Any sport is ultimately all about the numbers, right? Here's Jeff Gordon -- four-time winner of what's now called the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, three-time Daytona 500 winner, first driver to reach $100 million in series winnings -- and all I really want to say to him is, "Wow! 190 miles an hour! Wow!"
The California-born Gordon is one of the second-generation stars of NASCAR, and on Sunday, he brings his No. 24 car to Fontana's Auto Club Speedway, where he's won before, to try to shake out a little more gold from the Golden State. He's fresh off a big win in Phoenix and a little chat with Jay Leno, and he doesn't just spin his wheels when it comes to contemplating his sport and his place in it.
You win the Phoenix Cup after a 66-race winless streak, and that same night you're at the Vanity Fair Oscar party!
It doesn't get much better than that. It was like one of those fairytale 24 hours. The way our day went at the racetrack, celebrating a victory that's been a while, and then a good friend of mine, John Lasseter at Pixar [Oscar winner for "Toy Story 3"], [invited] us to a couple of parties. We were on the red carpet and people were asking about "Toy Story," and he said, "No, wait a minute -- Jeff won the race!"
I've seen that Phoenix trophy; no way could you take it to the party.
That's what I was bummed about. I've seen people carrying the Oscars around, and I wanted to carry my trophy and I thought, "OK, that's not gonna pass -- a big cactus."
You'll be doing a role in "Cars 2"?
It's a small role, but I'm really excited about it. John is a big NASCAR fan, and I didn't get an opportunity to be in the first "Cars" movie.
I think of NASCAR and your own story, a young guy out of Vallejo and then Indiana, a racing star, then a slump, then back to victory lane. The story is what people like as much as the sport, isn't it?
Absolutely. When I came in and started doing well, I had a rivalry with Dale Earnhardt Sr. It was my fans against his fans. It created a lot of buzz and the sport was growing and we were racing in new locations; the sport was at such a cool place. Now I've gone through some downs; I think people have maybe seen the real person. You go through a divorce and not win as much -- that's what made [the Phoenix win] so huge.
That's what I tell [teammate and five-time champion] Jimmie [Johnson] all the time: People are going to need to see you struggle a little bit, and I know you don't want to do that, but that's what resonates with the fans.
I read that at a banquet in New York, Earnhardt sent you a Champagne glass full of milk and called you wonder boy. Was that personal, or part of the game?
He liked to poke fun at me. I was the kid and he was the older guy who had all the fans, and that really did resonate with the hardcore NASCAR fans. He could make fun of me and get away with it. He made a joke, "I don't know what they're going to do if Jeff Gordon wins the championship -- I don't even think he's old enough to drink, they'll have to serve him milk." So the milk thing was my idea, and I had them bring the milk to me so I could toast him and have some fun with him.
More safety measures were put in place after Earnhardt crashed and died in 2001. What balance between risk and safety works for the sport?
We've taken huge steps since Dale's death, from [head and neck support] devices to safer barriers. I look back at some crashes I had 10, 15 years ago and I feel kind of lucky to have survived some of them. What we do out there, it's dangerous, but focusing on safety -- it's just the smart way of going about it. When you put yourself at risk every single weekend, accidents are going to happen, and I want to know I'm protected.
You're originally from Vallejo. Does California have any hold on you?
Yeah, you don't ever forget where you came from. My career in racing started at a very young age in California. And now I have my own wine produced in Napa Valley. We have a Cabernet, a Pinot, a Chardonnay, and we also do a blend. We've won a bunch of awards this year. I'm very proud of it. As I get older, my appreciation for wine has just increased. I fell in love with wine through my travels, but knowing what the wine country is all about definitely makes it my own.
You have a place in New York City. When people in New York say they can drive, I think it means they can turn right at 5 mph looking for a parking spot.
I disagree! I think driving in New York is a great experience. A lot more racing techniques go into it than anyplace else I've ever driven. There basically are no lanes. You have to be very offensive, meaning that you do your own thing and make your lane changes and turns, and as long as the other people are doing the same thing, there's not a lot of accidents for the close quarters you're in. I love the challenge of getting to that next light. It's sort of like every block is a race. I don't like to get beat in anything!
