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So Jeff Gordon: is flying commercial, rather than in those private jets, really the wave of the future for NASCAR's stars?


Jeff Gordon, with Ingrid (L) and Paris Hilton, "Running Wide Open in Hollywood" at Avalon (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   So Jeff Gordon flew commercial?
   And not just once.
   Hey, when your private jet costs between $3,000 and $4,000 an hour, and a ticket from New York to Charlotte is $69….
   Well, NASCAR's teams are looking for ways to cut money, and that's one idea they're toying with.
   But probably not for long. These guys are too accustomed to the cushy side of travel, with private jets through the corporate business side of the airport, where the hassles Mr. Average Joe has to deal with are miles away.
   Still, give Gordon points for trying something, even if he couldn't get a lot of his buds to follow suit on his idea of plane-ride-sharing this season.  
   "Yeah, we got a few responses…. It didn't go quite as smoothly," Gordon concedes. "We're not used to doing that. 
   "We'll have to work on that for maybe next year, if the testing policy stays the same.
    "Somebody brought up a good point ---safety and security reasons.  You don't want everyone all be on the same plane. 
   "You'd want to treat it like a corporate flight operation, where you have several different planes, three or four or five, coordinated. 
    "But, hey, there are some guys that just don't have a choice: They're in a location they have to get to, someplace they've got to go private.
   "Denny Hamlin and I talked about splitting his plane down there…but it ended up I came from New York.  It was tough to get our schedules."
   The economy is a major story, of course, and not just in NASCAR.
   "It's a big sport, and a big business, and the economy is affecting everybody," Gordon says. 
    "Our fans are the most loyal out there, and they are all going to be tested…so leadership is going to be scrutinized.
    "One of the things NASCAR has always done well is have a great group of people that have run it.  It's never just one person; it's all about the team.
   "I'm confident they're going to do the right thing."
    And it's not just about the money itself but the appearances of spending money that is an issue here. One car maker, for example, has told its employees not to wear the company emblems out to restaurants. And NASCAR has cut out testing and put a freeze on hiring.
     "What's happened recently made me take another step at looking at what I can do, and I'm open to anything," Gordon says. 
    "Without testing, I personally saved over $100,000 dollars. That's personal travel: I'm flying all by myself on my plane to Vegas (for the usual January testing), because maybe I'm not in Charlotte. And then we go to Phoenix, and then California (for more testing usually)."
   Flying commercial the two or three times this year Gordon says has been an eye-opener, much cheaper…though he didn't fly commercial here for SpeedWeeks.
    "It doesn't work well when I'm flying my family," he says. "For Ingrid and the baby and myself to fly together, we're going to fly private. 
    "I have a plane, and I'm not going to not use it at all. But when I'm flying by myself, and I'm more flexible on time – and I'm not doing as many sponsor appearances this year, those things are being cut back….I'm going to fly commercial whenever it makes sense. And I'm going to fly private when it makes sense."
   So a $69 commercial flight from New York to Charlotte "saved a little bit," he says.
   Should drivers be taking pay cuts, rather than car owners having to fire crewmen?
   "Everybody should be paid fairly, and paid fairly within the economy," Gordon says. "I've always said a driver should get paid a percentage of the income to the car, based on the sponsorship dollars, as well as earnings on the track. 
   "We've all gotten pretty spoiled the last several years, and for good reason -- the whole sport has grown.  I've been successful, and my salary has been incredible.  (An estimated $32 million last year.)
   "It's something I never dreamed it would ever be.
    "That doesn't mean I couldn't live with less.  I could, and I'd do whatever it takes. 
    "It is tough when you get adjusted to a certain lifestyle and income; it's definitely not an easy thing to do. But it doesn't mean it can't be done."

    Speaking of 'a certain lifestyle,' Gordon went winless in 2008, a rather stunning development….and surprising, really, considering that he had a strong car at many races and could easily have won two or three.
   And it still plays on his mind – a winless season, after six tour victories in 2007.
   "It was a big deal last year," Gordon says. "The season starts in February and ends in November, and your goal is to win races and win the championship. 
   "But it's behind us, and we learned from it.  We'll grow from it and make ourselves better, and try to make sure it doesn't happen this year. We're a stronger, better team. 
    "This is a humbling sport, and last year was a humbling year for us, and made us just realize just how badly we want to win… and how badly we don't want to lose."
   So what went wrong in '08?
   "One of the biggest things is the car was just totally different last year, and when you've been in the sport as long as I have, it's harder to adapt to changes," Gordon concedes. "So some of it is me adjusting my driving. 
    "These bump-stops (that limit shock travel and radically affect handling) are just a thing that drive drivers, crew chiefs and engineers up the wall. They're somewhat unpredictable.
    "We made improvements toward the end of the year, that I don't think really got noticed because of the championship battle.
    "While we weren't the top-three, we were fourth or fifth-best, and that's not too shabby, especially with where we started.
    "So we took momentum into the off-season.
   "Obviously to compete with Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards we've got to step it up a whole lot.
   "You can't take '07 and compare it to '08.  We had the old car dialed in on the 1-1/2-mile tracks.  We were competitive at Texas (one of his worst tracks), that's how good we had the old car. 
    "The new car is a whole different animal. 
    "That's the biggest challenge -- just figuring that out."
   So maybe Johnson and Edwards and Kyle Busch had so much success last season because they like driving loose race cars?
   "That is a bunch of baloney," Gordon insists. "Your goal is to get the car balanced perfectly front-to-rear.  And this (new) car doesn't turn in the middle very good.
   "I had very few issues on entry-to-corner; most of my issues were on middle and exit. 
    "The transition getting onto the bump-stops under braking -- I like to drive into the corner so deep that when I get on the brakes it just transitions too abruptly."

   And if only Goodyear would help, with softer tires this season.
   The new car puts a lot more pressure on the right-side tires, so Goodyear has played it conservatively.
   Now, though, drivers hope that Goodyear can open things up.
   "I'm hoping that gives them the opportunity to have a softer tire, that can be abused a little bit more, that wears out," Gordon says. "We've been riding around on rock-hard tires.
    "They're trying to prevent the tire from having a failure, and that's certainly understandable. But that's not really a racing tire that is optimal for us.
   "I'm certainly optimistic about some things I've been hearing about from the tire tests."

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