A Racer For All Seasons!
It’s strange that I chose this week to do this piece, within which I compare this racer to Tony Stewart. To compare anyone to Tony is a compliment of the highest order. Please get well Smoke! Heal fast and give ‘em Hell in this last year. It is said that life isn’t fair, and I guess that is true, but sometimes it seems more unfair than others. This is one of those times… Prayers for Smoke!
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and a cordial Howdy-do to our assigned reader for today, wherever he or she might be. Over the years, I've learned something from my readers... something I dearly wish I could impress on a man named France. Are you listening Brian? When our first off-season at RFF began, we asked our readers what they'd like to read about over the winter, and received an overwhelming number of votes for learning more about some of the drivers that never made a big splash or earned the brightest spotlight. What I've learned is that it pays to pay attention to the fans. It's so simple. They know what they want, and if you just ask, they'll be more than happy to tell you.
So today, gentle readers, I've chosen to write about a driver that has long been one of my favorites, who perhaps never made it to the big stage in the eyes of most NASCAR fans, but instead of marching to just a different drummer, this racer marches to an entire brass band of well-tuned instruments, all playing the same tune, "Race! Race! Race!" We often hear Tony Stewart described as a “pure racer”, because he's raced in so many different series, and Tony is a racer in every sense of the word.
What then would we call a man that must have raced in at least twice as many as Tony? The man of whom I speak is Robby Gordon. In the list of nicknames bestowed upon drivers by my alter-ego, The Lady in Black, you might recall Robby being referred to as "The Other Gordon", obviously allotting him a spot in line somewhere below that of Jeff Gordon, long a NASCAR darling. Yet in so many ways, Robby is second to none. Please allow me to tell you a bit more about "The other Gordon."
Robby was born on January 2, 1969, which by my reckoning means he turned 47 years old only a month ago, but what a lot of racing he's packed into that time!
His career started in 1985, when at only 16 years of age he won the first off-road race he ever entered by beating his father, Bob, who came in second. I never saw that Nevada 500, but two weeks later he managed to win his first of what would become many races in the Mickey Thompson Stadium Series, and I saw every one that ever made it to my TV! The following year, father and son teamed up to win four races in the SCORE/HDRA series and the Class 2 series championship.
In 1987, the pair won three more races in that series and Robby was voted Rookie of the Year. The year 1988 found him driving a Ford factory truck for Jim Venable Racing to four victories and a Class 8 championship. At the same time, he drove his own Super 1600 to a class championship in the Mickey Thompson Stadium Series. For a bit of icing on the cake, he was voted the Off-Road driver of the year.
In 1989 Robby won the prestigious "Baja 1000", making the 17-hour drive alone, and becoming the first driver to win the overall event in a pick-up truck, (Ford) a feat he would accomplish four more times. That same year he won six of the eight Mickey Thompson "Factory Truck" events in a Toyota, and was champion of that division. Oh yes, and he was once more voted Off-Road Driver of the Year.
In 1990, (still only 21 years of age} Roush Racing signed him to drive in the IMSA GTO series with co-drivers Lyn St. James and Calvin Fish in the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. The trio won both! Robby also posted victories at the Meadowlands, Lime Rock and Del Mar to tie with Pete Halsmer for second place in the series. That same year he also won the SCORE/HDRA championship in Class 8 for Venable Racing. The next year, 1991, would bring more of the same as Robby again won the IMSA GTO class in the 24 Hours of Daytona, this time with partners Wally Dallenbach Jr. and Mark Martin, followed by another win at Sebring with partner Max Jones. After winning three more times, he finished second in the championship race to Pete Halsmer, by only four points. It was this same year that young Robby made his initial foray into Winston Cup, driving for Junie Donlavey in the Daytona 500, where he only managed an eighteenth place finish after spinning to avoid an accident.
1992 saw Robby debut in the CART series, driving for Ganassi Racing in seven races with a best finish of eighth (twice). Once more, he was on the winning team in the IMSA GTS (Formerly GTO) series in the 24 Hours of Daytona, this time with Wally Dallenbach Jr. and Dorsey Schroeder. He went on to win the IMSA event at Del Mar for a third time in as many years, and an SCCA Trans Am race at Long Beach, driving a Roush Mustang in his series debut.
During the ensuing years, while he continued to race open wheel, sports cars and trucks, Robby made a few starts in Winston Cup; notably he drove the first race for Robert Yates’ #28 Havoline team after the death of driver Davey Allison in 1993. At the end of 1996, he signed a contract with Felix Sabates and drove 22 races for Sabco Racing over the next two years, capturing one pole (Atlanta) and posting a best finish of fourth at Watkins Glen. After a few more "catch" rides, he formed his own team in 2000, running 17 races that year, the only highlights being at the road courses of Sonoma and Watkins Glen, where he managed respectable finishes of 9th and 4th respectively.
2001 saw him start the year driving for a seemingly struggling Morgan-McClure team, who informed him after five races that his services were no longer needed. A dejected Robby began to concentrate on the Indianapolis 500, which he would drive for that legendary and loveable curmudgeon, A.J. Foyt, and his brand new business partner in the person of Richard Childress, car owner for the late, great Dale Earnhardt.
Strangely enough, the still grieving car owner and the young driver took to each other almost immediately, in what Robby described at the time as the turning point of his career.
"It was my seventh Indy 500, and I was in my element. I had never so much as sat down with Richard before then, but we had a blast. He saw that I was committed to my racing program, and we hit it off. We both speak the language of racers."
For Richard's part, he had this to say, "I saw how well he and A.J. worked together, the respect they had for each other and how good Robby was with the press, the sponsors, and the fans. It was a totally different Robby Gordon than I had seen or how people had described him. Everyone knows he has great car control and the ability to win. He's a talented driver, and he has great feel for any car he climbs into."
