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Jeff Gordon’s next move

Jeff Gordon’s next move

By Adam Stern, Staff Writer

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Gordon has quietly taken an increasingly active role at Hendrick.
GETTY IMAGES
Jeff Gordon had just finished a late-afternoon panel discussion at a Hendrick Motorsports partner summit when he walked into an adjacent ballroom of the Charlotte Convention Center to unveil a race car’s new paint scheme.

As he was being fed instructions for the unveiling, Gordon was momentarily puzzled.

“Why isn’t Liberty’s paint scheme on the car?” Gordon asked as he stood next to a tarped-off race car, concerned that the university, another major sponsor for next season, was not shown on the car.

“This is the Daytona 500 paint scheme,” right-hand man Jon Edwards responded, adding that fellow major primary sponsor Axalta has the rights to that race.

In his driving days, such events would be a time to simply show up and take a few questions about racing. But as an equity partner in HMS, Gordon has quietly taken an increasingly active role with the team.

“Right now, I’m in the education phase of just learning as many aspects of the business as I can and hope that role will increase over time — and I feel fairly confident it will,” Gordon said. “But it’s a lot to take in — you don’t just step out of driving and then come right into [ownership]; there’s a lot going in.”

This is Jeff Gordon today. Team co-owner. Deal closer. Garage influencer. Broadcaster. Philanthropist.

The driver who helped spark NASCAR’s national growth in the 1990s, winning 93 times in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series en route to scoring four championships, retired from behind the wheel in 2015 but he didn’t walk away from the sport.

Gordon joined driver William Byron to unveil the paint scheme planned for Byron’s car at next year’s Daytona 500.
Courtesy of: HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS
In fact, he could be heir apparent for HMS.

Auto titan Rick Hendrick, 68, is the majority owner of HMS, while Gordon, 46, is the sole minority owner, having gained the stake when Hendrick granted him a lifetime contract in 1999. The stake is part of a wider partnership that includes investments in real estate, the stock market and car dealerships, but it’s his largest business venture.

While Gordon won’t be found on HMS’s campus every day, he frequents major meetings for the team and industry, takes part in sponsorship discussions and events, and provides tutelage for the team’s new, young drivers.

“We always talked about it and I always hoped he would want to do more, but you never know until you step out of the car what he wants to do,” Hendrick said. “Some guys don’t want to come back to the track, and a lot of drivers want no part of ownership; most of them have tried it at some point along the way. But Jeff’s different.”

■ ■ ■ 

Hendrick is the ideal mentor. The 12-time NASCAR premier series champion car owner and 2017 NASCAR Hall of Famer splits his time between HMS and Hendrick Automotive Group, one of the nation’s largest privately held auto dealership groups.

Sitting in the driver’s seat of a Chevrolet SUV parked next to his motorhome at Charlotte Motor Speedway this month, a few hours before the Monster Energy Series race, Hendrick pondered his relationship with Gordon.

Hendrick hired Gordon in 1992, starting what would quickly become one of the most powerful combinations in NASCAR history. Only two other drivers have won more Monster Energy Series races than Gordon, making the No. 24 famous and fueling a golden era in NASCAR’s history.

A race at Kentucky Speedway convinced Hendrick that he needed to get the newly retired Gordon more involved with the team. Gordon sat with the team on pit road as it suffered what Hendrick called a “miserable night,” with several crashes. Hendrick sat dejected on the team plane afterward, but noticed that Gordon remained upbeat and kept team members on board positive.

“Jeff is like a son,” said team owner Rick Hendrick, who hired Gordon in 1992.
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“I was just so down — and he was bouncing all over the plane talking to the guys, and I thought, ‘Man, I’d like to see him do more of this,’” Hendrick said.

Gordon jumped in.

He’s become heavily involved with sponsors, recently attending a Formula One race in Singapore and an event in Orlando, on behalf of Axalta. He used a team marketing meeting to detail best practices and innovative offerings that he saw. He will travel with Axalta to Mexico City this month for that city’s F1 race.

He’s spent time with HMS’s two new drivers for next season, Alex Bowman and William Byron, showing them the ropes and helping them deal with the pressure. On the day of the paint scheme unveiling this month, Bowman used Facebook Live to show the three of them walking from one ballroom to the other, ribbing each other along the way.

Gordon’s influence reaches beyond the walls of HMS. This summer, he started attending meetings for the Race Team Alliance, the coalition of NASCAR teams. He’s also been attending Team Owner Council meetings between NASCAR and the teams, joining Hendrick and team President Marshall Carlson.

