In 21 full seasons as a driver on NASCAR’s top circuit, Jeff Gordon has taken more left turns than he can count.
When you’ve raced as long as Gordon, when you’ve accomplished all he has, you reach a point where you need to make a right turn.
Success in NASCAR competition has brought Gordon fame and wealth. He has four championships, is one of the greatest drivers in history and a lock to be inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame.
What Gordon recalls from his first championship, in 1995, might surprise you.
“I realized right away you don’t have this kind of success on your own,” Gordon said. “A lot of people behind the scenes make it happen, and you have to remember that.
“You have a greater responsibility in life than just driving a race car. And that’s a good problem to have. It’s a greater weight on your shoulders, but I think it’s why certain people get put in that position. They need to be tested or they can handle it.”
So Gordon made a right turn.
In 1999, he established the Jeff Gordon Foundation. In 2011, it became the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation.
The focus is on research and support for children and families dealing with pediatric cancers.
Since its establishment, the foundation has raised $13.5 million.
In the past several years, the foundation has made donations in the United States and Africa totaling almost $5 million.
“Jeff is incredibly passionate about this,” said Trish Kriger, executive director of the JGCF. “This will not be something he ever walks away from. He’s been blessed with two healthy, wonderful children.
“But he sees so many kids who have the same story. One day they’re playing. The next day, they don’t feel quite right. The third day, they go to the doctor. The fourth day, they have cancer. He knows lives can change on a dime.”
Gordon also knows the United States is not the only place where children and their families are affected by cancer. His foundation has taken an active role in Africa, especially Rwanda.
“Over here (in the United States), the rates for remission are really growing, in the 80 percent range,” Gordon said. “We can focus on the long-term effects of those treatments as well as the 20 percent or so that aren’t curable, yet.
“The thing about Rwanda, as well as many other countries in Africa, is the impact you can have. A dollar goes so much further there. And when someone is being treated with a mild pain reliever for a very severe illness, especially cancer, that’s not right. Over there, we can prevent deaths. That’s hard to find, hard to do, yet over there it’s not, and we should be doing it.”
Gordon can talk at length about genomics and the efficacy of treating young cancer patients with the same drugs used on adults, only in smaller doses.
Gordon rattles off terms that make him sound quite scientific.
“We’ve been doing this a long time,” he said. “Certain things intrigue me. I listen to doctors, learn through conferences. I’m curious about what they’re doing, and I’m curious about where our money is going.”
Saturday, Gordon will be more than curious about the outcome of the Federated Auto Parts 400 race at Richmond International Raceway. He needs to do well to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
If Gordon fails to make the Chase, he will be disappointed.
But he knows, as all drivers should, when you turn right instead of left, you discover there are bigger things than the Chase.
The families in need of help and hope and the work done by doctors and scientists on curing pediatric cancer never are far from his thoughts.
“There are days when I feel really good, and I have people patting me on the back and telling me what great things I’m doing,” Gordon said. “And I’m meeting families whose children went to a hospital we support and whose lives were saved. That feels really good.