By RANDY COVITZ
The Kansas City Star
It was the most harrowing ride of Jeff Gordon’s life. Hairpin turns. Narrow lanes. Rough, bumpy, surface.
He wasn’t on a racetrack, but a pothole-filled road outside Bukavu in the Congo. Gordon, during the open week on the Sprint Cup schedule last July, used the time to make a 28-hour trip to the war-torn African nation.
He went on a fact-finding mission on behalf of the Clinton Global Initiative, one of several philanthropic endeavors Gordon is involved with.
As if his schedule competing for his fifth Sprint Cup championship isn’t busy enough with racing, testing, making sponsorship appearances and spending time with his wife and two children, the humanitarian side of Gordon has shown through at age 40.
•His No. 24 Chevrolet is sponsored by the AARP’s Drive for Hunger, which is dedicated to raising awareness of the 9 million senior citizens in America who are in need of food.
•He built the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital, a wing at the Carolina Medical Center Northeast in Concord, N.C.
•He is a spokesman for Sounds of Pertussis, a campaign promoting vaccinations for children and adults to prevent the spread of the illness commonly known as whooping cough.
•And he’ll make a return trip to Africa, this time Rwanda, in December on behalf of Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation, which provides treatment and does research for pediatric cancer in the United States and now Africa.
“You see what needs are out there beyond your own, and beyond those that are in your circle,” Gordon said. “It’s extremely empowering to experience that, to say, ‘Wow, I race cars for a living,’ it’s so easy to take so many things for granted: your health, your family and the work you’re doing.”
One of those on the Clinton board that accompanied Gordon to the Congo hopes to install a water-purification system that would help provide sanitary conditions for the area they visited.
“It’s amazing how it opens your eyes to what’s out there …” Gordon said. “Seeing 2-year-olds walking around barefoot on the side of the road with nobody really watching them … groups of women just carrying large sacks of coal and different things on their backs for hours … You can’t grasp that until you’re there.
“They’re sitting on incredible natural resources, but they’re not being tapped into because there is so much corruption … There’s nothing else I can compare this to. From every aspect, it was an experience that will change me forever.”
Gordon has his reasons for directing so much attention to Africa.
“We’ve been doing a lot of stuff in the U.S.,” he said, “but people don’t always take you serious until you start doing it globally. Our mission is how do we help those who have the greatest need and can affect the most children?
“There is a big need in Africa. What’s happening there right now, a child might have a curable cancer … right now we’re up to 80 percent in finding cures in the U.S., but in Africa they don’t even have a pathology lab to diagnose what they have … they usually don’t cure them or treat them properly because they don’t know what they have.”
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Gordon is following a long legacy of NASCAR drivers who have established foundations and work tirelessly for charities. Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Michael Waltrip and Kyle Petty are among those who have been generous with their time and money for years.
“One of the great things that I loved about NASCAR when I first got involved as a young driver coming up,” Gordon said, “is you want to do everything you can to fit into this sport, to represent sponsors well, and you start looking around at other drivers and they are an influence to you.
“Immediately I was introduced to children from the Make-A-Wish Foundation that were at the race track, whether it was through Geoff Bodine or Kyle Petty or other drivers. I went to local children’s hospitals when I was in the Nationwide Series.
“So I got introduced to giving back and doing all that I could to whether it be meet, or try to put a smile on a child’s face that might be suffering from an illness or a diseases like this, and it’s something that has obviously grown over the years.”
Five years ago, he established Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital, a 48-bed facility with 20 neonatal intensive-care unit beds and five pediatric intensive-care unit beds.
Gordon’s initial commitment to build the hospital was $2 million and that’s just the start. The Foundation raises about $2 million a year to support research and clinical trials throughout the United States, including the Jeff Gordon Pediatric Cancer Lab, a joint effort between Indiana University and Riley Hospital for Children in Indiana. The Rwanda project will run close to $2 million, said Trish Kriger, executive director of the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation.
“When I started working with Jeff 5 1/2 years ago, I had never seen a NASCAR race, knew nothing about NASCAR,” Kriger said. “My whole career was nonprofit. But I was amazed at his passion, and I’m beyond amazed at his commitment.
“He is absolutely at a really great place from so many perspectives … being a dad, having this beautiful family. His career has focused that part of it as well. I know it’s a constant balance for him … but I think it is a real pull for him: ‘How do I make time to make all this happen?’ ”
Gordon acknowledges it’s a delicate balance.
“Obviously my priority when it comes to my work is to put in as much effort into driving the race car as I can,” he said, “so over time I have learned how to structure my schedule to do what I feel like I need to do to be competitive in the race car as well as be able to be a good dad and put as much time as I possibly can fit into the schedule into getting behind programs like the Sounds of Pertussis, taking a trip to the Congo or a bowling tournament in Indianapolis.
“To me, it balances me out. I think it makes me a better race-car driver by being able to incorporate children and the important causes that are out there that I’ve been able to get behind.”
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Gordon did not win a Sprint Cup race in 2010, his second winless season in an 18-year career. In fact, his only win during a 113-race span between the end of 2007 and earlier this year was the spring race at Texas in 2009.
Doubt began to creep in, and he wondered whether he was washed up at 40.
“When performance isn’t there, it’s very easy to get down on yourself and wonder and question,” Gordon said. “Everybody goes through that in their career somewhere along the way. These last couple of years had been like that for me.”
He hooked up with a new crew chief, Alan Gustafson, who left Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin, and things began to happen.
Gordon snapped a 66-race winless streak in February by winning the second race of the season at Phoenix. He followed that with a win at Pocono and established himself as a serious contender for a fifth championship by winning at Atlanta. Only two other drivers — Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who have four wins — have more victories than Gordon this season.
“I’m having a blast,” Gordon said of his best season since he finished second to Johnson in the 2007 Chase. “I love working with Alan. Those guys have their act together, and it’s making life enjoyable for me because the cars are doing what I like them to go. The speed is there. When the speed is there, it solves a lot of things.”
The win at Atlanta was especially meaningful, because it was the 85th Sprint Cup win of his career, moving Gordon into sole possession of third on the all-time list behind Hall of Famers Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105).
“That’s something I thought I’d never accomplish in my career,” Gordon said. “When you look at the last three years and the lack of wins, I really did question whether if that would happen.”
Gordon began the Chase as the third seed, but he slipped to ninth with last week’s 12th-place finish at Dover. As badly as he wants to win a fifth championship — which would tie Johnson and move Gordon within two of the record seven titles shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt — Gordon realizes how much of an impact he’s already made on the track and around the world.
“Before we went to the Congo, somebody told me, ‘Don’t be surprised if you see a (Jeff Gordon) hat or shirt,’” Gordon said. “I said, ‘Yeah, right.’
“Well, we were driving down the road, and there was a kid who had my shirt on … last year’s Dupont 24 … Unfortunately we were in an area we could not stop. I wanted to stop and take a picture and talk to the kid …”