RIO LINDA, Calif. (AP) — Controlling his emotions has never been easy for Jeff Gordon, who openly wept during milestone moments early in his career.
Nearly three decades later, Gordon still finds himself struggling to hold it together and there have been plenty of touching tributes in the first six months of his final season as a NASCAR driver. As he heads into the final five months, Gordon is preparing for an emotional roller-coaster.
The latest twist took him to the quarter midget track in Rio Linda where Gordon first began racing. He stopped there this weekend with his wife and two children in tow, all eager to see where the four-time champion got his start. None had either seen a quarter-midget race before the Saturday reunion.
Holding court above the track under the shade of a large tree were his parents, John and Carol Bickford, who reminisced with old friends about the long weekends spent watching their children chase their dreams at the venue once called the Cracker Jack Track.
Carol Bickford had not been back to the track since 1984, but the facility was exactly as the entire family remembered.
“This was the only dirt track around, we were here every weekend,” she said of the family making the hour-long-drive from Vallejo beginning when Gordon was 5.
When it became apparent that he was good enough to compete in the big events, the ones that lasted two and three days, the family invested in a motorhome and camped instead of commuting.
All those memories flooded back on this reunion tour, put together in part by Sonoma Raceway in advance of Gordon’s final race Sunday at his home track. Although the family moved to Indiana to further his racing career, Northern California is where it all began.
“When you think about it, when you are living it, you don’t really take that time to reflect where you’ve been,” Carol Bickford said. “But the second half of the year is going to be emotional because we have time to reflect and think about it, and then things like this happen, and you just realize it’s been a wonderful journey.”
The journey includes 92 Cup wins — third all-time in NASCAR — those four championships and more than $148 million in race winnings. His Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation has raised more than $15 million to support pediatric cancer research, treatment and patient programs, but his philanthropy is not limited to those causes.
About eight years ago, the little track where it all began was in danger of being taken over by Sacramento County and repurposed. Needing about $50,000 to keep it open, the Cracker Jack Alumni Association got an assist from one of its most famous former racers.
Now known as the Roy Hayer Memorial Speedway, it is operating on a 99-year lease and is in no danger of closing. It’s also very much the way Gordon remembered.
“It’s funny how much it’s changed, and how little it’s changed,” Gordon said. “It seemed so much bigger to me back then. The tower is the same, other than the air conditioning that’s been added. But there’s very few significant changes.”
When it was time to race, Gordon allowed daughter Ella to wave the flag above the speedway as son Leo looked on. Both children have their own quarter-midget cars, but only 8-year-old Ella has turned laps. Four-year-old Leo needs to get a little bit older before Gordon and his wife, Ingrid, are ready to put him in the car.
“You know, it’s what I did as a kid and it became my career and I want them to experience it, too,” Gordon said. “They can take it wherever they want to take it.”
When it was time to leave — he had another stop at his old middle school in Vallejo, then a birthday party for Ella before the family headed off to a camping trip in Vancouver — Gordon again found it to be difficult to control his emotions.
He looked around, said his goodbyes, soaked it all in for a minute.
“I try to hold back, but I don’t have that switch that turns it off and on when a moment affects me,” he said. “Being here, having my parents here, seeing it come full circle and have my kids here, it’s emotional.”