Archive: How a US shooting star came close to dizzying heights
The 13 May 1993 issue of Autosport magazine featured a young Robby Gordon, whose career trajectory had him tracking towards the very top in motorsport. From Ford backing and making friends with Nigel Mansell to a rivalry with Eddie Cheever, here’s how the Californian who grew up on dirt racing rose to prominence
Robby Gordon wants to be the next Indycar racer in Formula 1. He’s on his way to the top. His first car race was in the Daytona 24 Hours sportscar race and his first single-seater start was in an Indycar. But in between, he destroyed Formula 3000 and Winston Cup machines.
I first came across Robby Gordon at the 1991 Daytona 500, where the mercurial youngster was making his Winston Cup debut. He was the man of the moment. During practice I asked Gordon Kirby, our US correspondent, how he rated Robby. Before Kirby had time to finish, there was a resounding ‘thump’ from the direction of the track.
"We have a car in the wall at Turn 4," announced the PA commentator. "It’s the number 90 Publix Ford of Robby Gordon…"
Two years on, Gordon’s brief and disastrous flirtation with NASCAR has long been forgotten. Fading too is the memory of an F3000 test which ended with a heavy encounter with the barrier.
At 24, Gordon is on track for the top. His progress in Indycars since his debut last year has been astonishing, topped by a brilliant performance at Surfers’ Paradise which saw him share the rostrum with the 1972 and 1992 Formula 1 world champions. But then he let himself down by crashing at Phoenix and tangling with Eddie Cheever at Long Beach.
His form may be erratic, but Robby is a star for the future. He has a natural talent, but sometimes his boundless confidence has been too great for even his car control. His philosophy has always been ‘win or bust…’
Gordon’s background is in the world of off-road racing, a speciality of his native California whose graduates include Rick Mears. But even before that, he competed in motocross.
"I raced motocross bikes from when I was eight years old," he recalls. "I won two mini-cycle championships, and then I raced 125s, and won a Pro-Am title when I was 15. But I got hurt twice. I broke a wrist and then a collarbone. You have to fly so far, and if you can’t do the double jumps, you might as well stay at home. And I’d seen a couple of my friends get paralysed. Once you’ve seen a couple of buddies get hurt real bad, you feel it’s time to get out. I felt it was time to move on.
Gordon truly caught the eye when he made his IMSA bow in 1990
Photo by: Motorsport Images
"My dad raced off-road cars, so I did a season with him, when I was 16. We won the championship the first year."
From 1985-89 the teenage Gordon won a host of titles in off-road marathons and Mickey Thompson stadium sprint events, and soon earned works Ford support. He won the Baja 1000 with a 17-hour solo drive, and at one stage was driving for Ford in the deserts and Toyota in the stadiums. Forced to decide between Toyota and Ford, Gordon chose the latter. A wise decision. Ford motorsport supremo Mike Kranefuss took the lad under his wing, and has been a fairy godmother ever since.
Steering him towards circuit racing, Kranefuss asked Robby to test a Roush Mustang at Sebring. The story goes that Gordon had to take an expensive cab ride from Orlando Airport, because at 20 he was too young to rent a car…He was quick, and was signed up for Roush’s works Ford IMSA GTS team for 1990.
Just turned 21, he made his debut at Daytona – and won the class. Like Roush graduate Scott Pruett, Gordon received a good grounding in the competitive ‘silhouette’ series, learning his way around road and street courses. Three other wins took him to second in the title battle, although he fell off a few times. People started to take note of this brash and cocky youngster, who seemed to have no trouble adapting from dirt to the circuits. With Kranefuss behind him, anything was possible.
"Nige's a great guy. I think he's surprised a lot of Americans with how friendly he is. I guess he probably didn't even know who I was, let alone think that I'd give him a run for the pole at Surfers'" Robby Gordon
That summer Mike and Eddie Jordan arranged for him to test a GA Motorsport F3000 car at Snetterton. It was his first outing in a single-seater, and he settled in quickly. At that time Robby’s burning desire was to make it to Formula 1, and he professed no interest in Indycars.
Next step was stock car racing. As usual Robby adapted well: at the end of 1990 he did an ARCA race supporting the Winston Cup finale at Atlance, and took a surprise pole. In the race he led… and crashed.
