NASCAR & Auto Racing

Jeff Gordon gets special gift for his final race at Kansas Speedway

Students from the North Kansas City Auto Tech school made a replica of Jeff Gordon’s first quarter midget car and presented it to him on Friday at Kansas Speedway.
Students from the North Kansas City Auto Tech school made a replica of Jeff Gordon’s first quarter midget car and presented it to him on Friday at Kansas Speedway.

Jeff Gordon was 4 years old when his stepfather, John Bickford, parked a couple of quarter midget race cars in the driveway of the family’s East Vallejo, Calif., home.

He told Gordon and his sister, Kim, to peek out the window. It was love at first sight for Gordon.

That was the spring of 1977 — well before anyone could predict the Hall of Fame-worthy career Gordon would embark upon, beginning in the Sprint Cup ranks in 1992.

Even if Gordon doesn’t really remember that car, except from the family scrapbook, he maintains great reverence for “The Fuzz Car,” so named because the paint on it was a nylon coating Gordon said felt like fur.

“It was the strangest thing,” Gordon said, “so we called it ‘The Fuzz Car,’ because it was fuzzy. We won some races with that car, so it’s got a lot of history.”

Gordon ran a few Quarter Midgets of America races in it during the summer of 1977 before moving up to more powerful rides.

Bickford loaned the car to an acquaintance in 1978 and never got it back, according to an interview with The Press-Democrat in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Nearly 40 years later, the search for Gordon’s first ride continues.

“Obviously, that car being the very first car I ever drove, it would be pretty meaningful to have,” Gordon said. “We’ve been out there on social media hunting for it.”

Details are sketchy. Manufacturing details aren’t available and there are no sales records to attempt to trace.

Aside from the unique paint, which may or may not have been buffed away, the only other identifying characteristic of Gordon’s first race car is the aluminum front axle Bickford once welded after it cracked.

Kansas Speedway needed a gift to give Gordon, who will retire from driving full-time on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit after the season.

Gordon put Kansas Speedway on the map by winning the first two Cup races in track history in 2001 and 2002. He also claimed the checkered flag at the inaugural night race in the spring of 2014.

“We didn’t want to do a rocking chair,” Kansas Speedway president Pat Warren said. “I wanted to do something that would somehow either connect to him personally or connect to the track.”

Warren said plans to paint the infield turf with Gordon’s car number, the iconic 24, and incorporate it into the start/finish line had been made.

The track also decided to pass out commemorative “24” pins to the first 24,000 fans through the gates for the Hollywood Casino 400, which starts at 1:15 p.m. Sunday on NBC.

Additionally, poster-size pictures from Gordon’s track record-tying three victories at Kansas Speedway, which fans are invited to sign and will be delivered to Gordon, will be displayed throughout the grounds.

But Warren wanted to do more.

Students at the North Kansas City School District’s Career & Technical Education Center had made custom-built pedal cars for Hector St. John and 98.9 The Rock morning show host Johnny Dare.

St. John, a world champion motorcycle racer and motorcycle racing instructor at Heartland Park Topeka, is Warren’s friend. The track has given pedal cars to pole winners before and a thought crystallized.

“We were talking about some things and just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could build a custom pedal car for Jeff Gordon as a gift,’ ” St. John said. “… It was just perfect. I felt like it would be something, especially with students making it, that really fit the character of Kansas City and the Kansas Speedway.”

St. John reconnected with Jack Stow, a A.S.E. certified master automobile technician and a teacher at North Kansas City’s technical school who’d overseen the pedal cars for made for him and Dare.

There were fewer than two months before Sunday’s race when St. John called Stow.

“I told the students before we got started, we have to come up with a good concept, something that will mean something and not just a 24 replica,” Stow said.

At that point, Jacob Hite, a junior at North Kansas City High School, chimed in.

“When I first heard about it, I thought that, since he’s retiring, it might be fun to go back and look at how far he’s come,” Hite said. “It was just a random idea. I looked up the history of Jeff Gordon and his quarter midget. That’s how I ended up finding ‘The Fuzz Car.’ ”

After an hours-long search online, the students came up with three pictures of Gordon’s first car, and that’s what they worked off in fabricating the replica.

“We were hoping that it would be meaningful to him,” St. John said. “After discovering that he was never able to find the car, we felt like we were on to something. Two weeks ago, we found an article that Jeff Gordon had been trying to find this car for 20 years and just had no luck, so we realized we were on the right track.”

Gordon was genuinely touched and awestruck when the blue sheet covering was pulled away during a press conference Friday at the Kansas Speedway media center.

“Just seeing it and seeing his reaction, it was amazing,” Hite said. “It was a very heartfelt thank you.”

It also was a relief.

“That’s why we did what we did — for that reaction,” Stow said. “We put in so many hours. The kids were there until midnight so many nights, trying to get this done and done on time. That was the conversation we had, ‘What do you think he’s going to say? How do you think he’s going to like it?’ What they just got, there’s not another kid on this planet that’s going to get that.”

Gordon has received countless gifts from countless tracks during the 2015 season, which has served as something of a farewell tour.

He’s not sure where’ll put the custom poker table he received in Las Vegas or the 24 bottles of bourbon he received in Kentucky, but Gordon said his children are probably going to enjoy the pedal car.

“When something unique is handed to you like this, that would never get old,” Gordon said. “That is very special, especially when there is thought behind it as well. This goes further than just me, this goes to my family. My kids are going to think it’s cool, but also my stepdad and my mom that have memories of that first car. No, that doesn’t get old.”

Gordon chuckled, giddy as a child, upon seeing the replica.

“That’s awesome,” a beaming Gordon said.

There have been several false alarms when people claimed to have Gordon’s original car, but now he’s got a close facsimile.

“This is the closest I’m going to come to it until somebody reveals that car,” he said.

Gordon is down to his final six races.

His 92 career wins rank third in Sprint Cup series history behind Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105) and his 323 top-five finishes also rank third behind Petty (555) and Bobby Allison (336).

Only Petty has more top-10 finishes than Gordon’s 469. That includes 21 in a row during the late 1990s, which is the longest streak in the last 25 years of Cup history.

Gordon will start his 792nd consecutive Cup race on Sunday, which is an all-time record.

While the media and fans scramble to put the Rainbow Warrior’s career in perspective, his focus in completely different.

Gordon currently sits seventh in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Challenger Round standings. The top eight drivers after next Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway move on to the Eliminator Round.

Gordon — who’s finished outside the top 10 in the final driver’s standings once since 1993, when he was 11th in 2005 — has four Cup championships, but none since 2001. He’d love a storybook ending this season.

“For me, it’s just working hard and, yeah, trying to make that magic thing happen,” Gordon said. “I thought we performed well at Charlotte, at a track that has kind of been tough on us the last couple of years.”

Now, he’s thrilled to back at Kansas Speedway, where he’s had so much success historically.

“Can we dream a little bit? Not yet,” Gordon said. “We have too much work to do, but we are certainly working very hard to try to make that happen.”

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer