Great Rivalries: Racing's Best Rivalries

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Sean McCabe
Great Rivalries: Racing\'s Best Rivalries

Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt

Just about the only place where these cutthroat techniques aren't standard operating procedure is stock car racing, which had been, until relatively recently, a parochial backwater. Which is why Jeff Gordon's arrival in the early '90s caused so much controversy and soul-searching about the fundamental nature of the sport.

At the time, Dale Earnhardt was not only the top dog in Winston Cup, he was also the exemplar of the predominantly blue-collar phenomenon that had flourished almost exclusively in the South after Bill France founded NASCAR in 1948. Born in a small town in the North Carolina Piedmont and the son of a legendary short-track racer, Earnhardt dropped out of high school to focus on racing but worked in the local mill and scuffled for more than a decade before reaching the big time. And even after winning his first championship in 1980, he was regarded for several years as a loose cannon. Later in life, the media dubbed him "The Intimidator," but in the Cup garage, he was more commonly known by a less flattering sobriquet: "Ironhead."

Gordon, meanwhile, was unlike anything NASCAR had seen before. He was born in California, won his first race at age five, and moved to Indiana when he was fourteen to run hairy-chested midget and sprint cars. From the start, he was a prodigy, and if he'd grown up a generation earlier, he would have been groomed for Indy. But there were no opportunities in CART for a tyro like Gordon. So at the age of nineteen, he turned his attention to stock cars.

Gordon arrived in NASCAR at a propitious moment. The sport was expanding beyond its Southern roots, and mainstream advertisers were capitalizing on its growth. Gordon was young, handsome, clean-cut, polite, personable, and above all else, the antithesis of the good ol' boy - the anti-Dale, if you will. Predictably, the hype surrounding Gordon offended NASCAR diehards. Earnhardt ran the new kid hard both on and off the track, publicly questioning his manhood, mocking him when he cried after his first win, and derisively nicknaming him "Wonder Boy." But Gordon wasn't intimidated. Earnhardt claimed the last of his seven championships during Gordon's first two years in Cup before Gordon turned the tables in 1995, winning the first of his four titles. At the year-end banquet, baby-faced Gordon playfully saluted Earnhardt with a champagne flute - filled with milk.

Earnhardt's death at Daytona in 2001 confirmed his folk-hero status. But from our vantage point in 2009, it's clear that he was the last of the breed. Today, top stock car racers come from Australia and Colombia, F1 and Indy cars, and increasingly, they're spit out of the Jeff Gordon mold. Gordon protégé Jimmie Johnson, the reigning (and three-time) Sprint Cup champ, cut his teeth off-road racing and worked as a TV race reporter before landing a ride in NASCAR. Like Gordon, he's handsome, articulate, and aggressively inoffensive. Sponsors love him. Fans? Not so much. And it's impossible to envision him embroiled in a knock-down, drag-out feud that causes the hair to stand up on the back of your head every time he comes within crashing distance of his adversary. That's a shame.

Sparks are bound to fly in racing. But these days, sanctioning bodies do their best to extinguish fires before they start. The thinking seems to be that fighting and other displays of undue emotion are unseemly reminders of the sideshow status motorsports were accorded before television and big-bucks sponsors arrived to raise its demographic profile. What the powers that be are forgetting is that rivalries aren't relics of the bad old days; they're the essence of racing. And eradicating them is one surefire way of killing the sport in the name of lifting it to the next level. Because in racing, a little bad blood is just what the doctor ordered.

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