The year 1994 was a good year. Heck, country superstar Jason Aldean even recorded a high song about it. Yours truly graduated from high school that year, but enough about me. That was the year that still-somewhat-new-on-the-scene Jeff Gordon claimed his second-career NASCAR Winston (now-Sprint) Cup Series win by taking the checkered flag in the first Brickyard 400, the first-ever NASCAR race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Fast forward 20 years and the circuit is heading back to the Brickyard for its 21st race at the hallowed track in Indianapolis. Recently, Gordon looked back and waxed sentimental about that historic race and early-career win.
Here are some excerpts from a recent NASCAR teleconference with Gordon during which he discussed that first race at Indy:
Q. You’ll celebrate the 20th anniversary of your win in the inaugural Brickyard race. Talk a little bit about that win and what it’s like going back now 20 years later.
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, every time it’s something special when you go to Indianapolis. It’s just such a cool place, so much history, and obviously a lot of great memories for me and confidence. As a driver when I go there, of course it takes a great car and a great team to win that race, but it seems like most years that we’ve been there, we’ve had a car that’s capable of winning.
With the type of season that we’re having, I’m extremely excited about going to Indianapolis. I think that the way that our cars are performing, the way our engines are performing, Indianapolis is a track that we certainly can win at. It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years, but looking forward to celebrating those 20 years hopefully with another win.
Q. Looking back to the earliest stages of your career, it seemed like Ray Evernham really pioneered having what amounted to a professional sports team of specialized athletes to pit your car when he put together the Rainbow Warriors as your pit crew. How big of a piece was that to the early successes you guys enjoyed as a team, and just how revolutionary was that in shaping how pit stops are performed today?
JEFF GORDON: I think every great crew chief sort of revolutionizes things. They’re always looking at what area can you find the most significant gain, and I think Ray really started focusing and understanding that races could be won or lost on pit road by just gaining a couple tenths of a second and being consistent with that and seeing how it was getting harder and harder to gain those positions on the racetrack because of aerodynamics and track position.
Yeah, I think that pit crews evolved so much during that period of time where they were crew members or guys that worked in the shop during the week and then went to the track and were your best guys that could pit the car, where Ray said, you know what, we need to start bringing athletes in here and guys that were specialized and trained at changing tires, carrying tires, jacking the car, and I think it did revolutionize things.
Now look at it; we have whole training facilities and recruitment and everything else to get the best athletes we can to do that.
Q. You talked a little bit about the madness and craziness of that inaugural Brickyard. Being an Indiana boy, what did it mean for you? Obviously you won it, but what did it mean to you to be running there for the first time?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I mean, I sort of am an adopted Hoosier. I didn’t grow up there but I went to high school there, and Indiana was very significant to me in my career because of how much racing I got to do there at a young age.
But my love for Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500 goes way back to when I was racing in California, and I was racing open wheel cars on an oval, and so sprint cars at Indianapolis were what I looked up to and what I loved to watch as a kid. The drivers were my heroes. The race was one that I always put on the calendar that I was going to watch. I got a chance to go there as a kid when we traveled from California to Indiana to go visit the museum, go out to the racetrack as well as watch the race one particular time, and I was just in awe of the place.
I always wanted to race there, and to get that opportunity, especially an opportunity to win, it just is a way to live out a childhood dream.
Q. Can you just talk a little bit and expand on the impact that your time here in Hendricks County as a youngster had on your racing career?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, a huge one. The biggest was that in Indiana and Ohio and Illinois, all the tracks, the dirt tracks that I was able to race on, especially Bloomington is one that really stands out to me, they allowed me to race before I was 16 there. That experience was huge to get those laps, to learn how to drive that car at such a young age. I think it’s what got me to the Cup Series at such a young age and has helped me be successful from that point on in any type of race car that I’ve ever been in.
You know, and then that goes to the area that I lived in out in Pittsboro, we had five acres with a shop in the back, we built our cars back there, worked on them. We had other people in racing that would come and sort of make that their camp if they were racing nearby, whether it was an NHRA team or a sprint car team, and then even to the school. The school was very open to understanding that this was something that I was on a career path for and was very serious about, and when I needed days off, because I was maybe traveling to Australia to race or a big race was happening in another part of the country, they were very open to working with us to be flexible about that.
That was something that didn’t happen in California as well. I didn’t get the chance — they wouldn’t let me race before I was 16. So Indiana played a huge role in getting me to where I am today.
Q. Can you speak to the connection that you have with the fans in this area, especially from Pittsboro and Hendricks County area?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah. I mean, it’s amazing how the Indiana fans have treated me over the years. When I go to Indianapolis, I get obviously a bigger round of applause or whatever the area are cheering or clapping. It’s louder there than it is anywhere else that we go, and that speaks volumes about my connection with Indiana and the way the fans treat me there. It’s unlike any other place that I go, and I love it.
Enjoy these video highlights of the first Brickyard 400 in 1994.
– Photo used with permission from Hendrick Motorsports