Best young driver is Gordon, but Jeff and Robby both claim it

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The best young race driver in America is named Gordon -- but is it Jeff or Robby?

Both youngsters, who are unrelated, will be moving up to stock cars this year: Jeff from midgets and sprint cars, Robby from sports cars and off-road trucks.

Both displayed rare talent on the high banks in showcase stock car debuts last year. In their first times driving a 3,500-pound, 200-mph stock car, Jeff Gordon qualified on the front row in a Busch Grand National race at Rockingham, N.C., and Robby Gordon won the pole in an Automobile Racing Club of America race at Atlanta.

Both Gordons will be in Fords this year. Jeff, 19, will drive in the Busch Grand National series; and Robby, 22, will drive in the Winston Cup. Mike Kranefuss, director of Ford's worldwide racing program, couldn't be happier.

"It is very exciting once in a while to come across a driver like Robby, who seems to have not only a tremendous talent, but also the knack of knowing instinctively what to do and how to do it," Kranefuss said after watching Robby. "For a young man who had never as much as sat in a Winston Cup car a week earlier, to win the pole against these veteran ARCA drivers is remarkable."

Had he been at Rockingham, Kranefuss certainly would have said the same thing about Jeff. The younger Gordon qualified ahead of such veterans as Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin and Davey Allison for the AC-Delco 200.

Jeff Gordon will take over the Grand National ride Martin had last year in the Hugh Connerty-Bill Davis Thunderbird. His first race will be the Goody's 300 on Feb. 16 at Daytona.

Robby will drive a Thunderbird for Harry Ranier and Junie Donlavey in the Daytona 500 and as many other Winston Cup races as he can schedule between his main commitments as the driver of Jack Roush's Mustang in the International Motor Sports Association's Camel GTO series. Gordon won five GTO races last year and finished second to teammate Dorsey Schroeder in the series points race.

Both Gordons will make important starts on the weekend of Feb. 2-3 before heading for Daytona. Jeff will drive a Silver Crown dirt car in the Copper World at Phoenix International Raceway, and Robby will drive a Trans-Am Mustang in the 24-hour race at Daytona Beach, Fla., with Mark Martin.

"I want to race every weekend," Robby said. "If I'm not in a stock car or a sports car race, I'll be driving off-road. Some weekends I'll try and do both.

"Next week, we'll be testing the Ford at Daytona, but if the tests end Friday, I'll fly home and race at Anaheim Stadium in the truck race [on Jan. 19]. It's a fun race and it's only 10 minutes from home [in Orange, Calif.], and all my buddies will be there."

Robby swept the stadium truck program in a Toyota at Anaheim, Calif., two years ago when he set fast time, took both heats and won the main event. That was the season Gordon won the stadium truck championship in a Toyota and the Baja Internacional and Baja 1,000 in a Ford pickup to earn his second berth on the Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Assn. All-American team. In 1987, he was the youngest driver ever selected -- until this year when Jeff Gordon earned similar honors at 19.

Jeff, a native of Vallejo, Calif., who lives in Pittsboro, Ind., has been driving sprint cars since he was 13 and last year, at 18, became the United States Auto Club's youngest national champion when he won the midget division. Gordon started racing around Vallejo when he was 5, but because California law prevented him from racing professionally until he was 16, Gordon's stepfather, John Bickford, moved the family to Pittsboro so Jeff could drive sprint cars.

"By the time I was 13, I had won so many times in quarter midgets and go-karts that it got to the point where I had to move on, and that meant leaving California," Jeff said while in Burbank, Calif., to receive his award as a member of the 1990 All-American team. The victories included the quarter midget national championships in 1979 at Denver and in 1982 at Sunnyvale, Calif.

"My stepfather read about Sport Allen driving a sprint car in Florida when he was 14, so we decided to spend a summer down there to see what I could do. It was tough finding someone to build a car for a 13-year-old. I was only 5 feet tall then and weighed about 95 pounds, but we had one built and raced 25 or 30 times.

"The next summer, we decided to move to Indiana, and except for school [Gordon graduated from Tri-West High in Pittsboro in 1989], I've been racing ever since."

Jeff, whose pencil-thin mustache fails to disguise his youth, won the first midget race he entered -- the prestigious Night Before the 500 main event in 1989 at Indianapolis Raceway Park, where he beat such Indy 500 drivers as Mel Kenyon, Stan Fox and Johnny Parsons. He also won a second race at IRP and was named USAC rookie of the year.

Last year, he won nine midget main events, including his second Night Before the 500, and clinched the championship in the final race of the season at El Centro, Calif. After the midget season ended, Gordon climbed into a sprint car and won the final two California Racing Association main events at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, Calif.

Robby Gordon is keeping his long-range options open. Indy cars and even Formula One loom as much in his future as do Winston Cup stock cars.

"The opportunity opened for a Winston Cup ride, and I didn't want to lose it," Robby said. "I need more oval track experience, and that's the place to get it. I figure every oval track I drive can't help but help me if I switch to Indy cars some time. And in the GTO I'll keep my road racing sharp. At the end of 1991, I'll look around again and see which way to go. I'm just trying to crawl up the ladder, one rung at a time."

Robby was 15 when he started his climb, finishing third in the International Mini Cycle Racing Association season. The following year, he moved up to motocross and rode a Kawasaki " to victory in the 80cc class of the Golden State series.

His father, Bob, himself a champion off-road racer, talked Robby into driving a desert buggy when he was 17 and, like Jeff in a midget, Robby became the "youngest winner ever" when he won the Frontier 500 desert off-road race and two weeks later the Super 1,600 championship in a stadium race in San Bernardino, Calif.

After graduating from El Modena High in Orange, Robby went to Sebring, Fla., to test-drive a sports car for Ford in hopes of joining the factory team for long-distance races. Gordon so impressed observers that Roush asked Ford to sign him up as a full-time driver for the 1990 IMSA season.

As seems to be the Gordons' tradition, Robby won his first race, the Daytona 24-hour, and followed it with a victory in the 12 Hours of Sebring. His most impressive performance, however, was probably in the season finale at Del Mar.

The day before, Gordon had been in Mexico to drive Jim Venable's Ford pickup in his Baja 1,000 defense and to clinch his class championship in the SCORE-High Desert Racing Association series. He had five wrecks, six flat tires and numerous repairs to make before abandoning the truck to co-driver Mike Schoffstall at 3:30 in the morning. Schoffstall finished fourth to give Gordon the championship.

Gordon drove 80 miles back to the border, where an hour's delay prevented him from arriving at Del Mar until 9:30 on the morning of the IMSA GTO race. He drove in a 15-minute warm-up at 9:45 to get his first look at the twisting 1.6-mile road course in a Whistler Mercury Cougar, which had been tested by teammate Max Jones.

Then Robby took a two-hour nap.

He started sixth in the 46-lap race and, after taking the lead from pole-sitter Steve Millen at the halfway point, held off series champion Pete Halsmer to win.

Jeff Gordon and Robby Gordon have met only once, at Daytona, at a Ford test session.

"We were giving each other a hard time, you know, the usual stuff between young drivers," Robby said. "I challenged him to a kart race that night, but he wouldn't do it. I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot of each other before long."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
59°