Gordon: a thinking man's driver Lecturer: Battling to repeat his Winston Cup championship, Jeff Gordon takes time out to talk to Princeton students.

September 15, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. -- Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon has just changed out of his driver's suit and begun lacing up his tennis shoes when the freshman engineering class at Princeton is mentioned.

Only two days before, Gordon, an Indiana high school graduate, had found himself in front of that class along with crew chief Ray Evernham, lecturing on automotive engineering and communications necessary for a race team's success.

Now, the shoestrings lay forgotten in his lap as Gordon looks up from beneath his baseball cap.

"It was probably one of the most nervous times I've ever had speaking in front of a group," he said. "Usually, I feel fairly comfortable. But this time I felt like I was speaking to a lot of people who knew a lot more about what I was going to say than I did."

Today, Gordon starts third in the MBNA 500 Winston Cup race at Dover Downs International Speedway. And everyone in the huge crowd or in the cars around him will view him as being at the top of his class.

But Thursday, he drove onto the Ivy League Princeton campus and found himself thinking about what he has missed. "I know I wouldn't be where I am in my career if I had decided to go to college," said Gordon, 25, who became the youngest Winston Cup champion in history last season. "I had a decision to make after high school and, at the time, it seemed to be an easy decision.

"But there is not a day that goes by that I don't wish I could have gone to college and raced at the same time. Every time I drive on a campus, I'm reminded of what I missed. I like college campuses. I think they're neat, like little villages with lots of friendly people. And Princeton was so beautiful -- a lot of ivy. Even the new buildings looked old."

Gordon, who said he might enroll in business and computer classes in his future, was happy to leave the technical side of the lecture to Evernham, while he talked about the importance of driver input and communication.

"Engineering education at Princeton involves a heavy dose of the liberal arts," said Dr. Peter Bogucki, Princeton's assistant dean for undergraduate affairs. "So we believe it's very important for engineers to know about the machines and also about the people who use them and make them work. The No. 24 is an impressive piece of machinery, but its driver and crew chief are the ones who make it go around the race track at speeds approaching 200 miles an hour."

What surprised Gordon and Evernham was that when they asked how many in the hall had been to or watched a Winston Cup race, nearly 90 percent of the 300 students raised their hands.

"That about blew me away," Gordon said.

What probably would blow away the students is that Evernham grew up 40 miles from Princeton, and while he never went to the campus, he has been a longtime admirer of Albert Einstein.

Evernham has, in fact, admired the great scientist for so long that his wife bought him an Einstein T-shirt a couple years ago. Now he has three.

"I wear one of them every Saturday," said Evernham, unbuttoning his shirt to reveal Einstein's mustached face. "I wear it on Saturday because that's when we need to be most smart. If we're smart enough on Saturday, we'll win on Sunday. That's what I think."

He and Gordon have been smart enough on Saturday here at Dover to win the past two races on this one-mile oval. Today, at 12: 10 p.m., they go for three straight.

It also would be Gordon's second win in three weeks on the Winston Cup tour and push him closer to his second championship. Gordon comes into today's race just four points behind leader Terry Labonte.

"I think you really don't know if it's going to be your year to win the championship until you start getting down to this stage of the season," Gordon said. "And then, when you find you're in the thick of things and you are a factor in the championship and it's that close to reality, you start really focusing and thinking more about it."

Evernham said he has never seen Gordon more focused. "A lot of our recent success is because of Jeff," he said. "He really wants this second championship. When he's on, it makes everybody else get on -- and Jeff is as on as I've ever seen him."

To Gordon, being "on" means being smart. Maybe not as smart as Einstein, but smart enough to show patience, make the right decisions and concentrate completely on the race car.

"I don't have an engineering degree from Princeton," Gordon said, "but I think I've been going to college for a long time on how to drive a race car, and I think I'm close to my master's in that."

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