A N.Y. minute lasts all day for Gordon '97 champ promotes NASCAR, self in visit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- Jeff Gordon emerges from the Waldorf Towers lobby in a dark brown suit and platinum tie, munching a banana.

This is the way NASCAR's Winston Cup champion begins a full day of promotion in the media capital of the world.

A black limousine is waiting outside the door to take Gordon to his first appointment. It is the lightest day on his five-day schedule that includes 28 appearances of one kind or another and interviews with everyone from Charlie Rose, Regis and Kathie Lee to "Good Morning America."

But even a slow day will keep him moving from 9: 30 a.m. to after 11 p.m. It's a good thing he's just 27 and has his voice back after undergoing surgery to remove a polyp on his vocal cords two weeks ago.

"This is how I enjoy New York," Gordon says, sitting back, looking out the limo's window at Manhattan. "When I come to New York, I want a limo all the time. A nice, big suite at the Waldorf. Last night, Brooke [his wife] and I went to a play, 'The Titanic.' It got mixed reviews, but we really liked it. And then we went to dinner."

Asked if he has a favorite restaurant, he nods enthusiastically.

"I do now, Le Cirque," he says. "It was great. Brooke and I shared chateaubriand."

Gordon is wired with a microphone, and David Nichols of Lingner Group Productions is recording his every move, gathering footage for a movie about Gordon's week. The movie will be shown tonight at the Winston Cup Awards Banquet at the Waldorf Astoria, where Gordon will pick up his second championship trophy and winnings of nearly $6 million. His share of that take is about $2.5 million.

Carsick? It's no joke

Just a few minutes into this morning ride, Gordon looks toward the front of the car and asks if the air conditioner can be turned up. It's 40 degrees outside and not warm inside the car. Gordon, who won 10 races this season, smiles apologetically.

"I'm sorry," he says. "I get carsick. I know, people laugh at me. But sitting in the back of a long limo, it happens sometimes. I have to keep cool air blowing on my face."

At FX network studios, he is greeted by Laura Fisher, the talent booker, who rushes him upstairs. Does he want makeup? "Yes," he says.

"If you've ever seen yourself on TV without it and with it, you know you need makeup," Gordon tells the makeup artist as she dusts his nose. "At 'Good Morning America,' they really cake it on. I thought I looked like a clown, but on TV it made me look like I should."

After a little hair spray, Gordon is ready to go to the set and meet John Davis, who will interview him for the show that airs at 5: 30 p.m. Sunday. Davis wants to know how much money Gordon will collect for the title, how winning now differs from 1995, what's going through his mind when he's driving a race car. They are questions Gordon will hear over and over throughout the week.

"But these interviews are different in a sense from 1995," he says later. "The people asking the questions still feel their audiences need to be educated, because it's not an audience we usually talk to. But the thing I've seen in the last five years, even in the last two, since I last did this, is a change in awareness. When I came out of the 'Good Morning America' studio, there were nearly 50 people lined up for my autograph. Even in New York, people know Jeff Gordon and Winston Cup racing."

Why not? The latest issue of People magazine named him one of its 50 most beautiful people. He's tickled.

"You know, Brooke and I like to read People magazine," Gordon says. "So it's fun to find yourself in it. We also like to watch Regis and Kathie Lee when we're getting up in the morning, so we're excited about being on that show. We're just like everyone else. We're fans, too."

When money is no object

As Gordon is leaving the studio, a member of the "Backchat" crew asks him: "If you could buy any car, what would it be?"

"If money was no object, a Lamborghini," he says.

Gordon is picking up $2.5 million tonight, so it sounds funny to hear him say, "if money was no object." But he says it's not funny at all.

"It's all relative," he says. "I pay $250 for a pair of shoes, a thousand or two for a new suit. Everything is in perspective. There are limits. You could make $10 million and be saying, 'If I could only make $15 million.' You have to be really careful. You start buying too much, and pretty soon all the money is gone."

