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How Jeff Gordon ended up down south

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  • How Jeff Gordon ended up down south

    This is an email Linda Conti just sent me and I thought it would clear some things up, first, a little back ground. Linda used to work for Simpson Safety fitting helmets and uniforms in CART, NASCAR and F1. As mentioned in her note, she and her husband David owned several different teams inclunding the Robby McGehee car that finished 5th at the 1999 Indy 500. We're lucky to have her help us on WIBC in May and July with our race coverage

    Guess I'm feeling a little "Nostalgic" today with Lil John Butterra's passing. Clicked on Track Forum Nostalgia page to see if anyone had posted news about his death and found this.

    Question about Jeff Gordon and Indy Cars in the 90’s Saw this post on Track Forum today. I'm not registered and have never posted, but thought you might like to know the real story.

    This just amazes me that some how some small way I was part of history way back when...

    Back in the early 90's, may have been 1990 ( I'm not Donald Davidson!) Jeff was winning all of the Thursday night Thunder races. John and Carol Bickford had relocated from Valeo to Pittsboro. Our shop was/still is on 150 E theirs was on 100 E. Only place to have lunch in those days was Corner Cafe on Main Street ( now a veterinary clinic) or Blue & White ( now Luvs) truck stop. For some reason we never went to Frank & Mary's. We never ran into them, but one day I decided to give them a call and see if Jeff was interested in open wheel. He said all he wanted to do was race Indy car and win the Indy 500. Rick Mears was his hero. We were running Super Vee at the time and winning lots of races with a few different drivers.

    Spoke with Carol and we decided to meet at Corner Cafe. To say we hit it off immediately would be an understatement. Bickford was a true racer and so were we.

    We spent the next few months having lunch each day and swapping race stories. It was a fun time, we would come back on Mondays with tales from the last CART race, they would come back with tales from Bloomington, Salem, Winchester, etc.

    Larry Neuber was working as a pit reporter for ESPN at the time and he was trying to do some PR for Jeff on the side. Think he eventually was released over it and he went on to do PR for ASA. Nice guy.

    We ended up putting together a test day for Jeff in a Super Vee. We had a driver's car sitting at the shop. He owed us a bit of money, so we figured what the heck. I scrambled to get IRP to give us free track time. VP Fuel gave us a 55 gallon jug of race gas. Hoosier sent us tires. That was weird since we had always run Goodyears. One of our team sponsors gave us a few grand to cover any other costs. Jeff ended up being as quick as the Ralt drivers in less then ten laps in the car.. Only people at the test were David, Jose David ( our Brazilian driver from the previous year) , Brian Alexander, Jeff's Mom and I. Larry Neuber brought a crew from ESPN and they showed a little segment before the next Thursday Night Thunder. Think I have an old VHS tape of it if I haven’t taped over it.

    He spun once in the Carousel. Thank God he didn't crash or we would have had to tell the driver what we did with his car. To this day, he never knew that Jeff Gordon drove his car. Several years later, he finally paid his bill and we took him out for a test. He was a real trim guy, but couldn't figure out how the seat belts could have "shrunk" so much. Little did he know that we forgot to readjust them after Jeff drove.

    Short story long, just before Cleveland CART race, we asked Jeff if he wanted to tag along with us to the race. We were staying at a friend’s house in Cleveland Heights. Jeff was dressed in his best polo shirt and chinos. He had prepared a one page bio. I took him around and introduced him to all of the team owners in CART and INDY Lights. Those that would give him a minute of their time, only wanted to know how much money he could bring. John Andretti was driving the Pennzoil car for Jim Hall. I remember John trying to get Jim to take a minute to talk to Jeff, but he could have cared less. Don't think Carl Hass even said Hello to him. Foyt was the only one that spent any amount of time talking with him. Remember the drive home from Cleveland. It was just Jeff, David and I. Jeff was pretty dejected. Thought teams might actually want to hire him because he had talent. Said Foyt told him" get the hell away from these assholes and go NASCAR racing. They actually want a driver not a check."