You told Times sportswriter Shav Glick several years ago, "It's not racing I love, it's winning."
I like the competition and I enjoy what comes with the competition. I think a lot of people think, aaah, you're a race car driver so you're an adrenaline junkie. Some guys might be, but for me, I'm just very competitive and racing was the thing I could be very competitive at.
You hosted "Saturday Night Live" in 2003 -- a big crossover moment.
The funny thing was, I got an invitation and I turned it down. I was like an idiot: "I'm a racecar driver, I can't do Saturday Night Live." A friend of mine from New York, I was telling him the story, and he said, "Are you crazy?" A couple of months later I got another invitation and I did it. I'm so glad; it was one of the most enjoyable experiences, even thought it was nerve-wracking!
There are stereotypes of NASCAR fans just as there are stereotypes of opera fans. How much is true and how much isn't?
Some of it's true. We drive race cars for a living, and NASCAR was born in the South and still its strongest fan base is in the South. But when people come to a race they see the avidness, as well as the mass numbers -- they think of the Super Bowl, but every week it's like the Super Bowl. And they see the higher-end aspect that comes from sponsors, and I think people are pretty amazed. [They] see that this is a major business that we run to provide these race cars, to get these cars to the track every weekend, and the hundreds of people it takes to do it and the millions of dollars that are spent.
And did you see "Talladega Nights"?
Unfortunately, yes. I love Will Ferrell, and we have a sport that's easy to make fun of. I like "Days of Thunder" better, I'll put it that way.
Do you choose your sponsors? Are there some that you'd say, "That's not a good fit for me"?
Let's be honest, in recent years, with the economy, you can't be too picky. I've been very fortunate [that] a company like DuPont took a chance on a young rookie, and they were with us for 18 years. I've been getting razzed a little about the AARP and the AARP foundation [sponsoring his car as part of a "Drive to End Hunger" initiative], but when you see what we're able to do, the sponsorship is very cool.
But you're a long way from retirement.
Driving on a competitive level in the Cup Series is not something I'm planning on doing until I'm 50 or 55, but who knows? If I can stay healthy and competitive, I enjoy it too much to just walk away for no reason.
You've also got your foundation to help sick children.
I've always wanted to help kids, but being a parent, that's taken it to a whole 'nother level. I can't imagine what some of these parents have to go through. We have a children's hospital in North Carolina and over the holidays, I had my daughter [Ella, 3] go with me and hand [gift bags] to children at the hospital. I thought the first thing she'd want to do was open up the bag and look inside, but she didn't; she handed it to them and told them she hoped they'd feel better. That was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
What do you make of the controversy in Congress over the Army spending $7 million to sponsor a NASCAR car?
As somebody who was sponsored by the National Guard for a couple of years, when you see the military presence that comes to the racetrack every weekend and you spend time with the troops, I got to see what goes on behind the scene, when it comes to marketing [and] recruiting. We don't want to have go to war, we don't want to have to send troops out there, but it's been part of our country since its inception. I see [the military] sending kids through school who otherwise might not have gotten their GED or job opportunities. There's risk involved, but I see the other side of it as well. The military, they have marketing budgets just like corporations and that's part of how they do the recruiting and part of how our military works. So when somebody tries to attack it, I feel it's somebody who isn't fully educated on everything that goes on.
People think they can write just because they own a computer. Are there people who think they're NASCAR material just because they can drive?
Of course! When I was in high school and I was racing, I had other kids going, "Hey, I could drive that race car. Put me in there and I'll show you," and I'm thinking that until people get in that position, it's hard to tell whether they can do it.
Have you driven an electric car?
I've actually driven the new Volt and have one on order. The only problem is that you don't know if it's running! The technology is incredible, and I'm a big supporter of things that are better for the environment. I'm loving the things going on with biofuels, and we're getting into that in NASCAR.
You pay attention to gas prices?
It makes me feel old when I look at gas prices; I'm like, "Wait a minute -- when I was 16, filling my first car up, it was like a dollar!"
What's the weirdest thing anyone's asked you to autograph?
A prosthetic. The technology has come a long way. They have these "wraps," a picture image wrapped into the prosthetic. I've seen my car, my face, my car number on a prosthetic arm or leg. It's pretty cool!
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.