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A Hero Beyond the Finish Line

The inspiring story of NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon’s biggest impact off the track

Jeff Gordon

My stepdad got me hooked on racing when I was five years old. After I won my first race, that was it. From then on, chasing that next checkered flag was the goal. Life was about winning races.

Everything I did was geared to going fast and crossing the finish line first. Everything in between was just filler. Two things changed that. Two kids, actually. Ray J and a boy I’ll call Gil.

Ray J is the son of my former crew chief, Ray Evernham. Ray and I were like brothers. We clicked from the moment we met. He worked tirelessly to forge a winning team. I did the driving, but we won races together.

I got to know his family too, especially Ray J, who was only one year old at the time.

One day in our first NASCAR season together, Ray wasn’t at the track when I got there. Something had to be very wrong. Ray was always there.

“Ray caught the first flight back home this morning,” a crew member told me. “There’s something wrong with Ray J. The doctors think it might be leukemia.”

A chill went through me. Leukemia. Cancer. Ray J was a healthy, energetic kid. How could this happen? I couldn’t imagine what Ray and his wife must be going through. I called Ray immediately.

“You know I’m there for you, buddy. Whatever we can do, let us know.” Ray sputtered something about hating to miss work for even a day. “Forget it,” I interrupted. “Your family comes first.”

And I meant it. For one of the first times in my life the next race didn’t seem so important. Racing and life weren’t the same thing.

For the next few months Ray kept us up to date on his son’s progress, but it was tough going. Chemotherapy, radiation, long stays in the hospital. Little Ray J’s hair fell out and there were times he was so weak he could barely play.

With every new round of treatment, Ray would cling to hope, but, boy, was it hard. Wasn’t there something I could do? I always met challenges by going faster, pushing myself harder. How could a stock-car driver like me make a difference to a kid who was battling cancer?

I thought of Geoffrey Bodine, a fellow racer. He had hosted Make-A-Wish Foundation families at the track, and I’d had the pleasure of meeting some of those remarkable kids.

These children were facing some of life’s toughest challenges with determination and great spirit, and I wanted to become more involved.

Some people warned me that it could be really hard to see kids so ill. But if I wasn’t afraid to drive a car around an oval track at 200 miles an hour plus, then why should I let myself be afraid to visit with sick kids?

I signed up with Make-A-Wish. I was nervous–but excited–as the date of my visit grew closer. A six-year-old boy with osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare bone disease, was coming to the track. Gil.

His bones were so weakened by his condition that several broke during birth. By now he’d become so fragile that if I even hugged him I might break one of his bones. “He can’t wait to meet you,” a coordinator from Make-A-Wish told me.

There he was, sitting in a wheelchair, his family standing behind it. His legs were gnarled and atrophied and his torso was as small as a three-year-old’s.

He had a hat with a “24”–my number–and a Jeff Gordon shirt that looked to be about three sizes too big. His grin was three sizes too big too, stretching from ear to ear.

“Hey, buddy,” I said. “How are you?”

“Fine.” Gil raised his hand for a high five. Now I was nervous. If I hit his hand, wouldn’t I shatter his bones? If I acted like he was too fragile to touch, I’d risk shattering his spirit.

In a race we think about everything beforehand. We try to plan for every possibility. But this was something I was unprepared for. I looked at his family. They seemed as stymied as I was. Quickly I said a prayer that I’d do the right thing. I held up my hand. He tapped it and then pulled his hand back.

That big smile got even bigger. “Ow!” I said. “Don’t hurt me, man. Wow, you’re so strong.”

I knelt down and we talked. He was a huge NASCAR fan. He couldn’t get outside and run around, but watching the races and learning everything he could about the drivers distracted him from his pain. “I love it when you win, Jeff.”

Win. That word again. A concept, really. Had I ever thought much about what it meant? Was it all about just crossing the finish line first? It was as though someone was showing me how big winning could be, how it was about more than me and my car and my team and that next checkered flag.

“Hey, man,” I said, “I’ll be thinking about you out there. I promise.”

I have too. I’ve seen tons of other kids through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. I’ve also worked with the Leukemia Society and the Marrow Foundation. And we started our own, The Jeff Gordon Foundation. It’s all about helping sick kids, kids who are immeasurably brave, the true winners.

As for Ray J, all the prayers and treatments and hospital stays had their effect. One night two years after Ray J’s diagnosis, Ray called me from his home. “You’re missing a great party here, buddy,” he said.

“For the race?” We’d just won one and I thought that’s what he was talking about.

“Better than that,” Ray said. “Ray J is in full remission. The doctors say he’s finished with chemo. He’s all better.”

That Christmas I did celebrate with Ray and Ray J. I’d bought the kid a big plastic electric car. Ray J climbed inside and grabbed the wheel. “Be careful with that, son,” his dad said. Ray J put his pedal to the floor and drove straight into the Christmas tree. We laughed so hard we couldn’t stop.

I’m not going to try and fool you. Winning on the track is what I’m always aiming for. That’s my job, how I support my family and my foundation. But winning is best when it’s about something bigger and better than crossing the finish line first.

I can make a difference–any one of us can–in ways far beyond what’s humanly possible to imagine. Two kids taught me that.

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