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The most popular driver in the whole wide world? Well, Robby Gordon makes the case...

  The busiest driver in NASCAR, Robby Gordon, has put Dakar disappointment behind him and now plans to put the 'Speed' in Daytona's SpeedWeeks (Photo: Robby Gordon)

   By Mike Mulhern


   For Robby Gordon, it's all about the art of the deal.
   He loves that part of this sport as much as the racing itself.

   And he's certainly wheelin' and dealin', as SpeedWeeks open…perhaps an ironic note, 'SpeedWeeks,' since one of Gordon's newest deals is his new energy drink, Speed.
   Gordon also has a sudden new Dodge sponsorship, with Roger Penske horsepower now under the hood of his orange NASCAR stocker.
   So Gordon has put Dakar, and that busted wheel bearing, behind him, that Speed logo controversy too. That was so last month, and now he's busy back at the deal making that really makes Robby Robby….when Gordon's not busy aggravating just about everybody else out on the track.
   Sometimes Robby Gordon looks like he could give Donald Trump a run for the money.
   Now it's 'Caffeinate, caffeinate.'
   His new sports business: "I don't know how to say it…but it's crazy. And it's our brand. We're selling truckloads.
    "When you've got people buying four or five pallets through the internet (the only way to get the product initially), and knowing energy drinks are an impulse item – you want to feel good NOW – well, when people are willing to wait four or five days for it to arrive….that part is fun to watch.
    "Now I can do what I want…but I need to race -- because Speed is about a lifestyle, and wanting to go fast.
   "With Speed we are having a lot of success. What I judge it on -- Our merchandise numbers are what they were in the good days of NASCAR, and we haven't been there in five years with the other brands we've had."
   Suffice it to say, expect Gordon to have a lot to say about speed and Speed during SpeedWeeks.

     Robby Gordon: Dodge will be providing a lot more factory support in 2011 than Toyota did in 2010 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    But not everything Gordon touches turns to gold. In fact some of last year's dealings went sour on him. Six million dollars worth of sour, he says.
   "I didn't anticipate that," Gordon says ruefully. "I trusted people. But I have nothing good to say about those people.
   "That woke me up."
    So he spent much of the last half of last season working under the radar on this new business project. 
    And now he's not only driver – NASCAR, Baja, Dakar, Indy – he's also owner and chief salesman for his own energy drink. And he's lining up distribution as fast as he can.

   It's been exactly 20 years this month since Gordon made his NASCAR debut, a rather modest, inauspicious start, really, for a brash, wild racer with that Baja reputation, 24 Hours smarts and wins, and a decided penchant for insisting on doing things his own way.
   Talk about NASCAR's doghouse, Gordon sometimes seems to have a long-term lease on the place. And at times he seems to delight in his devil-may-care attitude.
    Remember that first IROC race against legendary Dale Earnhardt?
   "My favorite Dale story was that first IROC race. He didn't know who I was….but I'd won the 24 Hours and done some Indy-car races and Trans-Am. But we showed up and beat the hell out of his rear bumper.
   "He didn't know who I was before the race started, but he knew who I was when the race was over."
   And remember the time Robby jacked up Jeff Gordon's rear end at Loudon?
   And the time Robby took out vengeance on Michael Waltrip….and earned a  $50,000 fine from NASCAR for throwing his helmet – a helmet he then auctioned off for $51,000 to help people displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
    It's all about the art of the deal….and the art of being Robby.

   It's the 10th anniversary of Earnhardt's death, and Gordon is one of the few men on the tour today who raced against Earnhardt. Gordon even wound up driving for car owner Richard Childress too that season, winning his first Cup race, at Loudon, N.H., in the season finale.
   "I was lucky enough to get to race against Dale. In fact he was one of the guys who got me to come over to NASCAR….after that IROC race."
   That was 1996, while Gordon was an Indy-car star. "After I finished second in the IROC two straight years, Dale told me 'Why don't you come over here and race. You can drive these cars.'"
   Gordon was racing in the pack with Earnhardt that day in 2001. "I saw the accident….but I've got to be honest, I didn't think anything of it, because I was right there with him. We were in the midst of it. It didn't look bad to me. Just that he got loose and hit high-side.
   "My dad came over to me after the race and told me. And it hit me like a ton of bricks…like it still does today. He was one of the greatest stock car drivers of all time."