Gordon played a significant role in the development of the sport’s new stage-based competition format that debuted this year. Carlson said Gordon brought a particularly unique vantage point to the talks, which included NASCAR, media partners, drivers, and executives from teams and tracks.

“Jeff was a cornerstone in that process,” Carlson said. “He navigated every part of it because he’s a former driver, equity owner of Hendrick and a broadcaster.”

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Hendrick had other plans for the future of his race team. He saw a day when his son, Ricky Hendrick, would take over for him.

But in 2004, the younger Hendrick died in a plane crash, a tragedy that only deepened the bond between Hendrick and Gordon. “Because I had a plan for my son and he’s not with us — so Jeff is like a son,” Hendrick said.

Since the tragedy, the question of who will one day succeed Hendrick has lurked. Other senior executives at HMS include Carlson, who is Hendrick’s son-in-law; CFO and Executive Vice President Scott Lampe; Jeff Andrews, vice president of competition; Ken Howes, vice president and chief of staff; Brian Whitesell, vice president of operations; and marketing vice president Pat Perkins.

Jeff Gordon
Unplugged

ON THE NUMBER OF 
RACES IN NASCAR
“I think there’s no doubt that some moves need to be made — I’m big right now on supply and demand. I feel like when I look back at the sport and how it’s grown, when I came into the sport I want to say we had 29 or 30 races; now we’re at 38. I think there’s some tracks that two (Monster Energy Series races) don’t work, and from the TV side I think that it’s about understanding just where TV viewing is in general. It just skews older — there’s just not as many people watching TV.”

ON NASCAR’S 
APPEAL IN AMERICA
“There’s a lot of effort being put into how we don’t go into the NFL season or go as long. How can we compress that schedule and maintain our captive audience? Because that Homestead race is amazing — it should be, to me, as highly rated as the Daytona 500, and the fact that it’s not tells me something.”

ON NEW OWNERS 
COMING INTO NASCAR
“I think there definitely is a younger group of individuals that are going to be moving into that position in the future just because there are some owners that are getting older, so I know that they are looking at their future in the sport and … they want that legacy to live on for a long, long time. It’s not, ‘OK, I’m getting older, I’m ready to step away from this.’ No, they’re passionate about this, built this and have hundreds of people working for them. They want to see it continue to be successful in the future.”

— Compiled by Adam Stern
Gordon’s decision to become more involved with the race team wasn’t immediate. He decided to climb into the booth for Fox’s NASCAR coverage, a move that has kept him connected to the sport, but also has demanded more of his time.

Gordon said that when he retired, he and Hendrick “kind of made a conscious decision for me to pursue the TV side of things … but in between that, I’m doing more here. As a driver, you’re involved in debriefs and competition meetings, but really just focused on what you’re doing as a driver. … Now, it’s much more big picture.”

He said he’s enjoying broadcasting, but his contract with Fox is only slated to run for one more season. He said he was unsure about continuing in broadcasting beyond the 2018 season, particularly if his HMS role keeps increasing.

Hendrick noted that because of the way the sport’s lifeblood — sponsorship — has changed over the years, he’s increasingly needed someone to share the burden. He said that while he used to have four or five primary sponsors on three- to five-year terms, his team now works with around 20 brands, often on shorter terms. HMS will have an important 2018 coming up on the sponsorship side, as Lowe’s and Nationwide Insurance both signed one-year extensions this year that will expire at the end of next season.

“There’s a lot to do when you have four teams, 600-plus people and all these sponsors — it is more work than it has ever been, and you’re always in the middle of planning and promoting,” Hendrick said. “It’s five times more work than it was five years ago.”

Hendrick said he couldn’t definitively say whether Gordon, Carlson or even someone else will replace him. But he hinted that Gordon may be the heir to the throne if Gordon wants to ascend there.

“I think it’s too early for that, but he can do it if he wants to,” Hendrick said. “And if he wants to, I want him to.”

That decision will have to wait for now. While Gordon’s stake in HMS is his largest business venture, he has several of them. There’s a winery business — Jeff Gordon Cellars — that he founded in 2004. He’s also an active philanthropist whose foundation last month committed to give $2 million to a local Charlotte hospital as part of a bid to fight pediatric cancer.

For now, Gordon is still learning the ropes of team ownership and talks with Hendrick constantly. If it’s a pressing matter, Hendrick calls him; if it’s less pressing, Hendrick texts him.

“He is the busiest guy I know, and watching how he leads, goes about the business and how he’s also very competitive — there’s a legacy that he has built here that will go on for a long, long time,” Gordon said. “And I hope to be a part of it for a long time.”


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