Over that summer, Robby filled in at two races for an injured Mike Skinner, then driver of Childress' #31, and when Skinner left the team for knee surgery after the Dover race, the ride went to Robby since it had already been announced that Skinner's contract would not be renewed. By the end of 2001, both Robby and the #31 team had their first Winston Cup Victory, coming in the final race of the season at Loudon New Hampshire.
The year 2002 appeared to be one of "growing pains" for the teams at RCR. So much so in fact, that Richard decided a radical change was necessary, and literally swapped the teams of Gordon and his teammate, Kevin Harvick. From my point of view, that had to be a plus for Robby, since it put him with the crew of the late Dale Earnhardt, arguably the best in the business. Indeed, 2003 brought 2 more wins for the team, both coming on the road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, highlighting a season that saw 4 top-5s and 10 top-10s.
Those wins would be the last for Robby in Cup competition. He drove one more year for Childress and moved in 2005 to the #7 team, then owned by Jim Smith. The year proved to be far less than fruitful, with the team failing to qualify for seven races and suffering engine-related DNFs in nine more, gleaning only one top-5 and two top-10s for the entire season. At the end of that season, Robby purchased the team from Smith and in the years that followed, tried his hand at being an owner-driver... something that has been proven time and time again not to end well.
In the years from 2006 through 2012, Robby amassed only 4 more top-5s and 10 more top-10s. Over that same period of time, he became what most fans saw as NASCAR's favorite whipping boy... if there was a penalty to be assessed, it was assessed against Robby. If there was a fine to be levied, it was levied on the #7 team. At one point, his sponsor was rejected because the logo supposedly too closely resembled someone else's graphics. As we've seen over many years, when NASCAR doesn't like you, they have a million ways of letting you know. I think they let Robby know in all but a couple of that million. Eventually, the cost of NASCAR and renewed interest in off-road racing caused Robby to fade from the NASCAR scene.
It has to be noted though, that Robby is never still. Even through his Cup career, during the off-season he was racing off-road somewhere, including the prestigious races of Baja and DAKAR, long noted as the most dangerous race in the world, for several reasons. Terroristic threats forced a cancellation of the DAKAR Rally in 2008 and the race has since been relocated from a Europe/Africa location to South America, where it encompasses parts of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. Still a grueling course, to be sure, but that's what Robby looks forward to, always enjoying a challenge. To date, his best overall finish in the Dakar is 3rd in 2009, but he's won 9 stage competitions along the way.
Last year and this year, I followed the DAKAR Rally with great interest, though I confess to knowing little about the rules and regulations of the Endurance Rallies that last for days. Two years ago, I joined a Community website at http://www.planetrobby.com/, and “with a little help from my friends”, I’m learning. This year, I followed along on both Planet Robby and the DAKAR site, and was able to provide coherent information and daily updates here on Race Fans Forever.
Oh, and I've not mentioned yet that in addition to running the DAKAR Rally each year and at least one class of the Baja races, Robby started a series of his own in 2013, featuring Stadium Racing for several classes including his favorite, the Stadium Super Trucks, the series he won the first year out. For those who can remember, this series is very reminiscent of the old Mickey Thomson Stadium races, which this fan always enjoyed to the max.
And so, at age 47, when some are plotting retirement and others already have, racing remains the largest part of this racer's life. Robby Gordon is living, breathing proof that there is racing beyond NASCAR, and it's everywhere around us. All we have to do is look... and if it's the toughest, most challenging racing on earth, that's where you'll find Robby Gordon. For years it was rumored that Robby was difficult to work with. To that his reply was, "The problem is I'm really not a bad boy, I'm just not afraid to be aggressive. I just want to race, and I want to have fun. If it wasn't fun, I wouldn't be doing it."
And that is Robby Gordon in a nutshell. If it wasn't fun, he wouldn't be doing it. Just as a quick side note in closing, I've also been told several times that Robby is the life of any campground, kind of like a walking party, if you will. With that infectious smile, that doesn't surprise me one bit. I just wish I'd been able to experience it firsthand. Tell the truth now; aren't you glad you met and learned more about this racer?
The little banjo means it’s time for our Classic Country Closeout. We had a request this week for the song, “Oklahoma Hills.” The request was for Moe Bandy, but really, Moe is not classic. He came along much later, but I told the gentleman that he was in luck because though Woody Guthrie wrote the song, the biggest recording of it had to belong to Hank Thompson, and I just happen to be a huge fan of that gentleman. Here then is Hank, with his original version of “Oklahoma Hills.”
Since I’m “In the Mood for Hank”, which happens to be the title of one of his many, many albums, LPs, and CDs done over his long career, let’s stay with Hank today and I’ll show you a tiny sampling of his talents and why I always loved this singer… and still do. I guess the best place to start is with his biggest hit. Those of you that know your Classic Country will recognize “The Wild Side of Life” as the precursor to Kitty Wells’ answer song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.”
Already there are two dozen and more songs running around in my head and I just can’t play them all. Here’s one more from Hank’s earlier days, this one from 1954. This one’s called, “A Fooler, a Faker.” Please enjoy.
OK, I told a tiny little lie. This is another from the early 50s, but it’s one of my real favorites. (I have many of those) This is “Yesterday’s Girl”, the original version.
This one comes from a bit later; first recorded in 1966, but one of Hank’s very best in this fan’s opinion. Here for your listening pleasure is “Most of All.”
And finally, just because I can, this is one is obviously from the 1960s as well. Hank made so very many wonderful love songs and heartache songs, but he also knew how to have fun, and this song is proof of that. There’s nothing like a little psychedelic experience set to Western Swing to really get the party rolling. Please enjoy Hank and the Brazos Valley Boys performing “I See Them Everywhere.”
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!