Gordon’s racing career hit full throttle in Dayton

Today in Daytona Beach, Fla., NASCAR’s Jeff Gordon begins his final go-round as a full-time driver.

Twenty-seven years ago in Dayton, newcomer Gordon’s career was starting to hit full throttle.

Gordon’s racing career left imprints all over the Miami Valley. And it started with Molds Unlimited Racing, based in a shop on Rita Street in Dayton.

Team owner Terry Winterbotham and Gordon teamed up for an ultra-successful 1988 season. Gordon’s stepfather, John Bickford, told Winterbotham if he ever needed a driver he’d let Jeff pilot their black No. 6 Gambler Chassis USAC sprint car. And when Molds Unlimited lost its driver to another team prior to 1988, that’s what happened.

Gordon — then a 16-year-old sporting a mullet and a whisper of a mustache — drove for Winterbotham for the 1988 season and half of the 1989 season, when a deal too good to pass came along. Though their time together was brief, Winterbotham knew it was going to be special.

“The first time he drove it,” Winterbotham said of when he knew Gordon was a rare talent, even at 16 years old. “Jeff and I hooked up and we started winning championships.”

Gordon won 13 races and track titles at Eldora, Mansfield and Millstream speedways in 1988. And he never stopped. Entering today’s Daytona 500 (1 p.m., FOX), Gordon ranks fourth all-time in career Sprint Cup titles (4) and third in career victories (92).

His first victory at Eldora Speedway, though, had to wait a little longer than most tracks. Gordon tried to race at the famed — and dangerous — high-banked, half-mile dirt oval as a 15-year-old in 1986. Gordon told the Dayton Daily News in 2007: “I was coming around to take green, but they suddenly put up yellow. I checked up and the guy behind me just came right over the top of me.”

As the story goes, legendary Eldora owner Earl Baltes kicked him out and told him to come back when he was older.

Gordon started racing quarter-midgets at age 5. But when ready to graduate into midgets and sprints around 14-years old, the tracks in California said no. So Bickford moved the family to Pittsboro, Ind., and into short-track history.

Larry Miller, who skillfully painted and wrenched the Molds Unlimited cars, remembered Gordon as he is today: polite, polished and incredibly talented.

“He was great,” Miller said. “He didn’t get upset often, but he would sometimes. He didn’t have an aggressive attitude.”

Well, there was one exception — when he won.

“He always got so excited he’d come up and hug us,” Miller said. “It was damn near like he was punching you in the back. Very excited. He wasn’t cocky. He wasn’t rude. He wasn’t mean. A great kid.”

Two of the sprint cars Gordon piloted — including that No. 6 winged United State Auto Club (USAC) ride — rest idle in Dayton. Racing author and historian Bill Holder was told in 1996 where the frame could be found. Holder bought it and restored the sprint car sans engine. Holder also restored the No. 76 Silver Crown car Gordon drove.

He would put both on display for charity events and haul them on an open trailer. Holder said he would get messages from passing motorists. It was easy to tell who was a fan of Gordon or a foe of the driver who routinely beat their NASCAR favorite.

“When people passed I’d usually get one of two things,” Holder said, demonstrating a thumbs up or a middle finger.

As a 16-year-old racing against men twice his age, Gordon seldom had trouble fitting in. Troy sprint car legend Jack Hewitt battled Gordon on the track, but never off it.

“A few of the guys started (complaining) and weren’t going to let him run,” Hewitt said. “I told (series officials) to watch him. If he goes around on the bottom on the first lap, he’s going to run 20 laps on the bottom. If he goes to the top, he’s going to run the 20 laps around the top. I’ve seen some guys race for 20 years and I have no idea where they’re going. He never drove over his head. And everybody knows he was a great kid.

“He had a lot of talent and he had the personality to go with it. You see some of these kids and you want to smack them upside the head. Jeff wasn’t like that.”

If anything, Winterbotham said, Gordon probably could have cut loose more than he did. He praised Bickford for helping Gordon be the person and driver he is today, but said when Gordon’s stepfather went back to California on business Gordon loosened up a little.

“We got him to drink his first and only beer in his whole life, probably,” Winterbotham said, chuckling at the memory at Eldora.

“We threw a little party for him graduation night at Haubstadt, Ind. We had a blow-up doll we put in his race car. He did not like that. We had to remove it. He wouldn’t touch it or nothing. We knew him when he had his first-ever girlfriend, went to his prom. We go back quite a ways.”

Winterbotham said he hasn’t talked to Gordon in about 20 years. But both he and Miller will be rooting for Gordon to win his fourth Daytona 500 and first since 2005.

“He’s still our favorite,” said Miller, whose sentiments were echoed by Winterbotham. “I root for him every weekend.”