Twenty years ago, Jeff Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, an emotional homecoming for the driver whose family moved from his home state of California to Pittsboro, Ind., when Gordon was just a boy.
Since that unforgettable day, Gordon has collected four top series NASCAR championships, three more Brickyard trophies, and established himself as one of the sport’s greatest drivers of all time.
Back at Indy on Friday for opening Sprint Cup Series practice in preparation for Sunday’s 21st running of the Brickyard 400, Gordon was paid the ultimate honor by officials of the fabled 2.5-mile speedway as track president Doug Boles joined Indianapolis mayor Gregory Ballard in declaring July 27, 2014, "Jeff Gordon Day" in Indianapolis.
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Ballard, a Gulf War Marine Corps veteran who watched from the stands on the day of Gordon’s first Brickyard win, will never forget that momentous occasion.
"That was just a couple years after the first Gulf War, which I was in," Ballard said. "I think most of the military that comes out of things like that, they want to go back to things that are quintessentially American. This was our first NASCAR race, first race I brought my son, and you won it. And I was stationed in St. Louis at the time.
"We drove over to watch the race and we became fans of yours ever since, and we’ve been following you ever since. So the Ballard family is big fans of yours."
The official "Jeff Gordon Day" proclamation, read by the mayor at the conclusion of Gordon’s scheduled Friday media availability, noted both the Hendrick Motorsports driver’s accomplishments on the track and his numerous philanthropic efforts.
Among Gordon’s philanthropic efforts mentioned: His long-term relationship with Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis that has provided funding for new construction and equipment; his contribution of $1.5 million to establish the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation Pediatric Cancer Research Fund; and his annual bowling tournament, held each year during Brickyard week, that has raised more than $3.5 million for Riley Hospital for Children.
Clearly touched to have the day of Sunday’s race named in his honor, the long-time driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet couldn’t help but also crack a joke.
"Now I just hope my competitors are respectful of this on Sunday — sort of move out of the way," he said with a laugh.
In addition to the mayor’s "Jeff Gordon Day" proclamation, Indy’s track president presented Gordon with the No. 24 from the iconic scoring pylon that was in place from the year of Gordon’s inaugural Brickyard win through the conclusion of last year’s race.
"We’ve decided that the first thing we wanted to do with the pylon — we could have presented you with lots of it," Boles said. "We could have presented you the No. 1. We could have presented you No. 4 for your (Brickyard) wins. But we decided we’d like to present with the No. 24 from the pylon that was up for all 20 races that you’ve competed here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, just thanking you for everything you’ve done for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway."
This weekend, that track is debuting a new scoring pylon that, in addition to showing the running order of the cars on track, also features custom animations for the green flag, yellow flags and checkered flag.
With his car number from the old pylon now in his possession, Gordon is happy to once again hold a piece of history at the track he considers home.
"I’m very proud of the ability to race here in Indiana," Gordon said. "You know, as a kid and to come here to Indianapolis Motor Speedway and compete, like I said, it’s just a dream of a kid from California to get this opportunity, and now it’s hard for me to believe it’s been 20 years since we’ve been coming here with NASCAR. And we won that inaugural race and my life changed forever when we won this race. …
"(I) couldn’t walk in anywhere without somebody saying, ‘Hey, didn’t you win that race in Indianapolis?’ So I’ll never forget that moment and this speedway. And this means a lot to me to receive these awards."