DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jeff Gordon makes his own decisions now, but it was his stepfather, John Bickford, who molded the child into the man he is today.
Both admit it came with a price.
"I took Jeff's whole childhood away from him," said Bickford, 52. "I didn't want his buddies with us when he was 13 and 14, I didn't want the peer pressure or the distractions."
Bickford had a single focus: to mold his stepson into a successful race car driver. It worked, as Gordon yesterday was to began qualifying for next Sunday's Daytona 500.
"When Dad gets on to something he gives 100 percent," said Gordon, 27, the three-time and defending Winston Cup champion. "I was his passion for 20 years."
Bickford's all-controlling presence in Gordon's life eventually became oppressive, leaving little room for Jeff to grow.
"He just wanted me to race, while he made all the decisions," Jeff said.
Finally, in 1995, fully grown and his first Winston Cup title at hand, Gordon called a halt.
Today, both men say they have a warm father-son relationship. But it's not like it used to be when every move was designed by Bickford and almost every thought Jeff had was put there by his father.
When Bickford met Jeff's mother, Carol, they both worked at a company that manufactured driving apparatus for the physically impaired. Bickford, who took Carol to a race on their first date, also had his own company, which manufactured racing parts. Today, the lightweight jack used by most racing teams is manufactured by Bickford's company.
Bickford and Carol were married when Jeff was 1 1/2 years old. Given Bickford's racing interests, it's not surprising that by the time the boy was 4, Bickford was striving to make him into a future champion.
"When Jeff was just a little guy, we talked about the perception of things," Bickford said recently, before flying to England to begin a new job. "We talked about where he wanted to go and what he wanted to be. I told him, 'If you get up every morning and waddle out to the kitchen and quack like a duck for breakfast, eventually, someone is going to think you're a duck. If you dress and act like a race car driver, one day someone might think about you as a race car driver.' "
Gordon's present-day professionalism is thought to date to that childhood conversation.
First came a bicycle that Jeff had trouble riding, even with training wheels. So Bickford took the training wheels off and told his young son if he wasn't going to learn to ride the bike that day, it was going to the dump.
"I went out for a long drive," Bickford recalled. "Two hours later, Jeff pushed off from the curb and pedaled the bike."
On Gordon's fifth birthday, they began bicycle racing. That same year, they worked on building a quarter-midget in a 120-foot upstairs shop.
"I put Jeff behind the wheel and told him I'd push to get it started," Bickford said. "And there he was, that little 5-year-old steering around that room, and I can't get the thing stopped. He went home and told his mom I was crazy."
The two of them had a lot of good times. Perhaps one of the most memorable came when Jeff was 13. They had driven 68 hours in snow storms from Arizona to Florida to run in a sprint car race. Bickford looked around the infield and saw the top echelon of the Sprint Car world. He saw big arms, torsos, egos and desires, "and I held my breath for 15 minutes," while Jeff, weighing all of 90 pounds, drove onto the race track.
"I looked out there after two laps and said, 'He's actually doing it!' " said Bickford. "And he looked reasonable. He didn't look unreasonable. Jack Hewitt [a top driver] was on the track, and you could actually hear Jeff [power the car through the turns]. It was the first time emotion went through my body, that we had something. I went to a store and bought a first-place trophy and handed it to him."
Bickford and Gordon spent all their time on racing, to the point where Bickford said, "People in Phoenix thought I should be prosecuted for child abuse." And it was only a few years later, after the family moved to Indianapolis, that Bickford was making sure the races Jeff entered were far enough away that his high school buddies couldn't come and be a distraction.
From the beginning, Bickford had a plan. He shares it, when asked, with other parents who want to get their youngsters into racing.
First, he says, don't begin with any excuses for failure. Bickford ignored Jeff's small size, ignored their lack of money. When they ran out of cash for racing in 1987, Bickford made parts for cars, and Jeff worked on fabricating other parts in his high school shop classes.
Eventually, they got funds enough to run a sprint car race in Chillicothe, Ohio. Jeff won. It was his first victory, and he cried -- which shouldn't surprise anyone who has seen Gordon's emotional displays during big moments in his Winston Cup career.
The second thing is to have a plan or a goal and then work toward building a resume to support the opportunity you're seeking.
"I always tell people, the quality of equipment isn't the most important thing," said Bickford. "The most important thing is mental attitude."
Gordon began to develop a taste for independence in his early 20s after he joined the Rick Hendrick-owned team. As time went on, father and son stopped talking about business -- either Bickford's or Gordon's -- so much so that when Bickford flew to London to begin a new job last month, Gordon didn't realize that was the day his dad was going. They talk about family matters, but the daily conversations are a thing of the past.
"He doesn't ask much advice," said Bickford. "He and his wife are pretty good partners and they make their own mistakes and successes."
Bickford, still married to Jeff's mom, works for Action Performance, one of racing's largest souvenir suppliers. In London, he will work with building the Formula One apparel and die-cast car business of a company recently acquired by Action. At the same time, he will be keeping his eyes open for new Formula One talent, "for kids with a tiger in their eyes."
Jeff said he is happy his father is doing something that excites him and regrets that the two of them weren't able to end their business association with a more peaceful accord.
"We talked over Christmas about his new job, but we didn't talk about the details," Jeff said. "In one sense, it is disappointing, because I want to keep the family aspect. My mother, sisters, brother and me, being the baby.
"But I like making my own calls," Jeff said, "Making the break was the most difficult thing I've ever done. He's a beautiful, wonderful man, the man who made my success, but he wanted to be 100 percent [in control], and I wanted to be more involved. There are times when I feel like I've broken all our hearts -- but if it hadn't changed, I'd still just be following his decisions and not getting any experience of my own."
When John Bickford left for Europe last month, he said he needed metal thread in his buttons.
"How could any parent look and see Jeff, see your kid has achieved at 27 all the things you dreamed for him, and not be proud," said Bickford. "I need metal thread in my buttons to keep my pride from bursting them."
Pub Date: 2/07/99