Gordon is driver they love to hate Auto racing: The NASCAR champ has won four straight and seemingly has it all going for him, but that doesn't stop fans from booing.

August 21, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Way back in 1977, Richard Petty had this to say about race fans: "They either come to see you win or they come to see you get beat."

These days, most of them come to boo Jeff Gordon.

It's a phenomenon, given Gordon seems almost perfect. At 27, he is handsome. He is polite. He is successful, gracious in victory and has never had any trouble with drugs or alcohol.

Yet, as he stepped out of his brilliant, rainbow-colored Chevrolet in victory lane at Michigan International Speedway last Sunday, boos rained down on him.

It was his eighth win of the season, his record-tying fourth straight.

No doubt he will again be deluged under a passionately negative serenade tomorrow, when introduced at the Goody's 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway and sets off in search of a Winston Cup modern-day (post 1972) record of five straight victories.

"We live in a time when it's the bad boy that seems to be the most popular," says Dr. Lew Lyon, a sports psychologist who runs the Good Health Center at Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore. "The good guys tend to wear out their welcome."

And Lyon considers Gordon a good guy, even more, a throwback to past days when athletes could be role models.

"Listen to his interviews," says Lyon, 50. "You hear, 'Yes, sir. No, sir.' coming from him. You don't hear that in sports interviews, which are usually tumultuous. But people don't want to see the good guy winning."

The public, generally, finds athletes like Charles Barkley or Mike Tyson more interesting.

Jeff Gordon? How can they relate?

The pedestal syndrome

He has everything. In the past three years, he has won two Winston Cup titles and 28 races. Overall, in 177 career races, he has 37 victories and finished in the top 5 half the time. He has won more than $20.5 million. He has a beautiful wife and he drives for what many consider the best team.

Lyon points to Cal Ripken, the Orioles' All-Star third baseman who has played more than 2,600 consecutive games.

"He's been great for baseball," Lyon says. "He's been a great role model for kids. He's been a team player. And yet, you hear people saying it's time for him to sit down. It's a 'Let's knock him off the pedestal and get on with it' attitude. There is a tendency to say, 'Enough already!' and hope for a fall from grace."

Richard Petty seems to be the exception to the rule. Among the many records he holds are two that could have made racing's best-loved figure more unpopular than Gordon. Petty's 200 wins are a record, as is his all-time mark of 10 straight victories in 1967.

"It was a different time," Petty says. "I got by because I had the middle ground. There were Chevy fans and Ford fans and I was in a Pontiac. Nobody got down on us and I remember during that 10-race deal, after a while, people said, 'We might not want him to win, but he's winning, so let's see how many in a row he can win.'

"But right now, people think Jeff's winning too much. If he'd lose a while and then come back and start winning again, people would be for him and at that point, they'd stick with him."

There are certainly examples of that. Darrell Waltrip went from a hated winner to a loser who re-emerged as a beloved aging champion. This season, Dale Earnhardt has gone from being the booed, seven-time winner, to the cheered, more human figure who is on the comeback trail after his first winless season in 17 years.

Earnhardt's fans are among Gordon's most vocal foes.

"My biggest complaint is he's a little cocky, a little arrogant," says Barry Diffendal, 50, an Earnhardt fan from Catonsville. "He just rubs me the wrong way."

Diffendal thinks Gordon perhaps has more luck than talent.

"That guy always seems to get the yellow right at the right time for him," Diffendal says, referring to caution flags. "I don't know if NASCAR does it for him or not, but sometimes it sure looks that way. You know, fans like to see other drivers win sometimes."

Until this year, the booing of Gordon had been, if not mild, at least no more pronounced than it had been for any other driver. This season, it is at times mean-spirited.

Kimberly O'Brien, Gordon's media liaison, says the team really started to notice its ferocity early in June at Richmond when Rusty Wallace and Gordon crashed.

"Usually, fans don't cheer wrecks," O'Brien says. "Usually, they at least wait to make sure everyone is all right. But when Rusty and Jeff wrecked, as soon as the crowd realized Jeff was knocked out of the race they cheered wildly. It was stunning."

Sponsors on his side

The booing, while perhaps ego-punishing, hasn't had an impact on sponsors. John Hendrick, of Hendrick Motorsports, says no one has voiced any discomfort over sponsoring Gordon. In fact, Gordon's star has been rising everywhere but in the grandstands.

Buddy Parrott, manager for the Rousch racing teams of Mark Martin and Jeff Burton, remembers going to races in Michigan, and having conversations at a time when very few people outside the south followed stock car racing.

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