  The driver's compartment is a lot safer now than it was before Dale Earnhardt's death, with much more head and neck support (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Earnhardt's death triggered a massive reevaluation of safety in this sport. The past 10 years a lot has changed, Gordon says.
   "The cars are safer….night and day...
   "Now is the racing better? I don't know. But the cars are definitely safer.
   "It's not just the cars, but the race teams have gotten a lot better the last 10 years. NASCAR's popularity brought over mechanics and technology over from Formula and Indy-car. We're racing different cars today than we did 10 years ago."
    The past five years Gordon says this sport has changed dramatically in other ways too. "You can see it out there…and you can feel it. It's just different, much different."
   And it's much, much harder for an one-man band like independent Robby Gordon to make a go of it in the Sprint Cup series, as financially draining as the sport is at this level, dominated by a few mega-teams.
   So just what is Robby Gordon's big game plan for 2011 out on the tracks?
   Well, he says that's still on the drawing board. "Look at Jamie McMurray last year – he was a little uncertain how his program would go….and then, well, it's amazing how a good result at Daytona can change your season….one way or the other.
  "Right now I'd say we're good for about 18 NASCAR events. It's not that I don't want to race, but there are other events I want to do.
   "That issue about the Speed logo (a lawsuit from bicycle maker Specialized over the S) probably put us about 60 days behind. That probably jacked our Indy 500 program. I didn't lose the case with Specialized; I could have fought that thing for a year and a half…but for a year and a half I wouldn't have had any sales. So I changed my logo.
   "Now we are really starting to gain some momentum, and we're selling product and that's a good thing. We're gaining more distribution on a daily basis.
   "We're not really selling sponsors, we're saying 'We want that shelf space right next to Monster and Red Bull,' so we're doing deals. We've done deals with GNC, with Basha's, with Vegas' Terrible Herbst, we've signed up multiple, multiple Budweiser distribution deals. We've done a deal with Wirtz Beverage (Nevada, Chicago, and Minneapolis); (http://www.wirtzbeveragegroup.com/ ) and Wirtz is tied in with the Chicago Blackhawks, who just won the Stanley Cup.
    "So our product is really starting to roll.
   "I'm the driver, the owner, and the sponsor. We can be as creative as we want to be, and do what we want to do, and it's kind of nice. We are really networking.
   "I placed Red Bull in most of the casinos in Vegas when I had them as a sponsor. Then I went back and did all that again when I was with Monster.
   "Then I said 'What am I doing? We've got all the tools: the stock car program, the off-road program, we've got the Dakar program, which takes us world-wide, we've still got the Indy-car fans, we've got the monster truck stuff.
   "If you go to Alexa and search PlanetRobby versus any driver in the world, we still get the most hits on a daily basis. So we might as well do our own program. And that's what we're doing."

   Speaking of Dakar, what the heck happened in Argentina?
   A broken wheel bearing, yes, in Stage Five of the 16-day marathon from Buenos Aires over Andes (at 14,000 feet) into Chile and then back to Buenos Aires?
   But why didn't he have a spare? Why didn't his support crew come up with a spare? Why didn't he take one off teammate Eliseo Salazar's truck?
   Gordon says it's complicated: "I don't even know how to describe what happened in Argentina.
   "Why didn't I take Eliseo's? Well I'm in the midst of negotiating a Speed distribution deal with a company that is one of the largest manufacturers of beer and sodas and juices in Argentina right now, a deal that will take us throughout all of South America. So it's not as easy as just saying 'Pull over, I'm going to take your wheel bearings,' when he's helping us in that deal, to get us into a world-wide operation.
   "You don't carry spare wheel bearings because they just don't go bad. I don't know if it was a faulty bearing from the manufacturer….
    "I've run those bearings the whole Dakar and never changed them."
    But where was the support truck?
    Waiting for Customs inspection at the Argentina-Chilean border. All the Dakar vehicles have to stand in line at the border crossing, and that just happened to be the day that Gordon's wheel-bearing broke. So the support teams were six hours behind the racers.  "Trying to get 5,000 vehicles through customs….well, you can imagine," Gordon said.
    Gordon's deal with Dodge follows a two-year stint with Toyota that Gordon doesn't seem very happy about. "We haven't had a 'factory' program for two years.  We rode it out with Toyota, but it wasn't a factory program. We really didn't get any help, and that's the truth of the matter.  The motors were good; I don't have any complaints about the motors or the way that the program went.  They had their priority teams…."
   And Gordon wasn't one of them.
   So now Gordon is back with Dodge, a brand that just last week had only two drivers, Roger Penske's Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch. Gordon got the opportunity to sign an engine program with Penske when Penske cut back from three Cup teams to two at the end of last season.
   But how well will this Penske engine program work for Gordon?  "I've known Roger, heck, my whole career.  I've idolized him, and love the way he runs his programs.  I respect him tremendously. 
   "I had one opportunity to drive for Roger, but I choose Felix Sabates' stock car program (1997) because I thought that was right direction for my team, for me as driver at that time."
    Here in NASCAR Gordon says he likes Penske's horsepower: "Roger's cars handle on the straightaway. You have to handle on the straightaway. When 85 percent of your lap at most NASCAR races is full-throttle, you better handle on the straightaway.
    "The new Dodge engine (R6P8) -- they had the two fastest cars here in Daytona during testing."
    However Gordon is more than just a stock car racer, and he's looking for more from Dodge. He talks of "multiple opportunities with Robby Gordon Motorsports."
   Perhaps a Ram Truck deal for Dakar?
   Wonder if those things are Robby Gordon tough enough?


   Robby Gordon, 2011: Orange and black, and Dodge. Hope this nose doesn't cost him $150,000 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Great article, Mike. I've

Great article, Mike.
I've always admired Robby Gordon. In my opinion, he embodies what is great about NASCAR: the fact that "anyone" can bring a car and run with the big boys.
God speed, Robby!

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