Power of the Team

UPDATED: April 5, 2011
PUBLISHED: April 5, 2011

In the final minutes of last year’s Subway Fresh Fit 600 in Phoenix, Jeff Gordon was in the lead and poised to win the race with three laps to go. As he pulled into the pit for his final stop, his crew bounded over the wall, replacing all four tires and refueling the No. 24 car in less than 13 seconds.

“My crew was great. We had everything together,” Gordon remembers. “But I spun my tires just a little bit on the restart, lost the lead and finished second. We didn’t win, and I let them down.”

For a NASCAR team, the smallest miscalculations can affect the outcome of an entire race—or even an entire season. And after almost 20 years as a professional driver, that’s one of the most valuable lessons the four-time Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) Series champion has learned.

“In every race, you’re making split-second decisions; in every race, you make 100 mistakes,” he tells SUCCESS. Those decisions can sometimes be very costly, but on the other hand, he laughs, “sometimes those are the days you end up in Victory Lane.”

Gordon says racing has taught him much about life in general. “What it takes to be balanced with a successful life requires the same things that it takes to be successful on the racetrack.” These include the importance of teamwork in reaching any goal, knowing when to be patient and when to take chances, being ready for unpredictability and finding ways to overcome adversity, among others, he says. “But I think the biggest lesson is that what you put into your work and what you put into your life in terms of how you treat people is a reflection of how you will be treated and what you’re going to get out of it.”

The Greatest Team Sport

The last point—how you treat the people around you— can have the biggest impact on how smoothly every other aspect of your race goes. Having a great team is the best hedge against all the risks that threaten success.

In fact, Gordon explains, “I think our sport is one of the greatest team sports out there because of what it takes to prepare the cars to get them to the racetrack. And then throughout the weekend trying to make the car faster than your competitors’ and making sure nothing breaks, nothing fails. And then when you get into the race, the communication that goes on between you and the team. And the decision making because you’re constantly making adjustments to make the car better, as well— deciding if you’re going to take four tires or two tires or just fill up the gas tank. And then there’s the synchronization with seven guys going over the wall to pit a car in 13 seconds.” He exhales. “It’s pretty amazing.”

The key, he insists, is making sure team members communicate clearly, trust each other and know they are respected and valuable in achieving common goals and the team's ultimate success. 

But winning for Gordon isn’t necessarily about sitting behind the wheel of the first car across the finish line. Each time he takes the track, he isn’t just competing against the other 42 cars out there. He is also, in a way, competing against himself, because Gordon isn’t just a driver; he’s also the co-owner (along with Rick Hendrick of Hendrick Motor Sports) of the No. 48 team, headed by driver Jimmie Johnson—a team that has won five consecutive Sprint Cup Championships since 2006.

An Amazing Run

When asked about this amazing run, Gordon points to the countless variables that can affect the outcome of races—races that can be won or lost by something as seemingly insignificant as a careless spin of the tires. For the No. 48 team to come out on top five consecutive seasons is, in his words, “incredible. We’re seeing something in our sport right now that I don’t think we’ll ever see again. It’s so challenging to win a championship, to do two or three or even four. But to do five straight? I don’t even think Jimmie and his team can put it in perspective. And I don’t think anyone really will for another 10 or 15 or 20 years, when we realize how challenging and how difficult it is and what an accomplishment it’s been."

“I’m very proud of what they’ve been able to do. Being involved with the team from its inception and being involved with bringing Jimmie there and a lot of the guys on that team—it definitely has its rewards, as well.”

Team ownership does place Gordon in an unusual position, though, since seeing one of his cars win means the other is crossing the line in second place, or lower. “I don’t want anyone else to win the championship,” he admits. “In another sport when you talk about teammates, it’s everyone on one team trying to win together, but that ’s not how it works in NASCAR. We’re teammates and we share information, but then on Sunday we’re trying to win and beat one another. So it definitely creates a whole different challenge.”

Of all the challenges he’s faced in racing, Gordon remains mindful of his good fortune, which wouldn’t have been possible without the support of others throughout his life, starting with his parents when he was racing go-karts at age 5. “By age 7, my whole life was ‘I want to be a race car driver,’ and I was very fortunate to make that a reality. As a kid growing up, getting the opportunity to live out my dream is what got me to where I am today, and I’ve always been passionate about other children getting to have that same opportunity.”

Building Relationships

Gordon has long been involved in children’s charities and was inspired to create his own foundation in 1999 after his former crew chief’s son was diagnosed with leukemia. The Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation has since granted more than $11 million to benefit children’s charities, particularly those supporting cancer research and treatment, and improving the quality of life for children with cancer.

Now the father of two young children, Gordon recently added another cause to the foundation’s roster. While talking to their pediatrician, he and his wife learned of the risk of pertussis, or whooping cough, to young children, who may contract the potentially fatal disease from adults who haven’t received booster shots. Even if they’ve never had the disease themselves, adults can still pass the bacteria to infants and children.

“We were shocked to learn that this was something we weren’t aware of when our daughter was born, that there aren’t more messages out there about how we can protect our child by getting a pertussis booster shot,” he says.

Since 1995, the year of his first NASCAR Cup Series championship, Gordon has also been active with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, helping create special memories for terminally ill children. Almost every weekend during the racing season, he’s granting a wish, giving VIP treatment to one of these children. “When a kid’s fi nal wish is to see you, to meet you, there is nothing more inspiring than that,” he says.

Whether it’s giving a gentle hug to a sick child or tearing up the asphalt at 190 mph, Gordon insists that life is about building relationships and growing from every interaction.

“I’ve won a bunch of races, but I’ve lost a whole lot more,” he says with a laugh. “I just try not to make the same mistakes twice.

“I know what it takes to win championships, but it doesn’t mean you can just put all those things together,” he continues. “It takes teamwork. It takes a tremendous group of people that just work really well together. Then … maintain the focus, work ethic and the chemistry with those personalities. That’s what our guys did with our championships, and I think that if you go back to the history of our sport, the very successful teams have had that.”