Speed Demon : Next Week at the Indy 500, Robby Gordon Will Be Racing Against the Best in the World--and His Own Reputation for Dangerous Driving.

Peter McAlevey is a motion picture producer and a former Newsweek correspondent

SCREAMING DOWN SHORELINE DRIVE IN HIS REGAL BLUE VALVOLINE LOLA-FORD race car at three times the national speed limit, Robby Gordon all but pounds on the steering wheel in frustration. Italian driver Teo Fabi, in the bright yellow Pennzoil-sponsored car, is blocking his path.

With the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach just laps from the finish, Gordon is sitting safely in third place, but every nerve ending in his body is telling him he can catch the leaders, Al Unser Jr. and Nigel Mansell, who are within sight, just beyond Fabi.

Gordon knows he should be able to leapfrog a back-marker like Fabi. After all, he qualified seven places ahead of the Italian, who is now a lap behind. The problem is, Gordon's car is seriously down on power, so instead of being able to pass Fabi easily on the straightaway, he'll have to try to take him on the twisty back side of the Long Beach course. In the dangerous curves, driving skill can compensate for lack of power.

"Take it easy," comes the radioed order from Valvoline team owner and manager Derrick Walker as Gordon flashes by the pits. "Pace it."

In previous years, Robby Gordon might have ignored such advice and followed his instincts, risking everything trying to pass in the curves. In 1993, his first full year in Indy car racing, a similar maneuver here at Long Beach landed him on the sidelines, disqualified for deliberately crashing into another car after they came together on the same curve.

Which set the tone for Gordon's season. That DQ for rough driving--virtually unheard of in a sport where rubbed wheels and swapped paint are everyday occurrences--combined with nine accidents in his first six races. By midseason the rookie had gone from "Flash" Gordon, the fair-haired boy of Indy car racing, to "Crash" Gordon. No one doubted he was fast, the question was, could he ever learn to control it?

What a difference a year makes. With 85,000 fans lining Shoreline Drive, straining against the catch fences, waiting for the pass, Gordon makes a non -move. In front of him, it's clear that Fabi is in his own battle with another driver and could easily miss seeing Gordon's go-around attempt. It isn't hard to imagine a crackup--Fabi punting Gordon into the course-side tire barriers or another car--and Robby Gordon risking life and limb while blowing another race.

So Gordon swallows his frustration. When he hears Walker's gravelly, Scots-accented voice say "pace it" over the two-way radio, he does just that, reining himself in and holding on for a respectable finish. In the pits, Walker's stiff jaw relaxes into a smile.

GRAND PRIX SUNDAY DAWNED CHILLY AND OVERCAST IN LONG BEACH, but by the time Gordon jumped up on the three-tiered podium last month to accept his third-place award, the marine layer had rolled back to reveal resplendent late-afternoon sun. With the winner, Unser, and second-place finisher Mansell, Gordon accepted the accolades of the crowd and spent nearly a quarter of an hour taking off and putting on sponsor hats for photographers from around the world. It was his first podium finish of the year, and it was doubly sweet: As an Orange County kid, not only was it nice to finish well before the hometown crowd, but it helped to make up for last year's defeat.

"I'm the worst loser of them all," Gordon readily admits the next day, at his race shop in an Anaheim industrial park, close to Disneyland and the Big A. "You show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser."

But now, at the age of 25, he says he understands that there's losing and there's losing. His day in Long Beach began with the discovery that his car was running slow (a valve problem it turned out). So from the start, he and Walker were determined to pace the race, counting on the action coming back to Gordon as the faster runners burned themselves out over the course of the 166-mile event. Even though he was tempted to change that game plan, Gordon opted to win by losing: "I wanted to pass Fabi," he says, complaining that Walker had him driving at 75% capacity by the end, "but it would have meant a chance at missing the podium finish, so I didn't."

Gordon has hoisted himself up onto a counter in the immaculate shop. Across from him, a team of mechanics is working on a gleaming desert-racing truck that he will be driving this year when he isn't taking care of his Indy car duties. Sandy-haired and movie-star handsome, Gordon smiles a lot. For all his brashness, he's almost shy, and when it comes to talking about his 1993 season, he puts on a sheepish look. He knows that he has to live down a rambunctious reputation. "You can't finish first if you don't first finish" goes an old racing saw. Gordon laughs: "I've heard it a thousand times over the last year."

