By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Robby Gordon readily admits his first stint with the Ford Motor Co. didn’t end well, when he embarrassed the manufacturer by kicking at its blue oval logo on national television after one of its engines failed in his car.
But that incident was ages ago, when a younger Gordon did whatever he wanted and didn’t seem to care about the consequences.
Nearly 10 years later, Ford has forgiven the cocky (or is it confident?) driver, persuading him to leave the crowded but competitive Chevrolet camp to pilot a Fusion next season in NASCAR’s top series.
That Ford was willing to move past that bitter split and align itself with Gordon, who has had his own team since the 2005 season, says wonders about how far the driver has come and how much he’s changed.
“That was a different Robby Gordon, and that was a different Ford Motor Co. It’s behind us, there are no hard feelings,” said racing director Dan Davis. “We’re done. Let’s bury it and forget it. And I don’t want to hear about it anymore.”
Getting to this point probably didn’t take the entire decade. Instead, the repair work likely was done over the past two seasons, when driver/owner Gordon proved driving down the road less traveled isn’t always a bad thing.
See, everyone told Gordon that becoming a driver/owner was a terrible idea, that the last few fools who had tried it failed and nearly went broke doing so. Even worse, the sport has changed dramatically since Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott and Brett Bodine all gave it a go.
When that last group of driver/owners attempted to run the whole show themselves, single-car teams still were able to compete for wins and sponsors. That’s next to impossible in today’s big-budget NASCAR, where the most successful organizations field four and five cars, share technology and testing information, and spend from a multimillion-dollar kitty of cash.
Gordon listened to all the reasons why it wouldn’t work, then focused on why it could.
“There was a guy named Alan Kulwicki that won a championship in a Ford Motor Company vehicle with the No. 7 on it, and he was a driver/owner,” he said of Kulwicki’s 1992 title.
Gordon is many things, and stubborn might very well be at the top of the list. Tell the guy he can’t do something, and he’ll make it his mission to prove you wrong.
So Gordon left the security of Richard Childress Racing, where his only job was to climb into the car and race every weekend to launch Robby Gordon Motorsports, where driving the car is probably 10th on his list of things to do.
He’s now responsible for hiring and firing employees, building a shop, finding partners and charming enough CEOs to secure the funding he needs to make it all go.
The two seasons haven’t been easy, but Gordon is making it work and proving to be a solid businessman along the way.
An engine deal with John Menard, a newcomer to NASCAR, didn’t work and cost Gordon seven races last season, including the Daytona 500. So he made the shrewd move of parting with an old friend to partner with Dale Earnhardt Inc. for established engines.
He still hasn’t won a race as his own car owner, but his improvement is evident. Gordon has qualified for every race this season, and at 27th in the points he’s a full 10 spots higher than where he finished last year.
He also has big plans for his company, including expansion, which led him to reunite last weekend with Ford after failed negotiations to form alliances with several different organizations.
But Gordon didn’t need the Ford deal. He could have continued down the road with Chevrolet, picking from the scrap heap of leftovers that the Earnhardt, Childress and Hendrick teams left behind. It would have kept him afloat as a midlevel team, and nothing more.
To grow and be successful, Gordon needed something bigger, and Ford gave him that opportunity. Since Robert Yates Racing is a mess right now, and Roush Racing is its only elite team, Ford has room for Gordon and can offer him the time and resources he needs.
The company doesn’t care that he’s got a long road ahead of him before turning the team into a consistent contender. All they see is the Robby Gordon they knew 10 years ago has matured, made smart decisions along the way and finally sees the big picture.
“It’s about attitude, it’s about approach, what you are trying to get done,” Davis said. “He’s not controlling everything every single day. He does know what he wants, and he works really hard at those things that are important to his team.
“That is the most critical thing, that we agree on how to win, what’s important and how to build a winning organization. And with that, it doesn’t matter to me, owner/driver, whatever. What is more important is that the attitude is right.”
Ten years later, Gordon finally has it.