Fans presented everything at the table, from T-shirts to posters, the hood of a car and a baby's behind, clothed of course, and Jeff Gordon swirled his marking pen across them to make his distinctive but unreadable signature.
During his two-hour autograph session in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, and not a second longer, the young man with Hollywood-good-looks and a lead foot left his mark on more than just the 500-or-so pieces of memorabilia. The 700-plus fans who had come to see one of the biggest names in NASCAR racing went home pledging even deeper undying devotion to the driver of race car No. 24.Typical of many Gordon fans, Amy Lou Willden and her daughter, Lyndsay, stepped into line under the tent on the Ken Garff Honda lot at 900 S. State St., nearly four hours before his arrival. Once they'd gotten his autograph and shaken his hand, they moved to the side and stood there, just watching, for two more hours.
"We became Jeff Gordon fans back when he was driving sprint cars. You could see it in him. He's an awesome driver. I was a big fan before, but seeing him here, being so gracious to the fans, I'm even more of a fan," Amy Lou said, frequently looking back to make sure Gordon was still seated.
At age 26, Gordon is one of the youngest NASCAR drivers on the big track. Certainly, he is one of the best. In 1997, Gordon won the NASCAR championship; won 10 races, had top-five finishes 22 times and top-10 finishes 23 more times; became the youngest driver to win the Daytona 500; broke regular season and overall earning records; and became the only driver in NASCAR history to win $4 million in a single season.
But the only way Utah race fans ever get to see Gordon race is to travel great distances or stay glued to the TV set on Sunday mornings. And, it became apparent in talking with some, they do both routinely.
The Willdens have traveled to three races. The Steigers, Jake and Jennifer, have also traveled to watch their favorite driver. Same with Marty Price and Todd Hansen. All of them, by the way, were wearing Jeff Gordon T-shirts.
Actually, Gordon admitted, he was surprised by the turnout, considering Salt Lake City is not on the circuit.
"Which says a lot for the sport and makes me very proud that this many people came out to see me," he said.
And what does he attribute to this out-of-the-way loyal following?
"The sport is really popular right now and we're getting a lot of publicity. There were a lot of females here today and I've got a large female fan base. Right now NASCAR is really hot," he managed to get out before his publicist pushed him into a white Chevy Blazer and whisked him off to the airport and a quick flight to his next race this weekend in California.
Some of his crew said Gordon started racing go-carts when he was 5. It was in these small cars he started to exhibit his great talent for making left turns at three times the legal freeway speeds. Later he moved to Indiana to race sprint and midgets. Eventually, his talent for winning caught the eye of the NASCAR people. In 1993, he won Rookie of the Year honors.
NASCAR racing is, as he pointed out, hot right now. Last year, a race in Phoenix sold out, more than 100,000 tickets, in one day. Other races sell out just about as fast. This type of racing is not cheap. While no official numbers are ever released, consensus is that it takes between $5 to $10 million a year to run a car on the NASCAR circuit.
As the series stands now, it's a battle between No. 1 Jeremy Mayfield (Ford) and No. 2 Gordon (Chevy).
Mayfield, he admitted, has the momentum and the car right now.
"We're getting a lot out of our Chevrolet, but I think Ford has a little bit of an advantage. What I was disappointed in was how much horsepower those guys are making down the straight-away. We were off a little on the straight-aways, so we've got to work on that," he offered.
Which isn't easy considering the cars are already running at more than 200 miles per hour.
But, came the show of support from his Utah fans, "If anyone can, Jeff can." And no one there doubted it for a second.