To be fair, disappointment over Gordon's results last year can be traced in part to impossible expectations and an overload of pressure. The hype surrounding him has been intense, and more than slightly jingoistic. The idea is that Gordon, who has been a dominant force in off-road racing since his debut at age 16, will reinvigorate U.S. hopes on the Indy car circuit, a 16-stop series that includes the Indy 500 and the race in Long Beach.

Indy cars--900-horsepower, lightweight, open-wheel racers--have long symbolized U.S. industrial know-how. And the Indianapolis 500, the cars' signature race, remains the world's single most-watched automotive event; it is the fastest (speeds average more than 220 m.p.h.) and most prestigious car race in the world. But Indy cars and even the 500 have taken on an international flavor. Next week, for example, Ford will be the only U.S. automobile manufacturer competing at Indianapolis, and it is facing incipient challenges from Mercedes, which is returning to Indy competition for the first time since 1915, as well as Honda and Toyota. Foreign sponsors and drivers will abound. At Long Beach this year, the warm-up event for the 500, 12 of the first 16 drivers were born outside the United States; Gordon alone represented new American talent near the head of the field (the other top Americans, Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti are veterans).

Gordon wasn't shy about playing to his image as the great American hope. Before he had ever won an Indy car race, he named himself among the top five drivers on the circuit. And early in 1993, it seemed as though he might actually live up to that assessment. The year before, his best finishes had been twin eighths, in Toronto and Cleveland. Over the winter, Gordon signed on with the racing team led by legendary four-time 500 winner A.J. Foyt. In the 1993 Indy car opener, the Surfer's Paradise Grand Prix in Australia, he placed third behind two former world champions, Mansell and Emerson Fittipaldi.

But then came Long Beach.

Today, Gordon says he was simply following Foyt's orders when he drew the disqualification for running Eddie Cheever off the track. Cheever had cut off Gordon at the sharp turn from Shoreline, knocking him out of contention for a podium finish. Foyt, considered to be the most pugnacious driver of the modern Indy era, apparently told Gordon at a pit stop to deliver a pay-back and, according to Gordon, who never denied that the move was intentional, he performed as instructed.

The events at Long Beach might have been forgotten, if it hadn't been for what happened next in Indianapolis. During the weeks of training and hype that traditionally precede the 500, Gordon was at best inconsistent. He posted the seventh-fastest time around the oval, but he also cracked up several of his cars. In a very public dressing down, Foyt, who was driving in the race as well as running his team, ordered him off the track for a three-day cooling-off period. (When it was pointed out to Foyt that Gordon's style perfectly matched his own, Foyt was heard to mumble that it was OK for him to crack up half-million-dollar cars; after all, he owned them.)

Gordon started 25th at Indianapolis and finished 27th. And his next few races were again marred by crashes. He finished out the season quietly, making only about $800,000--big-money winners in Indy car racing make upward of $3 million--and it was clear that Foyt was not going to renew his contract. By then, Gordon's Darth Vader-like image was as well cemented as his potential. An ad appeared showing the other rising star of Indy car racing, Canadian Paul Tracy, in his white Penske car with Gordon's menacing black Ford bearing down on him. The copy line read: "Never has the future of Indy car racing been so black and white."

Gordon insists that despite the DQ, the crashes and Foyt's displeasure, the bad-boy image was simple misapprehension. The criticism "won't change my style," he says, "but it will teach me to be a little more cautious, to pay more attention to the big picture"--winning the Indy car championship and, eventually, the Indy 500 itself. "Last year, I got a reputation for crashing," he says ruefully. "I got this reputation from people who don't know me at all."

AS HIS MOM, MARLENE, REMEMBERS IT, GORDON COULDN'T WAIT TO GO fast, even as a kid. "At Christmas, 1970, when he was 11 months old, we got him a little electric car to ride on," she says, standing outside her Robby Gordon paraphernalia trailer at the Long Beach race. "The problem was that his foot couldn't reach the pedal. We had to tape the gas pedal down before he was happy." By his second birthday, Robby desperately wanted a kid-sized electric motorbike--which his parents refused until he came up with a compromise: He would stop sucking his thumb if he got one. Laughs Marlene: "Of course, he went back to sucking his thumb the minute he got the motorcycle."

Shortly thereafter the Gordons, who then lived in Lakewood, got a call from the police--their son had been terrorizing a neighbor's petunias. "I would ride up and down the streets, on the sidewalks, everywhere," Gordon told a reporter in 1989. "The police took me to the station and wouldn't let me go until my dad came and signed for me." By age 8, Gordon, whose father is prominent Southern California off-road racer Bob Gordon, was racing motorcyles competitively; by 10, gasoline-powered minibikes.