    Never heard Jeff mention the Indy 500 after that. Bickford set up some deal with Buck Baker and Jeff did his driving school. Buck was blown away by his car control. After that think it was pretty well decided that Jeff was heading south although I do remember Bickford coming to lunch one day and he said" You will never guess in a million years who called today" He was right, we never would have guessed, it was Jackie Stewart. He thought the Jeff was an amazing talent and he wanted to see if he had any interest in moving to Europe and running formula cars. Think Jeff went through the Skip Barber School at Elkhart for a 3 day school. He thought the cars were crap ( they were!) and he had already made up his mind to leave open wheel behind.

    Jeff ended up going through Mike Louscher's school and was courted by Ford. They were real high on Robby Gordon and Jeff at the time. Ended up placing Jeff with Bill Davis Racing. Remember him coming home and bringing us t-shirt with the Baby Ruth sponsorship. It was a big deal. Jeff also had his black side step truck for sale because Ford was going to give him a car in Charlotte. Jeff thought it was just hysterical that they guy that bought it wanted Jeff to pose with him for pictures next to the truck and he wanted Jeff to autograph the truck. I imagine we will see that truck run through Barrett Jackson someday.

    Jeff’s former sprint car mechanic, Andy Graves went to work for Hendricks Motorsports. He and Jeff co owned a house down the road from the speedway in Concord. Jeff wasn’t that happy at Bill Davis and Bickford was always thinking two steps a head of where they were running. Andy ended up talking to Rick Hendricks about Jeff and the rest is history.

    Funny how thing have a way of coming full circle. Several years later, I was working with Greg Ray on his IRL program. Thomas Knapp had started the season as a team manager for Team Green. Tom’s people skills or lack there of only lasted a few months. He ended up calling me the day they fired him and was trying to find another job. A few weeks earlier, Peter Collins, former owner of Team Lotus, and his wife came to town. They stayed at my house for a few days. We had become friends when I worked over in F1 when Mika Hakkinen and Johnny Herbert drove for him. After losing the team in bankruptcy

    he was toying with come over here and starting a CART team. He had set up some meetings with Leo Mehl and some of the other CART owners. He ended up dropping his plans a few weeks later, but only after I had made a bunch of calls on his behalf to find a car ( from Foyt) , motors and some old equipment to run Indy. Well, I had done all of this work, but the funds never came up to start the team. Then Thomas called, he wanted to put together an Indy Lights program with Greg Ray. Told him to skip it and have Greg’s parents front the money to do an Indy only program. Tom called in a favor from some friend that ran the “Ash Kickers” anti smoking campaign in Arizona. Think he threw in $200,000. We were on our way. Funny thing was that here I was running Greg in the “Anti Smoking car” and David was running Matt Sielski in the “Team KOOL Green” Formula 2000. The press would have had a field day with that one if they ever would have figured out that Dave and I were married!

    Morning after the IRL race at Texas, my cell phone rings as we are all headed to the airport. Greg had run top ten and run a great race. The whole team was in the van. Other end of the phone was Barry Green. Think he is calling me again to give me **** about me running the “Anti Tobacco” car while my husband is getting paid by KOOL. To my surprise, he was all friendly and complimentary about our run the previous night. I know something is wrong with this conversation. Well he finally cuts to the chase. KOOL want’s Jeff to drive for them in Indy Cars. They want an American, more specifically, they want Jeff. Plan is that Jeff will run one or two years in CART then move to Europe where they are planning on starting a F1 team. Only problem is that they can’t get passed Jeff’s manager Bob Branhan. Would I help them?

    This is during the time that Jeff and his parents were estranged. None of Jeff’s family or friend’s liked the first Mrs. Gordon. After the wedding, she cut everyone out of his life. Guess I wasn’t important enough, because I wasn’t on the black list. Ended up that I was planning on going to MIS for the upcoming Cup Race. I had left racing full time at this point to go to work in the brokerage business. Had been working at Merrill Lynch when we took Penske tracks public and I had some follow up work to do at the track.

