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Gordon’s Inaugural Brickyard Victory Created Seismic Change for NASCAR, IMS

He seemed too young to have achieved such a milestone, too inexperienced to have reached such a summit. Yet there he was, basking in the adulation of hundreds of thousands of people, grinning uncontrollably with fresh-faced enthusiasm and a wispy moustache.

Much time has passed since that hot August day in 1994, when Jeff Gordon was catapulted to international fame with his stunning victory at the inaugural Brickyard 400.

In retrospect, the parallels that were in play that afternoon are significant. For Gordon, that was the day when he emerged as a bona fide superstar in the making. For NASCAR, it was another important step in its transition from a regional racing series to a worldwide motorsports force.

And it was a milestone event for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as it broke a decades-long pattern of racing only in May, and only with open-wheel machines.

As he stood in Victory Lane that day, Gordon was just two days past celebrating his 23rd birthday. He wore an expression that was equal parts joy and amazement, as if he was trying to come to grips with what he had just done.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was, in many ways, central to his destiny. He grew up in California, a child prodigy racer who rapidly progressed through the juvenile development racing series. As he approached his 13th birthday, his family prepared for the next step: wild-and-wooly sprint cars.

California racing insurers quickly decided that sprint cars and 13-year-old drivers don’t mix, so the family did some quick research and found Midwestern insurers much more accommodating. The family moved to Pittsboro, Indiana, and began the 1985 racing season in sprint cars.

Gordon was an instant phenomenon, garnering notice across the short-track racing universe. A 13-year-old in a sprint car was quite shocking at the time, and this kid was not only exceptionally young but could actually win a race now and then.

In 1988, he began his USAC Sprint Car career, and the following year made his debut in USAC Midgets. His popularity soared when he performed well in front of a nationwide audience on ESPN’s “Thunder” series, winning the 1990 USAC Midget National Championship.

The die was cast: This kid had talent, and he was headed for big places. But where?

The world of INDYCAR racing had experienced a pronounced disconnect with short-track racing during this period, and even though he was considered one of the hottest young commodities in motorsports, Gordon found open-wheel racing to be nothing but closed doors.

But with the help of longtime broadcast personality Larry Nuber and noted motorsports agent Cary Agajanian, Gordon’s career ambitions shifted to NASCAR. There he forged a relationship with successful car owner Rick Hendrick, and the destinies of both men were changed forever.

As Gordon arrived in NASCAR, the series was in the midst of a period of great expansion. TV ratings seemed to grow exponentially, while tracks couldn’t build spectator capacity quickly enough. NASCAR was the newest, most exciting flavor on the national sports landscape, reaching deeper into mainstream America than any racing series to date. With his easy personality and impeccable image, Gordon was perfectly suited to the new environment.

A key step in NASCAR’s expansion came in April 1993, when IMS officials revealed that the famed Speedway would play host to the inaugural Brickyard 400 on Aug. 6, 1994. The 16-month lead time gave fans and competitors alike a long period of time in which to build excitement and anticipation.

When the gates swung open for pole qualifying Aug. 4, Gordon was not an overwhelming favorite. He had only won one Cup event thus far in his career but was steadily improving. But he showed well in time trials, qualifying in the third position.

On Race Day, Gordon led early and often, but in the late stages appeared to be destined for a runner-up finish behind Ernie Irvan. The two men had dueled in the waning laps, but with 10 circuits remaining Gordon trailed Irvan and was unable to make his way back into the lead. But in a dramatic turn, Irvan cut a tire and faded, yielding the lead to Gordon with just five laps remaining.

The enormous crowd seemed to sense that history was taking place before their eyes. At one of the most anticipated events in motorsports history, a promising young racer – a young man unofficially “adopted” by Indiana – was going to win. Waving hats and programs and anything else they could clutch, the crowd rode with Gordon on those five final, fateful laps. As he cruised under the checkered flag with a half-second margin over runner-up Brett Bodine, the crowd let forth a roar that could be heard in downtown Pittsboro, some 15 miles northwest.

In a sense, that moment opened the floodgates. With Gordon’s smiling image soon adorning soda machines and magazine ads and television commercials, there was no question that NASCAR – and Gordon – had forever achieved a higher plane.

IMS officials couldn’t have hoped for a more spectacular and popular debut of their new event.

In the years since that first race, each edition of the Brickyard 400 has provided memorable moments, with each race showing a personality all its own. Many notable winners have stepped into victory lane, reading like a NASCAR Hall of Fame nomination sheet. Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and others have been victorious.

Right on cue, Gordon parlayed that powerful August victory in 1994 into a spectacular NASCAR career. He is a four-time Cup Series champion and retired with 93 career Cup victories, third on the all-time win list.

With his victories here – 1994, 1998, 2001, 2004 and 2014 – Gordon remains the only five-time winner of the Brickyard 400.

He matured into a significant figure in motorsports. His career provided him with a great many notable moments and achievements, so much so that it remains difficult for analysts to winnow down to any one defining victory.

But Gordon says one win certainly stands out in his mind as perhaps the most significant. It came right here on that hot August day in 1994, when the entire world seemed to pause long enough to take note of a fast-rising young Indiana transplant.

“It ranks up there, possibly No. 1,” he said a decade ago. “It (was) an incredible victory. It's funny, I just finished building a house and did a trophy display area, and the prominent trophy in the middle happens to be the smallest one, and in my opinion, the memories that come along with that are the most significant, and that's my inaugural Brickyard 400 trophy.

“It's about this big (showing his hands) … it's not much, but it sure was a big victory and something I'll never forget. And any time I'm ever asked about either my favorite win or my biggest win of my career or the most significant one, that one always rises to the top.”

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