Four-time NASCAR Cup champion Jeff Gordon has revealed the discussions that took place on two separate occasions about him potentially pursuing a sensational Formula 1 switch.
The NASCAR Hall-of-Famer tested a Williams FW24 in 2003 in a seat-swap promotional event at Indianapolis, with then-F1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya driving Gordon’s Chevrolet.
Though it would mark the first and only opportunity for Gordon to drive F1 machinery, he had tentative conversations about the possibility of a grand prix racing career before and after the test.
Gordon told F1’s official podcast that the test not only sparked a far greater personal interest in F1 for him, it also triggered “a lot of discussions that got more serious than I thought they would” about pursuing other opportunities.
Having struggled initially in the FW24 with an ill-fitting HANS device that he needed to hold his head up against the forces under braking and through the corners, Gordon said he started to think, “Can I train my neck enough to do this, can I learn the tracks, can I be competitive?”.
He recalled having conversations at the Spanish Grand Prix including with the Jaguar team and also a discussion with Williams boss Frank Williams at the United States Grand Prix.
“I thought it was too steep of a climb to accomplish,” he said. “The opportunity somewhat did come along.
“I went to the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, just on vacation really, just walking around, but it happened to be when the Formula 1 race was happening and so we went to the race.
“Jimmie Johnson was actually with me and all of a sudden a couple people are like, ‘hey, such-and-such would like to talk to you’ and I’m over in the Jaguar paddock – ‘hey, tell us about what’s going on with your future, we saw you drove the Williams’.
“It probably was, more than anything, did I have any money to bring to Formula 1 and did I want to be a Formula 1 driver?
“I sat down with Frank, I think he came to Indianapolis after that test for the actual race. I went and sat down and had coffee with them and we talked about it.
“It might have been a similar kind of probe. It really never got serious or went anywhere, and I really at that time didn’t expect it to because I was so established in NASCAR.
“Ten years or eight years prior to that, had that happened, it would have been different.”
The Race says
Formula 1 wasn’t quite as ‘you must be under 24 to enter’ obsessed as it appears now, but even back in 2003 a 32-year-old Gordon would have been an extreme punt for an F1 team, especially in the years of test teams and reserve drivers that were so well prepared to go at a moment’s notice.
Gordon may have had a more open-wheel-suited upbringing similar to an IndyCar driver, but it was still all done on ovals in sprint cars and midgets. Even though he proved one of NASCAR’s best ever drivers on road courses, he had very little karting or circuit experience beforehand.
Given the fact he got within around half a second of Montoya on the swap day at Indianapolis – Montoya had guessed it’d be a second or two – it’s fair to say Gordon had impressed. Especially as he didn’t do that many laps.
But even if talks with the likes of BAR – rarely discussed at the time and a joy to listen to on the Beyond the Grid podcast – had gone any further, Gordon would have been mad to walk away from NASCAR.
He’s still one of the championship’s biggest brands and he changed the face of NASCAR over the late 1990s. He broke the usual mould of southern-based ‘good old boys’ with his California good looks and rainbow paint scheme and crew.
By 2003 he was making, and had made, huge TV appearances and featured on everything from Christmas decorations to cereal boxes, at the height of his pomp. It felt like he was set to earn many more titles and cash in the process, something that would be hard to throw away for a potential ‘flash in the pan’ F1 experience which offered up so many tricky variables.
It’s another example of what could have been had a career played out differently, but Gordon is an on and off-track legend in NASCAR and it’s hard to fault the choices he made. He likely had the talent to race in F1, but by 2003 it wasn’t the time or the place to invest his future in.
Gordon said that his experience driving the Williams opened his eyes to just how different F1 and stock car racing are as disciplines, which he believes explains why there is so little successful crossover between NASCAR and F1.
Though he was interested in the US open-wheel scene as a youngster he said F1 was never on his radar and that he’d have needed to commit to the path very early to make it work.
That is why the “one other conversation” Gordon remembers about a potential route to F1 didn’t appeal either.
In the late-1990s, Jacques Villeneuve approached Gordon about switching to single-seater racing with a view to a role with the 1997 F1 champion’s new BAR project planned for 1999.
“I think they wanted an American driver,” said Gordon. “Somehow, I got on the list, and we had a lot of discussions.”
Gordon said the conditions were “you’ve got to test in IndyCar” – CART, at the time – and he also claimed he’d have to drive junior single-seater machinery in Europe.
In 2008, Gordon claimed that the deal being discussed back then was a full-time CART drive with Barry Green’s frontrunning team – which was backed by British American Tobacco brand KOOL and has since turned into Andretti Autosport – and that he might have a BAR F1 drive two years after that.
“Things were hot for me in NASCAR,” said Gordon.
“And so when I looked at it I was like, ‘OK, I’m with the best team, winning races, winning championships, and I’m going to have to leave this and I’m going to have to start my career all over basically and go learn how to be a road racer in an open-wheel rear-engine car?’.
“Man, that’s fun to talk about but that, again, just doesn’t seem realistic.
“So, both of those opportunities came my way and they were fun discussions but never went anywhere because I love NASCAR, and I just didn’t see where me starting over at that point was reality.”
Gordon also said that former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone would say things like “We’ve got to get you a ride” and “What have we got to do?” whenever they saw each other at grands prix.
But Gordon never took those comments seriously and would “just kind of smile and say ‘oh, I don’t think that’s going to happen’”.