As I stood on the spectator mound in turn two of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, waiting for stock cars to hit the track for a tire test, I had to do a double take as I scrolled through my phone. Jeff Gordon’s driving the pace car at the 500?
It seemed like something a third-tier motorsports news site concocted from their “sources.” But as I saw reputable journalists and eventually Gordon himself tweet about it, the news sank in.
At first, I was wary of Gordon’s involvement with the 500. He chose NASCAR over IndyCar before I was even born. Why shouldn’t a legend of the 500 do the honors of driving the pace car, like Arie Luyendyk in honor of the silver anniversary of his first win at Indianapolis? Or even Indianapolis resident and young adult author, John Green?
As I thought about it over the span of the next few hours, Gordon made more and more sense. Not just because of what he means to Indiana, but what he means to motorsports as a whole.
When Jeff Gordon climbs out of his #24 Chevrolet for the final time after the Homestead race in November, racing will be changed for an impressive portion of race fans forever. Just as it was when Richard Petty retired. Just as it was when Dale Earnhardt died.
For a generation, Jeff Gordon was auto racing, especially for a kid growing up on the outskirts of Indianapolis. With the Indianapolis 500 being on the decline and a guy from the next town over dominating the NASCAR circuit, stock car racing seemed to be the higher form of motorsport to a three-year-old version of myself.
Gordon and his Rainbow Warriors paint scheme was a gateway drug for so many young racing fans. His star lead us to new favorite drivers and new disciplines of racing, such as IndyCar racing in my case, all because the DuPont #24 planted a seed in our minds.
And for that, the Indianapolis 500, and motorsports as a whole, owes Jeff Gordon a debt that is impossible to pay.