me and Brooke. I didnât stay connected with friends. I wasnât where I wanted to be in relation to my parents. I started realizing how important that was to me. I kind of felt like the only way to fully reconnect to that was to make a big change in my life.â
Gordon talked to his parents and made amends, and John Bickford returned to the place he had been for most of Gordonâs life âÂ the guy in charge. He now is president of Jeff Gordon, Inc.
âI had a lot of stress and guilt the entire time that my parents and I had our âÂ I donât know what I should call it âÂ where they were not working with me and for me the way they had,â Gordon said. âEven though I went forward with it and it happened, I was carrying a lot of guilt, like, âGosh, that didnât go the way I wanted it to go.â
âHad we done a more natural progression of it, they would have been fine. I think they knew I was being pushed from the outside and that the things I was saying were not necessarily the way I typically would have gone about things. They werenât happy about that. Because it was coming from me, it hurt them even more.
âI thought later that maybe we could piece it back together, but I realized I had hurt them too much. Too much had been said. Too much had been done.â
Since the reconciliation, the Bickfords, Gordon, his second wife, Ingrid, and their children, Ella and Leo, have been close. In this final season of competition for Gordon, everyone has been along for the ride.
One of the yearâs big moments âÂ in a season of them âÂ occurred June 14 in Rio Linda, when the Bickfords accompanied Gordon on a return visit to Roy Hayer Memorial Speedway (formerly Cracker Jack), the tiny track where Gordon started racing.
It was a rare moment for Gordon, now 44, and his parents, an opportunity to reconnect with friends from those long-ago years. The Bickfords clearly were in their element, moving from family to family around the track as they shared stories and memories of the days when their children raced against each other. The jokes âÂ and the smiles âÂ were frequent.
âTo have them there at Rio Linda knowing that Iâm going to be closing out my career and having the relationship where it is today was unbelievable,â Gordon said. âI donât even know if our relationship would be like it is today if it werenât for the experience we went through. I hate we went through it and went through it the way we did, but weâre way stronger now because of it.â
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PHOTOS: NASCAR Cup champions