I always enjoyed interviewing Jeff Gordon. He was open with me, thoughtful about issues and blunt when needed. Mostly, he was and is simply a consummate professional.
I also feel that I had a pretty good working relationship with him (well, Jeff and his public relations guy Jon Edwards may have another view but I think it was ok). Upon hearing that he plans to cut back his racing at the end of 2015, it struck a chord.
It all goes back to the first time I interviewed him. At the time, I was early in my career as a motorsport journalist and wanted to interview one of NASCAR’s biggest stars at the Brickyard 400. It was mid-June (if I recall correctly) and the race was in a few weeks.
I didn’t know anyone in the NASCAR and needed help. I had met an Associated Press auto racing writer named Mike Harris at the other events like the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, Molson Indy races in Toronto and Vancouver, and the Indianapolis 500, so I decided that since he covered NASCAR too, I’d ask for a bit of advice.
I sent Mike a note saying that I was hoping to get an interview with Jeff Gordon at the Brickyard and if he could give me a bit of assistance. Who do I need to contact and what do I need to know or say to ensure I have a god chance of securing some time with him, I asked.
Mike responded in minutes and gave me the contact info I needed for Gordon’s PR man Jon and told me to make sure that Jon knew I got his email address from him. He also warned me that Jeff’s schedule filled up quickly and not to be discouraged if it didn’t happen.
I sent off a note to Jon explaining what I wanted, that Mike had suggested I get in touch, and then kept my fingers crossed for a positive response. I recall it was the same day or perhaps the next day when Jon responded and said he would put some time aside for me.
I was overjoyed. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the arranged time, Jeff was nowhere to be found, nor was Jon. I waited. And waited. And waited.
Just when I thought I would never get the interview, Jon arrived saying Jeff had been held up and could I return later. He told me that Jeff had a bigger block of time to chat later and if I came back I could have more than just a few minutes with him. Of course I agreed and returned at the appointed time.
When I came back, both were waiting for me and I was brought into Jeff’s hauler (it’s not a transporter in NASCAR). Jon left us alone for the interview and Jeff and I sat down for almost an hour. We talked about a whole bunch of things and I was impressed by Jeff’s candor and thoughtfulness on many different topics. The interview ended when Jon came in, apologised, and said Jeff had a sponsor commitment. I was told to get in touch if I needed anything else.
I remember walking away thinking: “Need anything else? I just had an hour with NASCAR’s biggest star.”
As soon as I took my seat in the media centre, Mike came over and asked how things went and if Jeff was good to me. I told Mike that I had an hour with Jeff and thanked him again for everything. He simply sighed and said: “You obviously don’t need my help; I never get that much time with him.”
Later, I found out from another journalist that Mike had also sent a note to Jon, asking if he would make sure I got time with Jeff. It was also made clear that it was huge deal to have Mike reach out. To me, Mike was just a colleague I met who was friendly and helpful. I was told that as the Associated Press’ main motorsport writer, Mike was massively influential and it’s likely the only reason that Jon agreed to my interview request was because of him.
That interview helped lay the foundation of a good relationship with Jon and Jeff which continues to this day, even if I don’t speak to them as often as I would like now that my focus (and my reader’s preference) is more geared toward Formula One and open wheel. Since that first encounter, all I ever needed to do was send Jon an email and ask for some time on the phone with Jeff (with appropriate lead time) and he makes it happen.
Even years later, Mike would never admit that his influence had anything to do with my getting that first interview with Jeff. I know now that Mike’s kindness and selflessness is a trait that is reflected in everything he does. He is just that kind of person.
Jeff Gordon’s stepping away from racing made me think about that first interview again and the collegiality of Mike Harris that made it happen. He is one in a million and I am humbled to call him a colleague and honoured to count him among my friends.