Tiny Pittsboro plays huge role in rise of 'Wonder Boy' Gordon

PITTSBORO, Ind. -- On the left side of Frank and Mary's Catfish House in the heart of this one-stoplight town is a large Budweiser poster featuring the face of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Above the cash register in the front lounge is a large Budweiser Millennium mirror. Small No. 8 Budweiser banners stretch from one side of the bar to the other, and a large lighted No. 8 sign with Earnhardt's autograph is dominant on the far wall.

Across the street on an icebox outside the liquor store are two more pictures of NASCAR's most popular driver. Twenty-five yards away there's another on the side of Destinations Bar and Grill.

Welcome to the teenage home of Jeff Gordon.

"Our bartenders are Dale Jr. fans," said owner Larry Herring, whose grandparents opened Frank and Mary's haven for fried catfish in 1945. "We fight all the time."

A few posters aside, there's no doubt this is Gordon territory. From those walking down the sidewalk who went to nearby Tri-West High School with him to those who never met him, the four-time Nextel Cup champion and current points leader is the town's favorite son.

"I didn't know him, but he's definitely my favorite," 71-year-old Bob Quinnette said as he left the restaurant.

Gordon traded the vineyards of Vallejo, Calif., for the cornfields of Pittsboro when he was 14 because there weren't many places that would allow somebody his age to race.

"It was huge for me," Gordon said of the move. "I was able to really focus on racing, not to mention racing a lot of places around Indiana, Ohio and Illinois.

"It was nice to go to a school and have friends and people, even the teachers, that were very understanding about how serious I was about racing."

Before the age of 18 he'd already won three races and was on his way to the USAC Midget Car Racing rookie of the year award and USAC Midget title against local legends such as Steve Kinser.

By 21 he was a star in the Busch Series at Bill Davis Racing with Ray Evernham as his crew chief.

Three years later, in his second full season of Cup, the future of Hendrick Motorsports won the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that sits 18 miles from his house, which coincidentally sits in Hendricks County.

On Sunday, six days shy of his 36th birthday, Gordon will attempt to win his fifth race at the track where Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt became his childhood heroes.

"He needed to develop his skills," said John Bickford, Gordon's stepfather who orchestrated the move to Pittsboro at Gordon's request. "You have to learn how to anticipate your competitors, how to set up a guy in front of you, to position yourself to pass.

"Running with very good competition in this part of the country was important to shaping his career and making him the driver he is today."

That still doesn't win him any favors in the front of Frank and Mary's.

"I don't think they're biased or non-biased just because we're from there," Gordon said. "Junior is huge everywhere you go, so it's no big surprise there."

Welcome to Pittsboro

Less than a mile off of Highway 74 is a blue sign that reads, "Pittsboro, Home of Jeff Gordon, NASCAR Winston Cup Champion 1995, 1997, 1998, 2001."

"People used to steal the sign," Bickford said. "It wasn't Earnhardt fans. It was Jeff Gordon fans."

A few feet away is another sign that says, "Welcome to Pittsboro, your low-cost, reliable municipal electric utility."

He's going to win and I'm going to be right there watching. And when he does, they're probably going to shut down the streets of Pittsboro again.

Larry Herring

Gordon's life has changed considerably since leaving to follow his stock car racing dream. With apologies to Earnhardt, he is NASCAR's poster boy with his polished Hollywood looks and millionaire lifestyle that includes upscale apartments in New York City and Charlotte, N.C.

He has emerged from winding country roads that lead to more winding country roads to the New York stage of "Live with Regis and Kelly" and "Saturday Night Live."

Yet Gordon remains as grounded today as the shy boy that Bruce Pfeifer met more than 20 years ago.

"He's definitely more worldly," said Pfeifer, who remains one of Gordon's best friends. "He knows a lot of stuff and he's been fortunate to see a lot of things.

"But he's still a kid at heart and one of the most honest people you'd ever meet. He's humble. Even friends I have around town here now are not as down to earth as Jeff Gordon. You can't ask for a nicer guy."

Pfeifer, who still lives in this town of about 1,600, first met Gordon the summer before their freshman year in high school. There was no arrogant or snooty attitude because he came from a more upscale environment to one mostly of country farmers.

"Everybody liked him," Pfeifer said. "You would never, unless you specifically asked Jeff, know what he did besides go to school. He's not the type to brag about anything."

Pfeifer remembered the first time he went to a track with Gordon.

"We pull up and there are signs that say Jeff Gordon and T-shirts with Jeff Gordon," he said. "I looked at him and said, 'You must be pretty good at this.' He said, 'Well, kind of.'

"Typical Jeff. He never plays it up any more than it should be."

Career goals

Gordon, Pfeifer and Todd Osborne were cutting up in the back of the classroom at Tri-West during their junior year as a guest speaker talked about preparation for life after high school.

"Todd made a crack about something and Jeff was the one that got called out," Pfeifer recalled. "He got asked what was going on with the three of us. The teacher said, 'So I take it you already know what you're going to do with your life?'

"Jeff was kind of nervous and basically shy. He goes, 'Well, I hope to be racing cars.' The guy sort of ... chuckles and says, 'Son, you think you can make a living driving cars the rest of your life?' "

Yes, Gordon has done quite well for himself behind the wheel. He has 79 career wins, three more then seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, to rank sixth on NASCAR's all-time win list.

He has more than $86 million in career earnings and ranks 23rd on the "Forbes Magazine" list of the 50 highest-paid athletes at $19.3 million.

