This year marks NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon's fifth year after retiring from the sport and becoming a commentator, and his first year as
Sports' lead broadcaster. Ahead of this weekend's Daytona 500, the first and largest race of the season, I hopped on the phone with Gordon to chat about the future of NASCAR and the auto industry as a whole.
I started by asking what he's most looking forward to going into the 2020 season, which officially kicked off earlier this week. "Every year I try to look at how I performed the year before and how can I up my game, how can I improve going into the season that adds more value to the broadcast," Gordon says. "And the first thing you have to do is gain as much knowledge as you can about the changes, like what kind of updates are happening with the cars or something we might be bringing to the broadcast."
But most important, he says, is the relationship with his teammates. "You spend as much time as you can in the offseason chatting and getting ready and analyzing the storylines. I'm really excited, I don't feel like at this point my role's gonna change a lot being lead broadcaster. I wanna keep having fun, but at the same time I'm gonna utilize my teammates very similar in the way I did in the past as a driver."
Since he retired in 2015, NASCAR has changed quite a bit. For super speedways the cars have just 550 horsepower and a new high-downforce setup that Gordon never had to deal with as a driver, while short courses and longer tracks get the complete opposite. "Just like any other form of motorsports, the cars adapt," he says. "New rules change, or tires change, track surfaces might change, competitors change. So those things have certainly gone on since 2015. I think they're all great moves, from where I'm standing calling the races and seeing what unfolds from the driver standpoint and the team standpoint. No doubt, I've gotta stay connected to the drivers and the crew chiefs and the engineers to see, 'Hey, what's different? How is this different than when how I last drove?' It's about staying on top of what's happening."
Having decades of experience as a driver helps with how Gordon is as a broadcaster, too. "The thing I focus on most is wanting to put myself in the driver's seat and think like a driver as I'm doing the broadcast -- so what are they dealing with, what challenges are they facing? If they have emotion, then why? I get it, or I understand it, or can explain why this just happened. That's what I try to do every single lap that the race is going on, and it's the part that I enjoy because I can relate to that."
The current NASCAR Cup Series car is the sixth-generation model that has been around since 2013. A seventh-gen car is getting ready to debut for the 2021 season, but Gordon has had little experience with it thus far. "I think all of us within the sport are focused on the 2020 car and season and the exciting things we have there, keeping the momentum from 2019 coming into 2020," he says. "Certainly NASCAR behind the scenes is working with a few teams that are helping to develop the new car. But most of the teams are strictly focused and eyes-on what's currently happening." A lot more information about the seventh-gen car will come out around September or October, especially once more drivers have gotten their hands on the car and teams have started building them.
One of the major trends in the auto industry right now is electrification, and NASCAR's Senior Vice President for racing development John Probst has talked a little about how hybrid technology is something it's looking at for the next-gen car in the very near future. I asked Gordon how he thinks NASCAR can or should evolve to adapt to new technologies like electrification, and he says it all depends on what the manufacturers are doing, as it would be difficult for the race teams to develop things like hybrid systems on their own.
"Our OEMs are incredibly important to our sport," Gordon says. "We cannot do what we do without
, and you want to see others come into the sport also. It's exciting when I go down to the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona and I see so many different manufacturers that are participating in that race. So of course you want that same thing within NASCAR. Listen, we're an entertainment sport, we race on big, fast oval tracks, and we bump and we bang and we crash and we win and we do these things that are not what your typical car is gonna do on the road every day. But I do think that there are things that the manufacturers wanna have in racing that's relatable for the customers. If there's technologies that are out there from the manufacturing standpoint that could be adapted to our racing that also enhances the entertainment, heck yeah, I'm all for it."
Speaking of Toyota, it shockingly jumped into NASCAR in 2007, and now NASCAR is a major part of its racing division TRD's efforts -- hell, the
races in the Xfinity series now. "What Toyota did to get into NASCAR is unprecedented," Gordon says. "They had to fully develop the block and the intake and the heads and everything specifically for NASCAR. The car design and chassis is unlike any other type of racing series that they compete in, there's nothing in their production line that is based on a 350 small-block V8 engine. So you gotta applaud them for that."
But he thinks it would be difficult for another manufacturer to get into the sport in the future, as it's a massive undertaking and money-sink. "I love the fact that right now in NASCAR we have a
, we have a
and we have a Supra, but you gotta be realistic that there probably aren't gonna be many that can do it like that," he says. "So I think that's why NASCAR is looking at updating the power plant. The current manufacturers are looking at that as their future too. The stars may align there and continue to grow how many OEMs are in the sport."
Gordon drove for Hendrick Motorsports for 23 seasons and is now a top executive at the company, and will likely take on a leadership role in the near future. Team owner Rick Hendrick happens to be the owner of the first production C8 Corvette, so I asked Gordon for his thoughts on the mid-engined 'Vette and whether he had gotten to experience one yet. "There was a car that was going around to different dealerships so we had one at Jeff Gordon Chevrolet in Wilmington, North Carolina," he says. "It's awesome to be able to sit in the car and feel what the interior's like, and they've got a great display for ordering your car where you can look at the different finishes and colors and leathers. I was a little bit bummed I didn't get to drive the car though, I would have liked to. I'm looking forward to that."
On the Corvette finally moving to a mid-engine layout, Gordon is all for it. "I've been a Corvette lover for many many years and have owned a lot of them, so this step that they're taking I think is a spectacular one," he says. "It seems to be going over really well with the customers and Corvette enthusiasts and I think for good reasons. I think the most spectacular thing, and I don't know how they've done it, is how Chevrolet priced that car with all that it's capable of doing."
Pivoting away from NASCAR, I had to take the opportunity to ask a race car driver's opinion on autonomous vehicles, especially now that they're becoming slightly more mainstream and we're seeing more brands developing semiautonomous technology. "There's absolutely a place for it from a transportation standpoint, whether it's trying to get cargo moved across the country or taking over a place of an Uber driver or something like that or mass transportation," Gordon says, noting that we already see similar tech when we go to airports and we have rail systems that move us around and are in some way autonomous.
"Computers are changing the world in every way that we live, and there's no doubt that they'll change the way we drive or experience a vehicle. There's times I would love to be on a road trip and be able to hand over the car to a computer while I eat or I sleep or I can answer emails. From that standpoint, I fully expect it to happen and I support it when it's ready and it's safe enough. But from a performance standpoint, I'm always gonna lean towards the human element of driving a car to its limits and going up against a computer."
Expanding on how car enthusiasm might change with technologies like autonomy, Gordon hopes the racing spirit doesn't get lost in future generations. "As a race car driver and a car guy in general, there's something that's just so rewarding about being able to get behind the wheel of a car and control that vehicle," he says. "And then of course, to get to take a car on a race track and push it to its limits, that to me is the ultimate, especially if you can compete with it. I hope that no matter what happens in the future with technology, that's something people are gonna always want to have as a part of their life."
Finally, I had to ask Gordon which of his past racing liveries is his favorite. His signature flame paint scheme was first to mind. "The flames came from a helmet that I had painted when I was a young kid, so to me the black car with the orange and yellow flames on it was always something special to me." But his real favorite happened to be a left-field answer, and one that happens to be my favorite as well. "We did do one car one year when we had a promotion with Looney Tunes, and it had this Axalta paint that's called chrome illusion and all these reflective aspects to it where different colors pop out." The base of the car had a cartoon landscape with grass, and the car was covered in Looney Tunes characters. "I performed horribly on the track in it, but I just love that car still to this day."
Watch this: Just how smart is an autonomous race car?