DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Despite a rocky run at the Daytona 500, held here this past Sunday, Jeff Gordon is still moving in high gear.
A collision with fellow racer Tony Stewart on the 48th lap of the course caused Gordon — the defending Daytona champ — to finish a disappointing 26th in this year's race, but the veteran driver doesn't dwell too long on the past. He's too busy looking forward. Despite the packed schedule of race weekend, he took time to help promote a new Elizabeth Arden men's fragrance called Daytona 500.
Not that he needs the money: His prize earnings over 15 years of NASCAR races are said to be more than $75 million and endorsement deals probably have pushed that total over $100 million. But the 34-year-old Gordon is beginning to think about life beyond the track. Although he says his retirement is still several years off, he doesn't plan to be racing in 10 years.
"If I'm not out there winning, I don't want to be out there," he said emphatically. "That's what it's all about.
"In some way, I will always be a part of racing," he continued. "As a driver? Probably not at this level 10 years from now. I love racing, but there are other things in my life that I don't want to pursue today, but that I'm looking forward to when that time comes. The business side of racing has been exciting to me — I do have fun with the marketing, and I enjoy doing things like Regis and Kelly. Hollywood? I'm not an actor, but if it fits and the opportunity comes around, like ‘Saturday Night Live' did, [then I will]. I don't want to be a full-time actor, but I enjoy being able to dabble in it when it makes sense."
Gordon has guest-hosted "Live With Regis and Kelly" eight times, and has also been a guest host on "Saturday Night Live." And he has been featured in numerous ad campaigns, for everything from Pepsi to Foster Grant sunglasses, over the years. His primary sponsor is DuPont, and besides his relationship with Arden — a three-year contract to represent Halston Z-14, which he signed in spring 2004 — Gordon has deals with Pepsi and Tag Heuer. The driver's name even appears on wines produced by Briggs & Sons Winemaking, a Calistoga, Calif., winery.Still, he's not ready to give up racing. He is a three-time Daytona 500 winner, having taken the trophy in 1997, 1999 and 2005. He is a four-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion (in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001) and a three-time champion of the Nextel All-Star Challenge (in 1995, 1997 and 2001), among many other honors. And one race does not a season make. The Nextel Cup season title is determined by a point system that involves 26 races. After the 26th race of the season, all drivers in the top 10, as well as any others within 400 points of the leader, compete in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. The scores here, combined with the points accrued earlier in the season, decide the winner. For instance, Gordon lost the Daytona 500 in 1995, yet finished first in total points for the season, handily winning the title.
Even though he's the one behind the wheel, Gordon gives the lion's share of the credit for his success to his crew. "We've made a lot of changes over the off-season, and we needed to," Gordon said, alluding to 2005 as a "tough year. We know we're capable of doing a lot more than that, and there's a lot of excitement in the team right now, not to mention the changes to try to step the performance up. The personnel side of it is very important. We've made changes in the pit crew and crew chief."
Before heading to the racetrack last weekend, Gordon gave an interview at an event here promoting Arden's new Daytona 500 scent. The juice, which Arden calls a "fresh, masculine modern fragrance," has top notes of yuzu, bergamot and mandarin; a heart of tarragon, sage, maté and watery accord, and a drydown of nutmeg, cardamom, amber and sandalwood. The bottle, inspired by race cars, is a clear glass cylinder with a silver chrome rim and red and black accents. The collection comprises eaux de toilette, 1.7 oz. for $30 and 3.4 oz. for $40; a 3.4-oz. aftershave pour, $30, and a $45 gift set with a 3.4-oz. eau de toilette and a 3.4-oz. aftershave. It will launch in April at J.C. Penney and Sears. Sources say it could do $10 million at retail in its first year on counter.Arden is not the only beauty company that has headed to the track. Rival L'Oréal signed Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2002 to represent its Drakkar Noir scent — and for good reason. The sport's 75 million fans, 40 percent of whom are women, are loyal, and they like to buy. Arden president and chief operating officer Paul West underscored that point by alluding to the strong sales of Halston Z-14. The spicy juice, with a bottle designed by jewelry designer and former Halston model Elsa Peretti, was originally released in 1976. Until Gordon appeared on the scene — with ads that broke in February 2005 — the fragrance was said to be doing about $10 million at retail a year. While he didn't confirm the number, West did say that sales of Halston Z-14 have risen 50 percent since Gordon's ads began appearing.
"I didn't know I could look that good," Gordon said with a chuckle, pointing to the 5 o'clock shadow he's sporting in the Halston Z-14 print ad. "My other sponsors make me shave — most of the time, that is."