For 1991, Kranefuss directed Robby to the Winston Cup with Junie Donlavey’s long established but unsuccessful Ford team. He impressed during Daytona testing, and was fourth quickest through the winter. Then he wiped out a car in practice for the 500. The Winston Cup regulars smiled knowingly. Another valuable lesson…
"You can’t slow down," he told me that afternoon. "If you slow down, nobody recognises you. At least if you’re going fast, people know who you are. I want to break into that elite group of drivers."
In the 500 itself he was taken out in a late accident involving Richard Petty, and after one more disappointing outing, the planned 18-race NASCAR deal was ditched. Robby concentrated on IMSA GTS for the rest of 1991, alternately winning and crashing.
An exciting character, Gordon had the speed but tendency to crash to match
Photo by: Motorsport Images
In July that year Kranefuss took his protégé to the British Grand Prix to introduce him to influential people. Later in the summer Robby had a second go in an F3000 car, this time a Paul Stewart Racing Lola. But after just a few erratic laps of the Le Mans Bugatti circuit he backed in hard into the wall at the Dunlop chicane, neatly removing the gearbox. The car was written off, and so was Robby Gordon’s reputation…
"I’d never driven on rumble strips before. In the first corner I touched my right side tyres on the rumble strip, and it pulled the car to the right. But I had to go left…I’m still really bummed out about that."
Plans for Gordon to do F3000 were quietly abandoned, but another opportunity arose. Ford was returning to Indycars, and Robby’s previous lack of interest in the series was forgotten. Kranefuss suggested Robby for Chip Ganassi’s second Lola for 1992; the team just happened to have the Ford engine.
Gordon tested on the Phoenix oval in December 1991. He hadn’t driven an Indycar before, and Kranefuss must have had fingers crossed. But Robby didn’t let him down this time. He didn’t shunt, impressed the team, and was signed to run some road races.
Gordon surprised many people with strong showings in a seven-race programme. There were spins and a few brushes with street circuit walls as he sought the limit, but he was quick, often quicker than team-mate Cheever, and no one could fault his determination.
"The first year in Indycars went real well. In the last couple of races we were qualifying in the top 10, and as soon as the race got going we were running in the top five. We should have had a podium finish at Vancouver."
Gordon was struggling to find a ride for 1993, but Ford came through once again, an engine deal enabling him to team up with AJ Foyt. AJ had a reputation for chewing up and spitting out young drivers; you do things his way, or else. But at least Robby has the services of Kenny Anderson, the former F1 engineer he met at Ganassi.
"I was fortunate enough to keep Kenny, as I worked well with him at Ganassi. I don’t think Foyt’s ever had an engineer before. Surfers’ Paradise was dynamite. We were very fast there. I think I was fastest in every practice, except for qualifying itself. I ended up fourth, but that was all the ’92 car had. Maybe someone else could have got it around a little better, but that’s all I could do."
In the race Robby battled with Fittipaldi and Mansell, and ended up third. AJ himself was not there to see it, preferring to skip the Aussie trip. He was at Phoenix however, where Gordon had a major crash.
A self-confessed rookie mistake ended Gordon's race at Phoenix
Photo by: Motorsport Images
"We were fast at Phoenix, and I think we could have won the race if we’d hung in a little longer. At the time I think I was two laps ahead of Mario, and he ended up winning. It was just a rookie mistake. I came in behind two cars, went high, and then I tried to cross underneath at the bottom of Turns 1 and 2. I lost the air, the car got light, and went into the wall. It’s the only real shunt I’ve ever had in an Indycar. It didn’t hurt, and I’m not afraid of it."
Two weeks later he was in the wars at Long Beach, tangling not once but twice with Cheever. Gordon was stuck behind for 20 laps, and when he got by, Eddie tapped him and gave him a puncture. The second collision looked like an unsubtle revenge attack by Robby, as the two former team-mates are not the best of pals. Had he lost his temper?
"Well, there’s a couple of different cases. Yeah, I was really pissed off with him, but in the meantime when I came into the pits they spilt fuel on the back of the car, and the rear brake lines got burned off. Honest, no bullshit!