One minute, Gordon is talking about all the perks of wealth, and, the next, he's out of the limo and walking to a diner on 52nd street for open-faced hot turkey sandwiches and talking about how much he and Brooke like to go bowling.

"We have our own balls and shoes, and she usually beats me the first game and then I beat her the next two," he says. "I'm not really very good at it. My best score is probably 147. My average, maybe 105, but it is so much fun."

Beaming him out of there

After lunch, Gordon heads to his suite for a short nap. He later re-emerges at the suite of Winston Racing public relations man Chris Powell for two hours of satellite-beamed interviews. There are 22, five minutes each and barely a moment in between, except for a 10-minute break halfway through.

Gordon sits on a rose-flowered chair in a blue room -- blue walls, blue ceilings, blue carpet, blue couches -- staring into a camera lens. His posture is perfect, his hands folded in his lap.

His blue eyes never glaze over, despite the same questions over and over. And though the same phrases appear in his answers, each is packaged differently for each TV station.

Maybe it's true when he tells Mike Rizzo of WABC, New York: "I'm excited. Every interview I do gives me a chance to reflect on all the great things that happened in 1997."

During his break, Gordon goes to a window carrying a pen that also has a laser beam in it. He sees a man working on a computer in the office building next door and has an awful lot of fun shining the laser on him. The man sees it and is looking everywhere for the source. Finally, he looks up, and Gordon waves at him happily.

"I can't tell if he's smiling," Gordon says. "But I want to make sure he knows he is in no danger of getting shot."

Then it's back to the chair and the interviews.

What's important

As he is talking, the two rings on his hands glisten under the television lights. One is a 1995 championship ring, the other his wedding band.

What does he feel about those rings?

When the interview is over, Gordon looks at them. He touches the one on his left hand.

"This one is the most important," he says, "because it will be there long after racing."

Now, he's looking at the other, gold and diamond-studded. "This one is important to me in my career and as a symbol of what I've accomplished in my career. But my life is with Brooke."

He looks up. His head cocks just a little and he smiles.

"You know, I'm planning to spend a lifetime with Brooke, and I think spending a lifetime with someone you love is honestly harder to accomplish than seven championships."

And then he's off for another catnap.

Gordon re-emerges with Brooke at 7 p.m. to go to a Winston cocktail party in his honor at the China Club. Waiting for him is a Hummer, one of those military Jeeps on steroids used during Desert Storm. He had asked limo driver Eddie Rivera to bring it. He also asked for a limo, in case Brooke preferred the more traditional mode of transportation.

But Brooke, in her slim-fitting black slacks, black top and black and white fur coat, is prepared for the Hummer.

So after Gordon grins and says, "Oh, wow!" he helps her into the vehicle, and the ever-present cameraman gets in the back seat.

"If you get separated from us," Rivera says, "Just turn right on 47th Street and go straight until you get to the club on the West Side."

"No way I'm getting separated from that limo," Gordon says.

And he doesn't. He cuts off a cab -- "No way anyone's getting in front of me" -- and hears a horn blast. He trails through a light that's just turned red, and four lanes of traffic blast him with a symphony of honks.

"The things you get away with in New York City," he says, grinning. "This baby is wide-built. It feels like you own the road when you drive this."

Brooke, who has spent the day Christmas shopping, looks across the vast interior at him. "I feel like you're on the other side of the street," she says. "We couldn't hold hands in this. But it's kind of cool."

They pull up to the China Club now. Gordon signs a few autographs before he's rushed for two more television shows, including CNBC live at 7: 30. Then it's into the cocktail party, shaking hands, being congratulated. An hour and half later, he and Brooke slip away, still smiling, for a private dinner party at Coco Pazo.

"It's better, this second time around," Gordon says. "We know what to expect. We're more relaxed, able to take it all in and appreciate what we have."

Pub Date: 12/05/97

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