Jeff Gordon drives a fast car for a living, so his wife, Brooke, tapes a handwritten scripture verse to the steering wheel for him to contemplate for the few minutes when he is in no particular hurry. Just last Sunday, she copied a verse from the 15th chapter of I Corinthians: "Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory," it began. At the bottom of the slip of paper, she wrote, "Be safe. I love you." Gordon says he won't look at the scripture when he knows he needs to keep his eyes on the road. The caution periods when the cars slow after an accident or incident are another matter. "I'll look at it, read it, and I'll do a little prayer here and there if I feel the need to," he said.
His blue No. 24 Chevrolet with the fluorescent orange flames is probably the most recognized car on the circuit. Because he wins a lot, he is not well liked by fans of other drivers, who chide him for being just a little too clean-cut and well-mannered. But Gordon is universally respected as one of the best in his sport.
And his sport has grown exponentially in the last decade. Attendance at races doubled between 1990 and 2000. Sales of NASCAR merchandise have mushroomed from $80 million in 1990 to $1.26 billion last year. The National Football League was the only professional sports organization to have higher television ratings than the Winston Cup, and TV ratings this year are up 20% over a year ago.
With the acclaim and rewards of a glamorous occupation, however, come great risk. One of Gordon's fiercest rivals, the seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, was killed February 18 when his car slammed into a wall during the last lap of the Daytona 500. It was the fourth death of a NASCAR driver within a year, but Earnhardt's death shook stock-car racing to its core. Earnhardt was such a formidable and relentless competitor that he was almost considered immortal. Since his death, one or two drivers who had not attended the pre-race chapel services at the race track have been coming, said the Rev. Max Helton, founder of Motor Racing Outreach, an interdenominational program for racing communities launched in 1988.