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The MacGyver of the Baja: Cranking it up again. And there's a lot on the line for Robby Gordon

  The Mad Max of NASCAR: Robby Gordon. Never a dull moment..... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   In the early morning here when the NASCAR garage opens, before the engines fire up, there is an eerie silence.
   A gloomy silence in the garage, where there is normally boisterous banter among crews and crewmen.
   Oh, all the crews are here, unwrapping cars, opening toolboxes, dragging stuff across the tarmac.

   Now this place, out on the west side of town, ringed by all those jagged purple mountains, and gorgeous sunsets, is usually one of the most hotly anticipated stops on the long-running stock car circuit. Not just because it signals a blessed ending to the seemingly endless season, but because this is just a cool town, a cool stop, with the Grand Canyon just up the way, for some hiking down snowy South Kaibab Trail, or some fall hunting over to the east a bit.
   The late Dale Earnhardt used to revel in this stop, because he'd spend a couple of days with his buddies on mules hunting on Indian land for big stuff. And then he'd strut around this garage with a fistful of pictures.
   Bill Elliott would take a bunch up to Sedona for some jeep-riding through the back woods.
   At night for dinner there was that cowboy steak place up in the southside hills somewhere, at the end of a long dirt road, where the cook would wear a six-gun, in case she ran into a rattlesnake or something. You could even ride up on horses….
   But this time out here it's all different.
   Because as the end of the Sprint Cup season looms, just one week from now over in Homestead, Fla., for many of these guys, hundreds at least, that means the end of the job.
   Like pinkslip.
   Like unemployed.
   Like a bummer of a Christmas ahead.
   In these next few weeks some teams will simply vanish, car owners will anguish, and for these salt-of-the-earth crew guys, well times are tough all over….
   And nobody knows just how tough times are any better than Robby Gordon.

    Robby Gordon (R), revving up for the Dakar...what he does for 16 days in South American wilderness in early January while everyone else is still laying home on the couch (Photo: Robby Gordon)

   Gordon, one of the last of the real NASCAR independents, is sitting up in his hauler talking over things with his crew – not just Phoenix 500 stuff, but also Baja 1000 stuff, which they're helping him with too, and some Dakar business, which is coming up quick.
   Robby, who just had a great run at Talladega, taking Trevor Bayne right to the front of the pack, has had an up-and-down season on the Sprint Cup tour, to put it mildly.
   Last year he spent a lot of time putting together his own energy drink company, designed to help sponsor his racing, just like Red Bull and Amp and all those other super-colas; this year he's spent a lot of time making deals to get that stuff into retail outlets and grocery stores. If you think it's tough as an owner-driver to compete against these mega-teams like Hendrick and Roush, try competing against Coke and Pepsi and Red Bull for stocking room on the shelves.
   Now Robby Gordon may seem to spend more time in NASCAR's doghouse than the average driver in this sport. But then that's one reason many of the writers covering NASCAR find him so much fun….that is when they can actually find him. Gordon can be quite elusive, and he's been more elusive than ever this season. Even his crew sometimes doesn't know just what's up.
   But then you can't accuse Robby Gordon of being plain vanilla. He can be quite the showman. Unfortunate the people running this sport these days don't seem to care too much for showmanship; it's a wonder NASCAR doesn't require drivers to wear fireproof three-piece business suits when behind the wheel, as corporate as things have become.


Next up for Robby Gordon: the Baja 1000....and then NASCAR's Homestead finale (Photo: Robby Gordon)


   Gordon is easily the most well-rounded and versatile driver in the country. He's done Indy-cars (came within sight of winning the Indianapolis 500 twice, and is considered a much better Indy-car racer than even Tony Stewart, to be honest). He's done all kinds of road racing, his early forte, and the key to his catching Jack Roush's eye. Now more than 15 years in NASCAR Cup cars, and some Trucks and some Nationwide….and of course his off-road work.

   At one time Gordon was seen as probably the best pure-racer in this sport. He's still savvy as ever at the wheel, even now 20 years after he first showed up. But it's just darned hard for a guy with a 10-man crew to match iron with stock car racing corporations boasting more than 400.
   Gordon could have played it all much safer in his NASCAR career, by sticking to the role of driver. But Gordon has been trying to prove he can do it his way, the Alan Kulwicki way….and unfortunately you just can't beat cubic dollars in this business.
   Still Gordon has persevered. Well, up till the last year or so.
   This season there's been the sense that Robby Gordon is fading away.
   He's only raced himself in 24 of the year's 34 races, putting Reed Sorenson in his car for the others. Gordon's best finishes: an 18th at Sonoma, a 16th at Daytona. Last year his best was that second at Sonoma, a track he won at when driving for Richard Childress. He's typically at his best at Daytona, Talladega and Sonoma.
   But lately the finishes really just haven't been there anywhere.

   However Gordon, even as he nears 43, typically an awkward part of any driver's career, still packs a punch (no pun intended). And he hopes to show that in the Baja.
   Last week, while the Sprint Cup tour was at Texas, Gordon was flying through the Baja on a pre-run (  http://bit.ly/bPbHXa  is one look at how this guy like to have fun). And he leaves here Sunday night straight to Ensenada for three more days of pre-running, before heading to the Friday starting line.
   The Baja 1000 itself ( here's where to find more info: http://www.score-international.com/ ) kicks off Friday around noon, and the finish line 'closes' Saturday night. Gordon, who has been running the Baja since 1989, plans as usual to fly straight back to Homestead, Fla., after the 1000 in time to run in the NASCAR finale Sunday.
   "We finished second last year…and we need to figure out how to win it this year," Gordon says. "Last year it was the driver – I just drove it off the road and bent the driveshaft. And at the end of the day we got beat by like 18 minutes."
   Over the 17-hour run through Baja wilderness, that's not bad.
   Gordon of course has to make any repairs himself, which is why former GM racing boss Brent Dewar called him a real 'MacGyver.'
   "This year we're better prepared for the Baja than we've ever been," Gordon says. "I can't remember having a Trophy Truck (the big four-wheel dune-machines he races) sitting on the ground finished 20 days before the race."
   The Baja, the 500 and the 1000, are amazing events, with the roads jammed with people just feet away from the course http://bit.ly/oKPfo , and Gordon's 900 hp racer can certainly make sand fly http://bit.ly/urtLDW