"I was already doing pretty good at racing, so I was pretty sure that's what I wanted to do," Gordon said. "Being asked that on career day, I think the teacher no matter what you said was going to push you to be more ambitious at something else.

"I don't think racing was something he felt was going to work out."

Others thought the same thing initially.

"I thought the kid was just a young whippersnapper that would not amount to nothing," said Ron Ping, who helped build the 5,500-square-foot race shop behind Gordon's old house in Pittsboro.

"Then I went to watch him at Bloomington Speedway for the first time. I tell you what. He set them boys on their ear."

Charlie Waters, another longtime family friend, had a similar experience the first time he saw Gordon in a sprint car.

"The first time I met him he was a little s--t," he said. "But when he got on the track you couldn't help but notice how smooth and easygoing he was. I knew there was something there."

But Waters didn't know just how good Gordon was until the night before the Indianapolis 500 in 1987, when Gordon won the Midget feature at O'Reilly Raceway Park.

"I told him then, 'You guys might think I'm kidding, but that race won you a million dollars,' " Waters said. "His career just took off from there."

Pittsboro rules

Gordon hadn't been in Pittsboro long when he found himself involved in a game of croquet at Ping's house.

"I remember the first time I hit his ball," Ping said with a laugh. "I knocked his ball all the way out in a field. He looked at me and said, 'Why'd you do that?' I said, 'That's the way we play croquet in Pittsboro.' "

Gordon now plays croquet on manicured courses with country-club atmospheres such as the Meadowood resort in St. Helena, Calif., where he announced his engagement to Ingrid Vandebosch last summer.

But if it weren't for the time he spent in Pittsboro he might still be playing on lawns that look more like pasture land.

"It was a great environment for him," Bickford said. "All the kids are hard workers, and work ethic is a pretty important piece of what makes Jeff so good. They didn't have time to fool around and play video games. They had too much farming."

Bickford said getting Gordon out of the fast-pace life in California and into an environment where there were no gangs and kids wore blue jeans to school was as important as getting him on the track.

"Everything slowed down for him," Bickford said. "He got a better education. He didn't have all the distractions of all the things that go on in the bigger cities."

There's nothing big about Pittsboro. You can walk from one end of town to the other faster than you can walk the front straightaway at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

There are signs for fish fries on almost every corner and life is so slow that locals drive golf carts down Main Street.

Gordon always mentions Frank and Mary's in interviews because there's really no other place to eat.

The most excitement this sleepy town has seen in the last 50 years came the night Gordon won his first Brickyard 400.

"They pretty much had to close Highway 136," Waters said of the street that runs through the middle of town. "Jeff's parents, John and Carol, came out and we met them at a pub on the corner and partied with the kids and stuff.

"We came home early, but they said the party went on until early in the morning."

House of Gordon

About 2 miles down 100th Street sits a brick and vinyl siding tri-level house surrounded by cornfields.

Michael Lang, a seven-time USAC champion, lives here now with his family. The race shop has been turned into a small business for building car parts.

This is probably the most popular tourist attraction in Pittsboro, particularly on Brickyard weekends.

"People will stop by and take pictures," said Lang's wife, Sherry. "They'll come up in the yard and pick apples off the trees. One lady from Kokomo [Indiana] got out of her car and kissed the road."

He's definitely more worldly. But he's still a kid at heart and one of the most honest people you'd ever meet.

Bruce Pfeifer

There are no visible signs, such as carvings in a tree or handprints in the pavement, to suggest Gordon lived here.

"His mom signed the toilet seat last year," Sherry said. "And we have a Bickford satellite. But that's about it."

Lang had the privilege to race against Gordon years ago, although the odds always were stacked against him.

"He had the best of everything that could be bought when he was a kid," he said. "The first time he raced at Bloomington they pulled up with a semi filled with cars and engines.

"Everybody else just had an open trailer."

But it was more than equipment that made Gordon the star he is today.

"He definitely had what it took," Lang said. "He was a natural."

"Closed Sunday Race day"

The sign is posted to the door of Frank and Mary's on a sheet of white paper.

"We just started opening on Sundays a while back," Herring said. "But when the race is going on all the lawn mowers in town shut down."

Although the front of Herring's establishment has a definite Earnhardt Jr. flavor, the back room is all about Gordon, from autographed pictures to a Dupont car hood to the collage of pictures from the day Jeff Gordon Boulevard was dedicated.

This is where Gordon dines when he visits, although his favorite meal of smoked sausage and apple pie no longer is on the menu.

"I imagine he's a little above that now," Herring said.

Herring remembers the day Gordon returned from testing a stock car in Atlanta for the first time.

"He wasn't old enough to rent a car, so he had to ride to the track in the back of a pickup," he recalled. "But when he came back he was bouncing off the walls. He was telling everybody what he was going to do in NASCAR.

"John kept saying, 'Settle down, Jeff. Settle down.' "

Gordon doesn't get back to Pittsboro much these days. Between the responsibilities of racing and duties of a first-time father there isn't enough time in the day.

But he looks forward to the day when his daughter, Ella Sofia, is old enough to appreciate where he grew up.

"And who knows, that might incorporate going to Frank & Mary's or somewhere out in Pittsboro," he said.

But right now Gordon has more important things on his mind, such as winning what he calls the most important race on his schedule even though most consider the Daytona 500 No. 1.

"And he's going to win," Herring said. "He's going to win and I'm going to be right there watching. And when he does, they're probably going to shut down the streets of Pittsboro again."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.