The setting was surreal 20 years ago for the inaugural NASCAR Cup race at Kansas Speedway.
Two-and-a-half weeks removed from the terrorist attacks on 9/11, security was on high alert and an undercurrent of the unknown permeated the air as nearly 100,000 people filled the glistening-new, $261.5 million track sitting on 1,300 acres in western Wyandotte County.
Hall of Fame-bound Jeff Gordon, in the midst of racing for his fourth Cup championship, would win that race on Sept. 30, 2001 at Kansas, but what he remembers most is the range of emotions that consumed the country.
“There was a combination of focus on trying to win a championship on the new race track, but what happened around the country on 9-11 was still fresh on everybody’s mind,” Gordon, now 50, said this week. “We had run one race at Dover the week before, but everybody was still in shock and trying to understand what happened.
“At the same time that weekend, NASCAR and race teams were wanting to pay tribute to so many who had lost their lives, so many that risked their lives to try to save others. We wanted to honor those people every chance we got that year and now every year when 9-11 comes around.”
Gordon, in fact, did his part at Kansas after learning that Jason Dahl, the captain aboard hijacked United Flight 93, and one of 45 who perished in rural Pennsylvania, was a huge Jeff Gordon fan, as was his 15-year-old son, Matt. Gordon’s team invited the Dahl family of Littleton, Colorado, to the race as its guests.
Matt and his grandfather accepted the offer and visited the No 24 DuPont hospitality tent, took a tour of the track and garage area, including a pre-race visit with Gordon.
“We wanted to be sensitive but at the same time, do all we could for those who were going through this,” Gordon said. “Matt was a very quiet and reserved kid, but he seemed humbled and appreciative of being able to be there, and we wanted to pay tribute to his dad.”
Gordon then shifted his attention to the sleek new, 1.5-mile tri-oval where he would win his sixth and last race of the season, which proved critical in claiming the last of his four championships.
But it wasn’t easy.
Gordon didn’t take the lead for good until the 246th of 267 laps when he went low out of turn four, nearly onto the apron, to pass Mark Martin and then hold off a hard-charging Ryan Newman to the checkered flag by 0.413 seconds.
“If I remember correctly, Kansas was one of those first tracks where you could really get down on that apron and utilize it because the banking was fairly flat there,” Gordon said. “Up until that track, you stayed away from doing moves like that at 1.5-mile tracks. But as a racer, you’re going use every bit of surface you can possibly get away with until there’s ether a wall or grass, if it’s going to help you win a race.”
The victory marked the third time Gordon had won an inaugural Cup race at a track, having done so at Indianapolis in 1994 and California in 1997. And, just for good measure, Gordon would repeat at Kansas in 2002 and win a third time here in 2014, two years after the track was repaved and one year before he retired from full-time racing.
“Right from the beginning, from the first laps on the track, I realized I loved the track, I loved the flow of it,” he said. “The transitions from straightaway to corners were great and had a little bit of uniqueness from one end to another, which made it challenging.”
This summer, Gordon left the Fox television booth and became vice-chairman for Hendrick Motorsports.
“It just seemed to be natural for my style of driving,” he said, “and says a lot about the race team and the organization that Hendrick Motorsports provides ... the people and their focus of, when there’s a new track, they took a lot of pride in being well prepared and going to those tracks with a mission, which was to be the first …
“You only get one chance to be the first to be a first-time winner at any of these tracks, and we put a lot of energy and effort into doing that.”
Gordon’s third win at Kansas was especially gratifying because as it not only came 12 years after the second victory, it occurred on the reconfigured track. It also made him the first-three-time winner at the track. He has since been joined by Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin ad Kevin Harvick as three-time winners here.
“As you get older and have been in the sport that many years, you never know when the next win is going to come,” said Gordon, who would win four more races before retiring. “You really cherish those wins.
“In 2001, I was still pretty fresh and new, and even though it was our fourth and last championship, we were on a roll. We were used to winning and being competitive … Then we went through some years where we struggled. To get back to victory lane later was really gratifying.”
Those Kansas wins were so meaningful, there’s a place of honor in the home of Jeff and Ingrid Gordon in Charlotte, N.C., for the uniquely designed Kansas Speedway trophies, which resemble a sculptured piece of art rather than the more typical trophy hardware.
“My wife and I, the way we decorate our house, we pride ourselves on a home that is beautiful and ‘homey,’ and we don’t put a lot of racing things in it,” said Gordon, the winner of 93 career Cup races. “But I can tell you, that Kansas trophy has been in our house from the very beginning, not just because it’s a symbol of the win, but it’s very artistic.”