Each night during the 16-day Dakar teams repair and rebuild their machines, out in the middle of the wilderness (Photo: Robby Gordon)


   And for Gordon, of course, this Baja, considering how things have been such a struggle on the NASCAR side, looms ever more important from the business side. When he's out promoting his SPEED energy drink, he needs something to hang his hat on.
   Then of course there's Dakar coming up, that amazing, even more grueling two-week race through the South American wilderness, from Buenos Aires to Lima, Peru ( http://www.dakar.com/dakar/2012/us/route.html ), which Gordon will run in a Hummer-branded machine, "which is, in layman's terms, a Formula 1 car built for the dirt: 500 horsepower, three-feet of wheel-travel, big tires….and it's a beast.
   "It's been reliable for us, and hopefully it'll be reliable for us in this race too.
   "The big trucks (the support vehicles) have already shipped to the Dakar. The race car itself has to leave Miami on the 16th of December. And the race goes off on January 1st."

   Gordon has been doing the Baja so well for so long he could probably run any of those trails blindfolded (sometimes, if you're riding shotgun with him, it even seems like he's running blindfolded). And doing the Baja Gordon is evenly matched with his rivals. (Gordon has won seven SCORE off-road championships in his career, including the 2009 tour, while also running the full NASCAR Sprint Cup tour.)
   But Dakar is another creature entirely. He ran it first in 2005 (driving for a Red Bull-sponsored Volkswagen team), winning two stages (first ever for an American) and finishing 12th. Then he decided to do it on his own, putting together a GM-Hummer sponsorship, building his own trucks, organizing his own team, a formidable undertaking considering the tortuous routes Dakar promoters create.

    Robby Gordon, raising a cloud of dust in the Baja (Photo: Robby Gordon)

   His best Dakar finish was a third in 2009; he ran eighth in 2010.
   However just as Gordon was proving himself on this bigger international stage (as a decided underdog against the lavishly backed European factory teams), the economic crisis struck. And Gordon's GM-alliance became victim in the mess.
   Now Gordon is trying to put that all back together. His NASCAR ventures have gone from Toyota to Dodge this year (though it's unclear just how much support Dodge is providing, considering Roger Penske is the company's stock car racing mainstay).
   Still Gordon is loyally GM on the off-road side. (Of course, considering Dodge's 'Guts, Glory, Ram' advertising campaign, it is curious that Dodge boss Ralph Gilles has missed the whole Baja-Dakar-Robby angle. Thinking that TV campaign fits Robby Gordon's persona perfectly.)
   "The Baja is growing dramatically, even in this economy," Gordon says. "There are more Trophy Trucks than they've ever had, 32 or 34. Even in this economy."
   For Gordon – and for anyone who's ever ridden with him – that stuff is serious yes but also fun.


You want color? Robby Gordon's got plenty of color this season. Here at Talladega Gordon (7) hooks up with young Trevor  Bayne in a charge to the lead (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Now over here on the NASCAR side….well, Gordon has done his best to play the NASCAR game, the way it's all shaped up the last few years, with the top-35 points angle and all.
  But at Texas Gordon didn't have his team top-35 in the standings, and while he was pre-running the Baja Sorenson failed to qualify on speed at Texas.
  That was costly for Gordon.
  What is the deal on Gordon and NASCAR these days anyway? "I'm here every now and then," he says slowly. "Our fans may miss us out there, but it's the reality – it's hard to do. And we haven't been able to sell enough sponsorship to do it full-time.
   "That's just the fact of the matter.
   "Remember I was one of the first owners in this garage to have multi-sponsored cars. And you guys all thought that was weird. But now everybody has them.
   "The fact is it's a tough economy out there…and we haven't been able to get a new player to the game lately.
   "When Jim Beam went away, we couldn't find one, so we started out own brand, with SPEED Energy….and that's really the future for us – we have to grow that brand.
   "I've always felt you could build brands around NASCAR. We're going to find out.
   "There are only two choices – make this work…or stay home."


    Times are tough everywhere, and nobody knows it better than Robby Gordon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Great article, if there were

Great article, if there were more like this, teams like RGM may not be in the situation they’re in. TV coverage should take notice and provide all teams coverage, not just the top 10 who do not have the sponsorship problems.

I agree TV plays a big role

I agree TV plays a big role in all this. But I have this nagging sense that if you dont buy an ad on TV you dont get quite as much coverage as those who do. Nothing scientific, just my sense.

I've been a Robby Gordon fan

I've been a Robby Gordon fan ever since he ran INDYCARS- great driver and great guy. I still watch his progress in all of the NASCAR and off road races. Good Luck Robby

Thanks for the article, Mike.

Thanks for the article, Mike. It has been a long hard road for Robby fans, but the rewards are always there-knowing he is a fan oriented driver, a versatile driver we get to see ALL year round, and a man who is not a lacky to Big Sponsors. And thanks for the remark about NASCAR and business suits for the drivers. The mental picture was very funny!

Will Robby Gordon race in the

Will Robby Gordon race in the Ford 400?

robby says he'll be in

robby says he'll be in homestead sunday morning for the 400....

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