    Ran into Jeff as soon as I walked into the garage area. Didn’t know it, but he was coming out of the infield care center because he had just crashed. Told him that I had left a few messages for Bob Branhan and him about this Team KOOL Green deal. He said” he thought I was joking with him”. Gave him the details, CART 1-2 years then F1. “Name your price, British American Tobacco has deep pockets.” He asked me if Barry Green was one of the “assholes” that he met at Cleveland a few years back. Told him I couldn’t remember. He told me to have some fun negotiating on his behalf, but he wasn’t going anywhere. Thought about getting the guys at BAT and Team Green all reved up in a non existent bidding war, but thought better of it. Why burn bridges and **** people off. Ended up calling Barry Green later that day and telling him that there just wasn’t enough money to make up for Cleveland. He didn’t get what I was taking about, but now you do.

    PS: One more thing to add. When Jeff came to run the F1 car at the speedway we were still at Riley w Lucca. Carol and Jeff picked up David on their way to the test. Brian Alexander was already at the track. Jeff hopped out of the car after the first run and imediately went to David to tell him it wasn't a Super Vee, but it sure was fun. I watched it live on Speed Tv.
    I wanted to be there but couldn't tear myself away from the NICU. Found out several months later that Jeff made a SIGNIFICANT donation to the Riley NICU that day.

    (Lucca is Linda and Dave's son who spent a lot of time at Riley Hospital for Children here in Indianapolis)
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  • #2
    Thanks for sharing, Dave... and I always look forward to hearing from Linda in the month of May.


    • #3
      Just awesome!
      Some people will do nearly anything in order to be able to not do anything.


      • #4
        Great story !
        SENسR MODERATOR......

        "Better To Be Judged By Twelve Than Carried By Six"
        " Only Those Who Will Risk Going Too Far....Can Possibly Find Out How Far One Can Go "...T.S. Elliot....


        • #5
          no comment needed
          thanks to the poster and to Linda
          Quando Omni Flunkus Moritati


          • #6
            Thanks for setting the record straight.

            On another note - Lil' John is dead? The two pioneers of 'high-tech' street rodding die within days of each other. Good grief.
            "It was actually fun, because you're back fully driving again in these trucks. Ninety percent of the tracks we go to in the IRL, you're flat-out. I was having to lift off the corners some here." - Buddy Rice


            • #7
              Nice story, Linda!

              You should think about doing a book with all that history and share it with the racing world.


              • #8
                Excellent story!


                • #9
                  Thank you.


                  • #10
                    I had heard this as "rumor" but you know what you can do at a bank with that.

                    They really could not see the forest because of the trees. I wonder how much different open wheel could have been if sombody had listened to reason at Cleveland. A.J. was correct - surprise, surprise - but even he could have done something different.

                    This reminds of the story about the "big one that got away" - but it was for real.
                    Witnessed Mario's "Miracle at Indy"...Watched 3 win their 4th Indy 500...Was there for Petty's 200th win...Saw the last Novi qualify


                    • #11
                      Wow, wow, wow, all I can say is wow. She needs to write a book. Thank her for sharing this.


                      • #12
                        Jackie who...


                        • #13
                          great stuff.




                          • #14
                            Thanks, Dave, and thank you, Linda
                            "Each day well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well therefore to this one day for it, and it alone, is life"
                            ~ Sanskrit poem attributed to Kalidasa, "Salutation to the Dawn"

                            Brian's Wish


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by Cause of the yellow
                              John Andretti was driving the Pennzoil car for Jim Hall.
                              To pinpoint the year exactly, that would have had to been Cleveland 1991. In 1990, John was driving the second Porsche Indy entry. Hall VDS's first CART season was 1991 (John drove, and won their very first race...Surfer's Paradise).


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