Jeff Gordon didn’t literally build Kansas Speedway, but he might as well as have helped log the timber, pour the asphalt and install the grandstand bleachers.
When the 1.5-mile tri-oval opened in Kansas City, Kan., in 2001, Gordon’s presence and, indeed, his dominance was critical in making Kansas Speedway one of NASCAR’s crown jewels.
During a time of growth and flux for the sport, especially after the death earlier in the year of icon Dale Earnhardt, Gordon’s boyish charm and flamboyance on the track helped take NASCAR mainstream.
But it was perhaps most important for Kansas Speedway, which was transformed from farmland into one of the most bustling corners of the Kansas City area.
Gordon — who will retire after 23 full-time seasons, all with Hendrick Motorsports, at the end of this season — won the first two races at Kansas Speedway.
“Certainly, (Gordon) winning that first race just really set it off,” said Clint Bowyer, an Emporia, Kan., native who drives for Michael Waltrip Racing. “Having one of the biggest names in your sport win the first race, this track’s always been a destination track.”
Stock-car racing always held sway in the South, growing in popularity and prominence through the balance of five decades as a new century dawned.
NASCAR wanted to expand. It wanted to be become a national brand, and not just a regional sensation.
Kansas Speedway was a centerpiece in that effort, but its opening came against a backdrop of uncertainty after Earnhardt died in a last-lap wreck seven months earlier in NASCAR’s signature event, the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt had been the unquestionable leader in the garage, and his mustachioed mug was the face of NASCAR. It was an immense void to be filled.
No man could fill it alone, but Gordon stood the best chance to emerge as Earnhardt’s successor in the spotlight.
“Once Dale passed, we were looking for identity and a lot of things to try to keep the sport going and move it forward,” said Fox Sports commentator Darrell Waltrip, a three-time NASCAR champion who won 84 career races.
“That really was good fortune for Jeff, because he was coming into his own and a force to be reckoned with. He was a good-looking guy, kind of represented the All-American guy and really the image that NASCAR was trying to promote. That all fell right into his wheelhouse.”
Gordon represented a departure from NASCAR’s standard image. He was a flashy kid from California, who made his Sprint Cup debut the same day “The King” of NASCAR, Richard Petty, ran his final race in the 1992 season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“He was the right guy at the right time and right when the sport needed him,” Waltrip said. “That really propelled him to be a bigger star than he probably would have been. It gave him a chance to be the man.”
Gordon’s timing also was perfect for Kansas Speedway.
Kansas Speedway was a risk — a calculated one, but a risk nonetheless — and its success was a keystone in the effort to grow NASCAR.
Conversely, its failure would have been a setback for the sport.
When Kansas Speedway opened, Gordon — who has finished outside the top-10 in the final Sprint Cup standings just once since his rookie season in 1993 — was a marked man in his No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet backed by his Rainbow Warriors crew.
“It seems like every 10 years, somebody comes along and they’re the guy you’ve got to beat and the guy that everybody looks up to,” Waltrip said. “That was Jeff. In the late 90s, he and Earnhardt had some good battles. Jeff came along at a pretty good time.”
Gordon, who won at least 10 races each season during 1996-98 and owns the third most victories in series history with 92, won his fourth and most recent Cup championship in 2001.
He posted a top-10 finish in 24 of 36 races that season, including a victory in the inaugural race at Kansas Speedway.
Gordon came back the next year and won again, cementing the track’s place in the NASCAR pantheon.
“It couldn’t have been any better,” said Talladega Superspeedway president Grant Lynch, who oversaw the construction of Kansas Speedway. “If you were going to pick people to win your first races back in that time, you’d have to have Jeff at the top of the list.”
Gordon’s wins validated the dice-roll that was Kansas Speedway.
“The thing I remember the most is you have an iconic driver winning our first race,” said Kansas Speedway Development Corp. president Jeff Boerger, who was the track president when the facility opened in 2001. “It was just the satisfaction of everything we worked so hard for coming together. When they dropped the green flag it solidified what we always thought would work here. It was an overwhelming experience.”
Gordon also won the inaugural night race at Kansas Speedway last spring, giving him a track-record three victories.
“He’s been a terrific role model,” said Lesa France Kennedy, the CEO of International Speedway Corp., which owns Kansas Speedway. “He had such a huge following from such an early age. His fans have stuck with him. He has a very strong and loyal fan base, and there’s a good reason for that. He’s been great with the fans. He’s always taken the time and understands what that means.”
It was France Kennedy’s vision that brought Kansas Speedway into reality.
Of course, Gordon’s influence is practically limitless.
He helped shape the development around the track, which has become a model for ISC. It’s even serving as the blueprint for the ongoing $812 million mixed-use renovation around Daytona International Speedway.
Gordon surely doesn’t deserve full credit for the evolution of Kansas Speedway, but he’s remained a piece of that success.
“He’s brought a tremendous amount of awareness,” Boerger said. “He’s an overall great guy, a great spokesman for the sport, really for Kansas as well. This is one of his favorite race tracks. … He also helped us, talked about the development and we used that piece for the review board for casino gaming license.”
Hollywood Casino opened off turn two at Kansas Speedway in 2012.
“When Jeff talked about helping out with some of our projects, he’s a give-back guy to the sport,” France Kennedy said. “He’s been incredibly helpful not only with what he’s doing, seeing things from a driver’s perspective, but he sees things from the track perspective, a business perspective.
“He sees it from the perspective of all the stakeholders and understands how that all comes together. That’s very helpful because all of our stakeholders need to pull in the same direction.”
Gordon also became an icon for the next generation of drivers.
“Jeff opened the door for a lot of young drivers,” Waltrip said. “At that point (when he signed with Hendrick), owners felt like you had to have an older driver with experience. All of a sudden here comes a guy like Jeff Gordon, who really had been an open-wheel racer. He hopped in a stock car and started making a lot of noise and winning races and championships. I really think that was the start of the youth movement.”