It wasn't a case of ego-driven parents pushing a child into something he wasn't ready for. While the entire family is almost impossibly white bread--these are the people East Coasters hate us for, the perfect postwar suburban family, the father with the granite-chinned face, the mother with the grace of Donna Reed--neither parent wanted him to follow in his father's footsteps. Or his great-grandfather's, for that matter--Robby's father's grandfather once held the San Francisco-to-L.A. racing record. His father tried to interest Robby in sports like baseball (a world champion Connie Mack-league pitcher, Bob Gordon was a Little League coach) or football (Robby, built with a defensive back's powerful shoulders and thin hips, played one season at Orange's El Modena High)--while his mother pressed academics ("His main interest seems to be racing cars," his first-grade teacher wrote on his report card).

Robby even managed to turn the family business to an advantage--Bob runs a thoroughbred feed business, supplying Southern California race tracks from Santa Anita to Del Mar. While the business is based in Los Alamitos, the feed itself is grown several hours away near the Mexican border in the Imperial Valley. There Robby would go every season to help with the hay harvest. And while the desert sun made it too hot to bale during the day, Robby would work all night with the laborers in the fields and ride his dirt bike all day. It paid off when, at age 13, he finished second at the world minibike grand prix in Ponca City, Okla.

Finally, after Robby broke too many bones on his motorcycle, his dad gave up and let him drive a race car--a dune buggy. At 16, an age when most teen-agers are worried about passing their road test, Robby Gordon won the first race he entered, the Nevada 500, against competitors more than twice his age. In an off-road truck less than two weeks later, he won his second, a Mickey Thompson stadium race, named after the late Southern California Indy car racer and world land-speed record holder who first put off-road truck racing into stadiums like Anaheim, the Coliseum and the Rose Bowl.

By 19, Robby had been discovered, first by Toyota, which hired him to drive its stadium-racing trucks, and then by Ford for its desert-racing division. Along the way, he managed to rewrite some rules--that season, the Toyota team won seven of eight races and "they couldn't come up with any way to keep us from winning," he says today. "They did everything they could, including changing the rules halfway through the season." Among the new rules: An inverted starting order, meaning the fastest qualifiers had to start in the back.

That was the beginning of Gordon's reputation for dirty driving--with only 12 laps in the short stadium heats, he had no choice but to push his way to the front as fast as he could, even if it meant elbowing more experienced drivers out of the way. As Walker Evans, the dean of off-road racing, told The Times in 1989: "He's leaned on a lot of guys and that doesn't sit too well with his competitors." On the other hand, he admitted, "he's talented and knows how to get to the front. You can't take that away from him."

A lot of observers who have looked at Gordon's fast rise in truck racing--and beyond--called him lucky. With his family background, they say, he had it easy. Gordon doesn't agree--his father made him earn every penny he spent on his racing cars and he passed up a normal teen-age lifestyle to pursue his racing career. "I must have missed out on a bunch of good parties," he says, laughing. "While my friends were out screwing around, we were either at a race, going to a race or coming from a race."

After he graduated from high school, Ford invited him to test its new racing sports car with an eye toward having him join its 1990 endurance racing team. Of the eight or nine drivers tried out, he was the only one with no pavement racing experience. Yet he was by far the fastest of them. Not only did Ford sign him up for its endurance races--Gordon has since won four Daytona 24-hour races in a row--but Roush Racing, Ford's International Motor Sports Assn. team, signed him to drive its sports cars for the entire road-racing season.

By far his most impressive performance that year was an amazing same-day victory in the off-road Baja 1000 and the IMSA finale at Del Mar. Under contract with Ford for desert racing, Gordon felt obligated to compete in both races. Fortunately for Gordon, the desert race started the day before the IMSA. After driving 17 hours to win the Baja 1000, at 6 Saturday morning, he drove 80 miles from race headquarters in Ensenada back to the border, arriving in Del Mar about 9:30 a.m. He drove a 15-minute warm-up, took a nap and woke just before the race. He started in the sixth position, and 46 laps later he had beaten the sports car-series champion Pete Halmser.

It was after yet another win at Del Mar the next year, as well as additional IMSA victories, that he finally attracted attention from the big boys of car racing. Chip Ganassi, a team owner whose drivers have been top racers for years, invited him onto his team in 1992, and Gordon became one of the few young racers to successfully negotiate the distance from motocross to desert truck events to sports cars on pavement to automobile racing's big time.

