Winston Cup racing is a difficult life for families. A minimum of four days a week is spent on the road, at race tracks spread across the country. On the other three days, there are often appearances for sponsors and other commitments.
When is there time for family?
Every team can tell a tale of birthdays and anniversaries missed. Of children's ballgames and dance recitals unattended. Of separations and divorce. But seldom do those woes reach that point among the sport's stars, the drivers.
Sure, there have been a few, but not many and none among the Winston Cup's biggest stars, until last week, when Brooke Gordon filed for divorce from four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, catching the motor-sports world by surprise.
Mark Martin has been a Jeff Gordon admirer for years. He has said more than once that Gordon is a model citizen and an example of how he, Martin, would like to live his own life. Tony Stewart said earlier this year that he admires no one more. Now, he said, that is even more true.
"I've always admired the way he works with the media - his ability to handle repetitious questions and the patience level he has," Stewart said. "Now, he continues to do all those things while also dealing with divorce."
Throughout the Winston Cup garage here, the majority of what you hear is support for the defending series champion.
Even the bad jokes support Gordon.
"Crook" Gordon is the name some now use when referring to Brooke, who has asked for a bundle. Her divorce petition requests exclusive use of their 23,095-square-foot oceanfront home in Highland Beach, Fla., alimony, a Porsche, a Mercedes 600 SI, periodic use of their boats and the Falcon 200 airplane. It also asks that Gordon continue to pay the salaries of housekeepers, maintenance workers and their chef.
Theirs was a public and, supposedly, happy marriage. They spent little time apart and seemed to enjoy the lifestyle Jeff Gordon's success had brought them. But on March 15, Brooke filed for divorce claiming the marriage is "irretrievably broken as a result of the husband's marital misconduct."
Very sad words.
Words that no one beyond their most intimate family knows the meaning of. In legal-speak, marital misconduct means any conduct that undermines a marital relationship or behavior that forces one spouse to assume extra burdens in a marriage.
It could be anything, but, of course, many jump to the conclusion that Gordon was "running around" on Brooke. But no one knows that.
And Martin, for one, isn't buying into it.
"In my opinion, having a failed marriage is not a black mark against Jeff," Martin said, sitting in his team's trailer, a few doors away from Gordon's. "Jeff has lived his life as a supreme example. He was a very upstanding and honorable young man before he got married and during his marriage, and he will continue on the same way after his marriage.
"I've been very fortunate. I got married one time, and as we've matured, we've grown closer together. But when you're young, in your 20s, you're not totally matured. You're not totally who you are yet. At 21, Jeff Gordon was a mature race-car driver. I don't think he could get much better than he was then. But that doesn't mean he was that way in other aspects of his life."
The Gordons met when Jeff was 21, and they married two years later.
"They were married for seven years, and that's a pretty good while, and I'm sure they worked really hard at it," Martin said. "But if they see that at this point they can make happier lives, it's not a negative thing - not for them or this sport. Compare us to other sports. We're not killing our wives or girlfriends or beating them up. We've had a couple divorces in the last 10 years. We're beating the odds."
Jeff Gordon won't talk about the divorce. This weekend, he buried himself in his work and accepted expressions of sadness but held by an earlier statement in which he said it "would be improper for me to discuss or comment on this matter publicly."
Whether the divorce will make him more popular, as fans come to realize he is no longer Mr. Perfect, remains to be seen. It might depend on the spin that comes from his public relations people. But Jon Edwards, who handles Gordon's PR, said there is no spin.
"I know nothing to spin," Edwards said and left it at that, which is probably what we should do, too.
Nuts and bolts
CART driver Alex Zanardi will start the German 500 on Sept. 21, indicative of his recovery from the crash in Germany last year that cost him both his legs. The Associated Press reported that he has learned recently to walk on artificial limbs and has driven a private car.
Mark Martin, who will pass a driving milestone in Bristol, said looking at his 500th start from his point of view means little: "A lot of starts. It means you're probably not real young, that you've been pretty successful. You still have a job."
But, he added, looking at it from another side, it means a bunch.
"The thing that does mean a lot to me is what it says about all the dedication that has been demonstrated by others for me to reach this point," he said. "The most important thing is the men and women who did that work and enabled me to run good enough to make me keep the job."