Most of you know me from covering the world of Pro Wrestling, but here’s what most of you don’t know: I was raised a NASCAR fan. I know, I know. How do I go from something hailed as so deeply uncool as NASCAR to the glamourous, sophisticated realm of big boy panty fights? It certainly wasn’t by avoiding self-deprecation, I can tell you that. But while I may have fallen out of the fandom quite a while ago (I still have to stop myself from calling it the Winston Cup), Jeff Gordon retiring is big enough news that it breaks through my safe little bubble of hockey and people getting hit in the head with sportsballs.
See, Jeff Gordon was hated in our house. Positively despised. In fact, not even Rusty Wallace – my sworn childhood enemy – drew as much ire as Gordon. While he shot to popularity, he just made everyone in my family grumpy as all heck.
I started watching NASCAR for the same reason a lot of us do boneheaded things in our youth: I wanted to get closer to my dad. He was technically my step-dad, but when you’re as young as I was, that kind of stuff doesn’t really matter. A lot of the things he did represented a sea change in our household. My mom was happy, I got new grandparents who lived outside of our teeny tiny small town (in another teeny tiny small town), and he introduced me to all sorts of things I don’t think I ever would have gotten into. I was thrust into a world of new experiences: movies I’d never heard of, music from all around the world, comic books that weren’t sold as Double Digests next to gum and chocolate bars at the grocery store. A lot of what shaped me into the giant weirdo adult came from those formative years. But Sundays, oh. Sundays were a treat. Sundays meant we got to go to his parents house, which meant one magical thing: cable.
I come from the type of poor you wish you never have to experience. While my grandparents on my dad’s side may not have been affluent by any means, they had things that, to a little kid with nothing, were the stuff of luxury. They had THREE televisions, all with cable, a big house, and special, separate dishes for holidays. I mean, they always had mayonnaise. That was fancy. Sundays meant enjoying all of the trappings that came along with your grandfather basically being the rural equivalent of Thurston Howell. Sundays also meant that one television was strictly devoted to NASCAR.
For over a decade I spent as many Sundays as I could watching NASCAR with my dad. The harsh truth is that, realistically NASCAR is really boring. We’d always be doing at least one other thing – sketching or reading, or, once me moved to Ontario and got cable of our own, working at the computer with the race on in the background. It didn’t matter what we did, it was just always on. We wouldn’t even speak that much. It was enough to just sit in the same room, united by this one dumb thing we always did. It was the type of quality time you treasure as a kid but grow up to realise is a warning sign that your dad was maybe kind of terrible and not cut out to be a parent in any way. But it was still our thing. We’d go to races at the track in town, and if I was lucky, we’d go to the Grand Prix in Halifax. One year we both eschewed sunscreen, and came home delirious from sunstroke, burnt as red as cooked lobsters. The days that followed were miserable, but again, it was ours. It was worth it.
Being from Nova Scotia, you don’t get to develop a lot of geographically-based fandoms. In hockey you could follow players you liked, or aim for one of the teams closest to you. My grandfather was a Bruins fan, the Habs were pretty popular across the board, and I was a wee little Nordiques fan. But somehow two of my uncles were Flyers fans, and one was a diehard Hartford Whalers devotee. We both share my grandfather’s nose and a love of doomed franchises, I guess. But that said, NASCAR was a southern sport. Real southern. There was no local or close-enough driver to hitch my wagon to, so somewhere around the age of four I decided that I was going to be a Dale Earnhardt fan, and that was that. You could not budge me from my love of the Intimidator. He was successful, had a cool car and a cooler mustache, and he represented a part of NASCAR history that fascinated me. I didn’t like even numbers (because I was also a super uncool kid with strong opinions about literally everything), so the 3 was perfect. He was larger than life to a small country girl, and that was it. He was my dude.
Jeff Gordon was the opposite of that. And I hated him for it.
Jeff Gordon made his Winston Cup debut in the last race of the 1992 season. He managed to avoid crashing out entirely, but it cost him, and he placed 31st. I remember that race not for him, but for the fanfare and tributes surrounding NASCAR legend Richard Petty. It was Petty’s final NASCAR race, and the end of a storied era was about to usher in a new generation. 1993 went a whole lot better for Gordon: he became the youngest driver to win a Daytona 500 qualifying race, eventually placing fifth in the biggest (and most famous) race of the season. He won Rookie of the Year, finished 14th in the point standings, and I hated his hair. But who cares about that kid, right?
1994 was where it took a real turn. The Busch Clash was a twenty-lap, fifty mile race for the previous season’s pole-position winners. The fastest drivers had only twenty laps to outrace and outmaneuver each other, and it was my jam. Lazy Sunday races were great, but you could wait until the last fifty laps and really not miss anything. Here, every lap mattered. It was exciting, and it was right before the Daytona 500, so everyone was at peak anticipatory excitement. On lap 19, Dale Earnahrdt was trying to pass Ernie Irvan to take the lead, but Jeff Gordon and Bobby Bodine shot past Earnhardt in turn 2, and Gordon held on to win. I. was. furious. Who did this young upstart think he was, passing my favourite and winning? What a jerk.
That feeling didn’t really ever go away. Jeff Gordon would go on to chalk up 92 Sprint Cup wins, four championships, 3 Daytona 500 victories, and set a record for 5 wins at the Brickyard 500. He’s the third-winningest driver in NASCAR history, behind Richard Petty and Dave Pearson. He even hosted Saturday Night Live. Now that I’m a totally hip, rational adult you’d think I would have matured to the point where I can appreciate the talent and career of someone my favourite dubbed as “Wonder Boy,” but haha, nope. Little girl Danielle still lives inside my head, dramatically rolling her eyes at every accolade.
I don’t talk to my dad anymore. That bit about him maybe not being ready to be a parent? Yeah, turns out that was actually spot on. Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash in 2001, and if I turn on a Sprint Cup race I won’t see the sad Bassett Hound eyes of Ned Jarrett staring back at me. Jeff Gordon retiring is a sharp reminder that when you love something as a kid but then leave it for a while, you sometimes forget that it doesn’t stay frozen in time, waiting for you to pick up right where you left off. Martin, Rudd, Elliot, Earnhardt, Irvan, Waltrip…names that lived in my mouth every Sunday for years just aren’t relevant anymore. I was a bit taken aback at the news that Gordon’s 2015 season would be his last, because really, it just doesn’t seem possible. But he’s not young anymore, and neither am I. While I was busy turning into a Real Life Adult, he was living out his years just like I was, albeit with a much more successful career, many millions of dollars more, and as recognizable name outside of his profession.
Man. What a jerk.