Ask Robby Gordon the secret of his success and he'll tell you it's simple competitiveness--he hates to lose and seldom has. His live-in girlfriend, Inge Stikbakke, a former Norwegian beauty queen who met Gordon when she handed him his trophy at Del Mar in 1992, calls that quite the understatement. On the way home from the race shop in Anaheim, she says, Gordon used to stop at a nearby video arcade. He had run into an elderly gentleman there and consistently lost to him in a video racing game. "Robby could not beat the guy and it ticked him off," Stikbakke says. He started getting home later and later, putting in practice time perfecting his moves. Finally, after days of pumping quarter after quarter into the video machines, Gordon whipped the old gent, and the real-time racer emerged victorious in cyberspace, too.

PHOENIX INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY LIES HARD AGAINST THE LOW SCRUB mountains that surround the city. Just outside the racetrack gates is the Fleming Thoroughbred Farm, home to more than 100 horses. Most days, the farm's co-owner, Marv Fleming, can hear the sound of the turbocharged Indy car engines bouncing off the mountains as he takes his horses on lap after workout lap. "Horse racing is all mental," says Fleming. "There are horses that just want to burst out of the gate and run as fast as they can, but they're done in half a mile. You've got to 'rate' them, teach them to go for the win."

Inside the raceway gates, Derrick Walker is proving that horse racing and car racing have much in common. It is early April, just weeks before the 1994 Long Beach Grand Prix, and Walker is "rating" Gordon. Walker, 49, started in racing as a mechanic, graduated to leading teams for Roger Penske, champion driver turned millionaire racing sponsor, and then in 1991, went out on his own as a team owner and manager. In his time, Walker has helped bring along such Indy champions as Rick Mears (another driver who came up from Southern California desert racing), Teo Fabi and Danny Sullivan.

For Gordon in particular, it's been a long learning process. "It's a big jump from off-road racing or sports cars up to Indy cars," says Walker. Gordon himself offers up a Zen-like definition of Walker's tutelage: "I've always been fast," he says proudly. "Now I'm learning how to go fast."

Some might say that it was once again a matter of luck that got Gordon back in an Indy car with a mentor like Derrick Walker. After 1993, it was clear that Gordon's one-year contract with Foyt's team would not be renewed. But then Al Unser Jr., who had raced for years under a Valvoline sponsorship, got another offer and left his contract behind. Valvoline, a subsidiary of Ashland Oil that pours up to $10 million a year into Indy racing, began to look for a successor. Its search came down to two drivers--rookie Gordon and Canadian Scott Goodyear. Goodyear had it all over Gordon in terms of experience, but, says Valvoline spokesman Mark Coughlin, it didn't hurt "that Gordon was an American." When Valvoline signed with Gordon, Gordon--and his Valvoline money--signed with Walker.

In 1993, Gordon had gotten in about a half-day's practice before the Phoenix race. This year, Walker has him running flat out around the track for four full days, experimenting with suspension settings and getting that all-important "seat time" that drivers talk about. Standing behind the pit wall as his young charge cracks out 190 m.p.h. laps, Walker says Gordon must forget about the naysayers and the pressure.

"If he can harness his natural capabilities," Walker says, "he's going to be one of the great drivers of Indy car racing. But it's not automatic. He's going to have to work for it. As an Indy car driver, he's just at Day One; he's got a lot of racing to do. The real question for Robby Gordon is not how great he will be, but how he controls his emotions.

"Learning to win at this level is what Robby's got to do--that's the difference between a fast driver and a great driver," says Walker. "What we're looking for now is consistency."

WITH THE INDIANAPOLIS 500 just a week away, both Walker and Gordon are feeling positive. In Australia in March, Gordon was running third until mechanical problems caused him to spin out and knocked him out of the competition. At Phoenix, the second race in the 1994 lineup and the short-term focus of all those practice laps, Gordon was in the lead before an error by his refueling team cost him seven positions.

Then the podium finish in Long Beach came as a kind of graduation ceremony. As the announcer said before handing Gordon his trophy, "It's a ways from desert trucks to Indy cars, but this guy has made the quantum leap."

Robby Gordon's biggest test will come next weekend at Indianapolis, when he finds out if he can maintain his momentum against the world's finest. Taking the microphone at Long Beach, Gordon displayed the new-found maturity his fans might see again at the 500: "We played it cautious today. We're looking forward to going to Indianapolis."

But don't expect him to play it too cautious there. "I've been a winner at everything I've tried," he says. "If I can't win at Indy cars, I'll have to find something else to do."

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