"I lost my rear brakes completely, and this was the first lap coming out of the pits after the flat tyre. I was kinda cruising around, trying to get out of the way. I had to get back over the make the turn, and Cheever wouldn’t let me over. We didn’t touch that hard. I love Long Beach, but I couldn’t wait to get out of that place…"
"I'm definitely interested in F1, and I'd like to do it some day, with the right team and the right engineers. With Indycars, you can stay there and be happy, or you can go through there and be happy" Robby Gordon
So far Gordon is getting on well with Mansell, and the world champion praised the youngster after Surfers’.
"Nige’s a great guy. I think he’s surprised a lot of Americans with how friendly he is. I guess he probably didn’t even know who I was, let alone think that I’d give him a run for the pole at Surfers. He’s a tough driver, and he drives like Cheever or the other F1 guys. He was brought up to block. If you can’t run with the guy, block him. But he adds good competition to our series. It brings the level of drivers up. If you want to pass, you have to work for it."
Mansell’s presence in Indycars has helped to give Gordon’s name worldwide exposure, and he still wants to make it to F1.
"Here’s the deal. I’m definitely interested in F1, and I’d like to do it some day, with the right team and the right engineers. I have to sit down and look at where I want to end up in the long run. With Indycars, you can stay there and be happy, or you can go through there and be happy."
Gordon picked up a rivalry with Cheever but found a friend in Mansell
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Can Ford help him into F1?
"Ford can help me, but I think I can help myself. I would say good finishes are going to get you to F1. In racing you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time to get a good ride, like Michael Andretti was.
"I wish Michael the best of luck. I hope he gets his stuff together, because the better he does the easier it’s going to be for the next American. I don’t know if I’m going to be the next, but I’d like to be. I think he’s getting in deeper and deeper. I know what it’s like, as I’ve been there myself…"
Now it’s Indianapolis. It’s Gordon’s first visit, and indeed his first Indycar race on a superspeedway. But it’s so far, so good, Robby being second fastest in last week’s rookie tests. There’s also the added pressure of representing Foyt, although AJ himself is planning to ‘unretire’.
"I can’t wait. It’s going to be a lot of fun: my first Indy 500, and going there with AJ. I’m positive he’s driving as well, but I’ll still have Kenny, all my guys, and the ’93 car. I don’t know why he entered five cars; all I know of are two ‘93s and an updated ’92.
"I think Nigel and I are in the same position; jumping in at the deep end with both feet…"
What happened next?
A switch to Formula 1 never came for Gordon, whose early single-seater promise never translated into a sustained Indycar title challenge.
Gordon led two laps on his Indy 500 debut, but retired due to gearbox problems with 35 laps to go. His 1993 season peaked with second at Mid-Ohio to Fittipaldi and a switch to Walker Racing followed for 1994.
Gordon impressed in CART but never truly hit the heights his early promise hinted at
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Gordon took a brace of pole positions on Canadian street tracks at Toronto and Vancouver, but had to wait until 1995 for his first victory at Phoenix, a result he matched from pole at Detroit. His title challenge petered out thereafter, but there remained hope for the future. However, his fifth in the standings would prove to be the peak of Gordon's open-wheel career.
The 1996 campaign was a bitter disappointment as he managed only a single podium finish in the Miami season opener. Relations with Ford took a sour turn as he publically criticised the reliability of its engines. He never won again in single-seaters - managing a best finish of eighth when he ran his own team in 1999 with ineffective Toyota powerplants, flitting between Swift and Eagle chassis.
He was however unfortunate not to win the 1999 Indy 500, by then a round of the breakaway Indy Racing League. His Menard entry ran out of fuel while leading with two laps to go, handing victory to Kenny Brack. The most brief of splash and dash stops dropped him to fourth, while he also led the opening 22 laps after qualifying on the front row in 2001.
Gordon continued to make annual Indy 500 appearances until 2004 after becoming a NASCAR regular in 2000. He took three Cup Series wins, two on road courses, with Richard Childress Racing before success dried up when he joined his own team in 2005. Although always a contender on road courses, no more wins followed as he switched from Chevrolet to Ford, then Dodge and Toyota in as many seasons.
Gordon's last NASCAR Cup outing came in 2012, and he has since focused on his Stadium Super Truck series in which he has won two titles. In 11 attempts at the Dakar Rally, he managed a best finish of third in 2009.
Gordon led until the closing stages of the 1999 Indy 500 before having to duck into the pits for fuel
Photo by: Motorsport Images
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