And Gordon, who jokes that for a long time he was the only non-smelly guy in Victory Lane, remains enthusiastic about winning new users for the brand. "Oh, heck, yeah — we've already got them converted! You walk into that track," he laughed, "and it smells like a big Elizabeth Arden counter. These guys are doing everything they can to cover up the smells of burning rubber and gasoline!"
This spring, three limited-edition gift sets, including mini stock cars and cooler bags, will be released to a number of retailers, including J.C. Penney, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart. Gordon doesn't necessarily see a women's Halston Z-14 version in the offing: "I think we all hope that men are buying it because they want to smell good for their wives, and we hope women are buying it because they like the way it smells on their husbands. We want everyone buying this brand.
"Although," he added with a laugh, "maybe my girlfriend [model Ingrid Vandebosch] might be interested in doing a women's scent."
Between laps on the track at Daytona, Gordon, an ardent philanthropist, was fulfilling a Make-a-Wish child's dream to be part of the day (the 150th such wish he's been a part of). He founded the Jeff Gordon Foundation, a nonprofit 501c (3) organization, in 1999. The foundation provides support for several designated charities — including the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the Marrow Foundation, the Hendrick Marrow Foundation, the Riley Hospital for Children and the Jeff Gordon Children's Hospital at Northeast Medical Center in Concord, N.C., a 26,800-square-foot facility scheduled to open later this year. Gordon's foundation also supports other charities on a case-by-case basis.Many celebrities pay lip service to the idea of philanthropy, but when Gordon gets passionate about the charities he supports and why, you tend to believe the guy isn't in it for the p.r. value. "Most of the foundation's work is geared around leukemia, because my first crew chief's son was diagnosed with leukemia when he was one," said Gordon, leaning forward in his chair. "We added bone marrow charities after that — Rick Hendrick [owner of Hendrick Motorsports, a major racing force] was diagnosed with leukemia, and he then started the Hendrick Marrow Foundation, so we also support that. And Make-a-Wish is a great organization — with the sick kids, whatever their wish is, they make it happen. A lot of them have cancer. I found out a lot of kids want to come to the races."
In some ways, Gordon feels that he gets more out of it than the kids do. "Coming face-to-face with these kids, seeing the strength they're showing, it really is humbling to me — and it makes me want to do more. But it also really helps put things in perspective for me in life, and it feels great to be able to put a smile on a kid's face, especially a kid that hasn't had a lot to smile about."
Speaking of perspective — do the risks of his chosen profession ever come to mind as he's racing? "The longer you're out there, the more comfortable you get," said Gordon of racing at speeds topping 180 miles per hour. "Over the years, I've gotten more comfortable. But fear is definitely part of the fabric of our sport. If I didn't have fear, I'd crash all the time, because I wouldn't know my limits. So having fear is important, because it keeps you from going over the edge."
That need for speed is something he's felt since early childhood. "I was a daredevil kid, and I lived on a big steep hill," he said of his Northern California hometown of Vallejo, where he and his older sister Kim spent part of their childhood. "Every day when I'd get home from school, it was all about 'What can we ride down this hill and survive?'" Gordon said with a chuckle, remembering that his mother, Carol, had told his stepfather, John Bickford, that a bicycle he'd given five-year-old Gordon was too dangerous — which led to the purchase of a quarter-midget race car, setting Gordon on his path. "We tried bicycles, skateboards. I remember going to the junkyard and finding a little pedal car, and we rode that down the hill. [John] thought I would be the next A.J. Foyt, but I was just having fun."Still, it often doesn't feel like he's going that fast, Gordon said. "When you're out there going 180, 190 miles an hour, lap after lap after lap, it feels like 55," he said. "It usually feels like that, until something goes wrong. And that's when fear kicks in as well. I realize how dangerous it is, and we prepare the best we can. We protect ourselves, make it as safe as possible, and NASCAR does as well. And you've got to be smart. You can't be out there just acting silly. You're racing with professionals, and everyone has to act like professionals."
Surprisingly, Gordon says he's no speed demon when it comes to the freeways. "Everybody gives me a hard time [there] because they think I drive too slow," he said with a laugh. "I think I get it out of my system on the racetrack. I haven't had a speeding ticket in quite some time, and even then it was usually because I was on the cell phone, talking and not paying attention to the fact that I'd just gone through a speed zone."
On the track or off, Gordon loves what he does for a living. "I think what's kept me going over the years is seeing that checkered flag," Gordon said. "To see that checkered flag waving at you, it changes your whole life."
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