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NASCAR's Jeff Gordon on Formula One racing 17 Jun 2004

(L to R): NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon (USA) Hendrick Motorsports DuPont Chevrolet with Juan Pablo Montoya (COL) Williams.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Race Day, Barcelona, Spain, 9 May 2004 Jeff Gordon (USA) Hendrick Motorsports DuPont Chevrolet in the Williams garage.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Barcelona, Spain, 7 May 2004 Juan Pablo Montoya (COL) Williams BMW.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Barcelona, Spain, 7 May 2004 Jeff Gordon (USA) Hendrick Motorsports DuPont Chevrolet in the Williams garage with his wife.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Barcelona, Spain, 7 May 2004 (L to R): Marc Gene (ESP) Williams Test Driver talks with NASCAR star Jeff Gordon (USA) Hendrick Motorsports DuPont Chevrolet.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Barcelona, Spain, 7 May 2004

Stockcar star still buzzing after Williams drive at Indy

Why should a NASCAR fan go to watch a Formula One race such as the United States Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on June 20? Four-time NASCAR champion and three-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon, who has driven a Formula One car, says the race is a spectacle not to be missed.

“If they want to see the most technically advanced car that exists, and a car that can accelerate and brake and go through the corners faster than anything that is humanly possible in your mind, then go and see a F1 race,” Gordon said. “To me, just that in itself is very exciting. The drivers are phenomenal, as well.

“But don’t go expecting a NASCAR race. It’s not the same. It’s totally different. Our cars are really the exact opposite. We are limited on all of our technology to keep the costs down (and) to keep the competition closer.”

In June of last year Gordon got a chance to drive a Formula One car when he climbed behind the wheel of Juan Pablo Montoya’s Williams at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In a trade off, Montoya, winner of the 2000 Indianapolis 500, drove Gordon’s Chevrolet NASCAR racer.

Gordon’s face still breaks into a wide, enthusiastic smile when he recalls the phenomenal performance of the Williams that he drove around the 2.605 mile / 4.192 km, 13-turn Indianapolis Formula One circuit.

“I am still talking about it,” Gordon said. “That was a real (chance of) a lifetime for me, and for it to be televised on Speed was even better because I get to relive it over and over again. To have that in-car camera and to see that I was actually driving a F1 car, one of the best F1 cars out there was just … I can’t even put it into words how to describe that.”

The swap led to Gordon and his Hendrick Racing team mate Jimmie Johnson being invited to attend the 2004 Spanish Grand Prix in May as guests of the Williams team and Montoya.

“I’ve never been to a F1 race,” Gordon said when he arrived at the track in
Spain. “Ever since I drove a BMW-Williams last year, I said I have to go and see a race now. We went down to Turn 1 on Friday, and when I saw them driving I knew what they were experiencing. Now that I have driven the car it takes on a whole new meaning for me.”

Gordon and Johnson saw that the Formula One drivers could brake so much later entering the turns than the NASCAR drivers are able to do with their NEXTEL Cup Series cars.

“The braking zones that they go into,” Gordon marvelled of the Formula One cars, “you don’t think that it is actually possible for a race car on four rubber tires to be able to do what they do. But yet after driving it I know that it does, and it is absolutely incredible. It does all the things that I wish my car would do, but doesn’t!”

So what does Gordon see as the biggest difference between Formula One racing and NASCAR?

“Just the grand scale of things,” he said. “The number of engineers and the type of technology. This (motor home/hospitality) area impresses me. We have nothing like this anywhere in our paddock area. The facilities are impeccable; the way that the racetrack is prepared, to me that side of it is very impressive. And from a financial and technology side, just the grand scale of how they are able to do things.”

But he does see similarities between the two series, as well.

“The teams put the best people in place and have chemistry,” Gordon said.
“Everybody is here to accomplish the same thing, and that is to be as competitive and fast as possible and to win. The best teams in NASCAR that put the right teams in place are successful and win. It is very similar here, but you don’t see the success as much. In F1, to finish second or third is very successful, as well, while for us we have to win a race to be successful.”

Another similarity between Formula One and NASCAR is that the drivers have the same intensely competitive spirit. As he watched, did Gordon wish he were out there on the track with the Grand Prix drivers?

“Anybody who is a competitive driver when they are not in the car wished that they were in the car,” Gordon said. “And when we were down in Turn 1, both my team mate Jimmie Johnson and I sat there and said, ‘We’d love to be in there and drive in that deep and get the car turned and accelerate and feel the traction control kick in.’

“We all feel that we could do the job because that is what makes us competitors, and what makes us winners is the confidence that we have. We recognize that there are cars and teams that are above others, and that if you were in the right position with a top team, that you would feel like you could have success if you put the right amount of effort and dedication into it.”

Gordon was asked a hypothetical question: Reigning World Champion Michael
Schumacher retires tomorrow, and Ferrari offers you what ever you need
financially to take his place, would you do it?

Gordon, chuckling, answered, “That one would be hard to turn down! I’m mean, who would turn that down? Nobody! I think that my sponsors and car owner would understand that even if it was for five races or one season, absolutely (I would do it.)

“Would I do the job that Michael does? No. The years of experience that he has, the talent that he has … I would only want to be in that position if I had enough testing time, time to really to into the shape that you need to be in. You are always looking for the best opportunity, and it doesn’t get any better than that one!”

Gordon went on to say that the massive commitment it takes to chase the Formula One dream is something a driver has to do early in his career. Now well-settled and extremely successful in NASCAR, Gordon said it’s too late in his career to realistically consider making the switch from NASCAR to Formula One.

Had things gone slightly different, however, Gordon could well have been a Formula One driver today. Back in 1990, three-time World Champion and 1966 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Jackie Stewart recognized Gordon’s talent and asked him to come to Europe for a test.

“I have always been a race fan,” Gordon said. “I grew up watching more open-wheel racing than I did the stock cars. My first introduction to F1 was when I received a phone call from Jackie Stewart about going over to Europe and doing what he called ‘a drive.’ And I think at that time it was not in a F1 car but more like a Formula 3 or Formula 3000.”

The Formula 3 and Formula 3000 series serve as stepping-stones to Formula One, but Gordon never did the test because he was offered a chance to race in NASCAR. He says he has no regrets about going stock car racing, but points out an ironic twist to it all.

“I have been so fortunate to have had the success that I have had,” he said. “I love NASCAR. It’s a little bit frustrating for me right now because I have had more opportunities to come F1 racing in the last three years than I ever did when it was a realistic goal. I am seeing more and more demand for an American driver in F1, but they want an American driver with a name.”

The biggest name in Formula One racing today is, of course, six-time World Champion Michael Schumacher, who has dominated the series in recent years.

“I respect him tremendously,” Gordon said, though unfortunately, he did not get to meet Schumacher during his visit to the Spanish Grand Prix. If they had met, Gordon quipped he would have asked him “how he gets such a big salary!”

Getting serious, Gordon said if they had talked he would have talked about their cars. “Like any driver I talk to I talk about the car,” Gordon said. “I like to get their feel for what the car is doing, and where they feel that they may have an advantage or disadvantage.”

And having driven a Formula One car, Gordon has an excellent insight into just what incredible car performance the current drivers will experience as they race around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in this weekend’s US Grand Prix.