The Early Years of Jeff Gordon Racing – Part II

Before I begin this segment, I need to do a quick correction- I stated John Bickford built and owned hardtops driven by Gene Dudley.  Actually, It was Gene’s brother, Darrell, who was partners with John and drove the #97 Hardtop.  Their younger brother, Lee, was also involved with Hardtops and stock cars over the years.

When John came home with the two Quarter Midgets, he was envisioning a sister – brother racing team.  Well, after a few parking lot tryouts, Jeff was totally into it but Kim would rather be the trophy girl than the driver!

Jeff’s first Quarter Midget was called the “Fuzz Car” (photo right).  I cannot remember who John got it from, but it had this really strange black flocked or textured paint job on it.  At the time, John just focused on the chassis which he rebuilt, added the required roll cage on and got it on the track.  Jeff was five then and had immediate success.  Soon the “Fuzz Car” was replaced with more current equipment, especially with Stanley Cars out of Brownsburg, Indiana.  Sometime later, John loaned the Fuzz Car to my Hardtop Neighbor, Fred Gryzlac, for his grandson to drive.  Years later, after Jeff’s amazing success in open wheel and then into NASCAR, John wanted to get the Fuzz Car back to restore because it was Jeff’s very first race car.  First guy he called was me and wanted to know if I kept track of Fred’s daughter and son in law since Fred had passed away.  They had since divorced and Mike, the son in law, had moved to a small town north of Shasta, CA.  After many attempts by me and others, I finally contacted Mike and he said he sold the car to someone local many years earlier but still knew them and would investigate.  That person had no idea what happen to it but said “It might be still in the barn”.  That lead to a trip by me to search the barn.  It was like a scene out of American Pickers!  We found everything from wagon wheels, horseshoes, rusty cars to dead rats and rattle snakes but no Fuzz Car!  The trail went cold after that and has not and probably will ever will be found.

Back to the story – This story could take forever but from 1976 – 1985 Jeff raced quarter midgets and was dominant at his home track in Rio Linda, CA, winning multiple track championships as well as a couple of national championships.  In 1980, John put Jeff in an Emmick Go Kart and same story, dominated everywhere he raced.

By 1984, Jeff was 13 and had pretty much done everything in Quarter Midgets and Go Karts and was getting a little bored.  He took up water skiing for a while and was very good at that.  At that time, John made one of the most controversial and historic decisions in racing history and decided Jeff could drive a sprint car!  So next thing we know, John took delivery of a brand-new Osborne Sprint Car Chassis!  Lee Osborne was one of the very first traveling World of Outlaw drivers racing with the likes of Steve Kinser, Jimmy Boyd, Sammy Swindel and Doug Wolfgang.

Quarter Midget trailer

During the Quarter Midget and Go Kart days, although I was still close with John and Carol and worked in their shop off and on, I was not much involved with the racing during that time. They were gone every weekend and I was busy trying to make a living and raising a young family.  However, in the early 80’s, John began to transform his business from hand controls to race car parts.  He started with Quarter Midget and Go Karts parts and was now entering the Midget and Sprint car Arena.  This is when I dove back in headfirst!  I was then self-employed in another industry but had a small shop in Vallejo.  John recruited me to help with some of the design of the Midget and Sprint Car parts.  Together, we came up with the first super light weight aluminum valve to control the location of the huge wing on a sprint car.  That was in 1985 and the same valve and countless copies are still used today. 

We also worked together to build a machine for swaging sprint car radius rods.  This involved taking thin wall aluminum tubing and swaging the ends down to reduce the OD and ID so the ID would be the correct tap diameter for ¾” Rod End.  This created a very strong but light Rod.  In Sprint Car racing, everything was about light weight!

So, in late 1984 we finished the sprint car and were ready to test.  At this time Jeff was all of 5’2” and weighed maybe 100 lbs.  Even back then, a 410 Sprint Car running alcohol made 600HP! We loaded up and drove north to Dixon to a beet farm that had a long flat dirt road.  Sprint cars do not have starters, so they must be pushed in gear by a push car to start. This gave Jeff a chance to practice starting the car.

Annually, Sprint Car season starts in January and February in Florida due to the more favorable weather.  So, in January 1985 John took a total leap of faith and loaded up and headed to Florida.  Remember, Jeff has never turned a lap in a Sprint Car yet!

They show up In Florida and everybody that’s anybody in Sprint Cars is there –  Kinser, Swindel, Wolfgang, Ferkel, Hewett, to name a few.  Needless to say, everyone was extremely skeptical, and many thought John was plain crazy putting a 100 pound kid in a sprint car!  However, after Jeff hot lapped and qualified most were ok with giving him a shot.  The guy that really put his support behind Jeff was the legendary Jack Hewett and that was huge!  Jack and Jeff always remained close friends after that.

Now, back in California, the whole story was different.  The local tracks would not let him race due to insurance concerns.  John tried and tried but to no avail. There were people wanting to file child abuse charges against John!  The only concession we got was from Hanford Speedway who would let Jeff hot lap and qualify but not race.  So, every Friday we would load up, drive 4 hours to Hanford for Jeff to hot lap about 5 laps and then qualify 2 laps, then drive 4 hours home!  Many times Jeff would be fast time and was always in the top four which qualified him for the Trophy dash.  And this was with the best drivers in California, like Jimmy Sills and Brent Keading!

Hanford 1985

The California situation lead the Bickfords to pack up and move to Pittsboro, Indiana in 1987 where Jeff was welcome to race in the Midwest.  So, for the next few years, we raced at local tracks in Indiana Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois and Pennsylvania, like Bloomington, Kokomo, Tri State, Findley, Fremont, Florence, etc.  I still lived in California but travelled back frequently to help when I could.  Amazing days indeed! 

Again, I could write chapters on Jeff’s open wheel career, but I will summarize in the interest of time and space. Basically, over the next 6 years Jeff set the world on fire in open wheel racing winning everything there was to win on both dirt and pavement in USAC Midgets, Sprint Cars and Silver Crown.  He won multiple trach championships, USAC National Titles in Midget and Silver Crown, won most of all the prestigious races there were like the Hullman Hundred, Night before the 500 and the Bellville Nationals.  He was racing in all 3 USAC series and won multiple features at the same race at places like Salem and the legendary Eldora.

What really put Jeff Gordon on the map was when ESPN did the Thursday Night Thunder Series which became Saturday Night Thunder in National Prime time.  The races were filmed live from Indianapolis Raceway Park and the famous 1/2-mile Ascot in Gardena, CA. Then later, at the little quarter mile in Ventura, CA., Jeff dominated the series at all the tracks, but the most notable storyline was the huge rivalry he had with Midget Car legend, Sleepy Trip.  Jeff didn’t create it, he just came in every week and kicked Sleepy’s ass!  Sleepy, 20 years senior to Jeff hated that this 18-year-old kid was weekly beating him on his home turf!  Sleepy was not a good sport and accused Jeff of cheating and being a dirty driver.  Did not bother Jeff a bit!  The Trip fans hated and booed him which kind of gave him a small preview of what would come in the future with Earnhardt fans!

Next month, Jeff’s Entry And Career In NASCAR…

About the author: Roamin Angel Randy K. retired from Medical Device Industry (MDI) in 2016. Now pursuing his passion of restoring and working on classic cars, hot rods, muscle cars and hi-performance boats.

Seen here with Jeff Gordon.