CERRITOS, Calif. — Audio and story by Race Chaser Online Open Wheel Correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — Shaun Botterill/Getty Images South America photo —
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word gnarly as “cool, good,” a definition so bland and uninspiring that it juxtaposes the very word it aims to ascribe meaning to.
But the top Urban Dictionary entry has a point.
“These kooks have no idea what GNARLY is. Gnarly is when you’ve gone beyond radical, beyond extreme, it’s balls out danger, and/or perfection, and/or skill or all of that combined.”
Rough around the edges and much more badass in presentation, that alternative definition just feels right. Applied to racing, it sounds a lot like Robby Gordon.
Gordon has showcased a wide range of skills in four decades from the mid-1980s to the present with no signs of slowing down. He has piloted everything from sports cars, stock cars, and open wheel cars to off-road machines on a variety of surfaces ranging from standard asphalt in North America to the extreme in South America’s mountainsides, where the only thing keeping the car from plunging off thousand foot cliffs are flawless reflexes and outright rejection of fear in the face of omnipresent peril.
Gordon’s newest venture is the SPEED Energy Stadium Super Trucks Series, an off-road/city street racing hybrid launched for its first full season in 2013 and sponsored by his own energy drink brand.
Stadium Super Trucks Steal the Show
The Stadium Super Trucks are not a brand new concept — Mickey Thompson pioneered the idea in the 1970s — but it is radical in the sense that the series is dramatically different from any other racing on the market right now.
“Off road racing is a very exciting form of motorsport,” Gordon said. “But the problem is, you’re out in the desert. You could be in the Dakar Rally, or down in Baja, and there’s only a few people who ever get to witness it. But being able to bring Stadium Super Trucks to a place like Long Beach or St. Pete, or V8 Supercars over in Australia, it allows the people to see what off road racing is but in an urban-style motorsport event.”
The Stadium Super Trucks will run at a maximum of ten sites this season, teamed up with the Verizon IndyCar Series in St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Toronto, and this weekend at Detroit. SST competes primarily on the undercard of more established series, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this isn’t a must-watch attraction.
“You can say we’re running as a support series, but [a few weeks ago] we passed IndyCar with Facebook followers, so I think we’re starting to get beyond just a support series. But on the other side, we’re different. We have good things that we can support IndyCar with as well, plus bring a completely different audience to the table.
“Trucks are still the number one selling vehicle in America. SUVs and trucks still sell the most, so it’s cool to have a formula out there that is running [and working] in the trucks.”
Except these aren’t your average trucks. Motored by 650 horsepower fuel injected V8 engines with no restrictor, the trucks jump over temporary metal ramps that routinely launch them over ten feet in the air, the landing absorbed by 26 inches of shock travel.
Imagine RC cars on steroids crossed with a life-sized Hot Wheels track and you’ll have a fairly accurate image of what a typical Stadium Super Trucks race looks like.
The unique nature of the series has attracted an eclectic list of drivers. 17 year old Sheldon Creed entered Detroit as the points leader. He’s chased by a list that currently includes IndyCar and GP2 veteran EJ Viso, Burt Jenner (Bruce Jenner’s son), and soon-to-be new addition Rusty Wallace, the former NASCAR champion who makes his debut at the X Games in June.
“We’ve got probably about ten guys who can win on any given weekend,” Gordon said. “The racing is very competitive and as we saw down in St. Pete and again at Long Beach, it’s pretty gnarly what these cars can do.”
Gordon has crammed more into his 46 years than most will in their entire lives, sampling nearly everything available at the motorsport buffet. Still, his staggering number of commitments as a driver, owner, promoter, and product ambassador isn’t biting off more than he can chew. Rather, they’re just the right amount to stabilize an appetite for competition that is never satiated.
“Driving the car, I gotta be honest, is still fun. Managing the people is a tough job, especially when you’re trying to run as many cars as we are.”
In 2014, the Robby Gordon Motorsports shop in Charlotte prepared vehicles for 181 races. Like so many drivers, Gordon lives from flag to flag, seeking his next full speed fix. To him, nothing compares to the Dakar Rally.
Dueling in the Desert
“The Dakar Rally is the toughest motorsport event in the world. Imagine running 14 IndyCar races day after day in different cities. And the race would not just happen on the race track,” he explained.
“There’s just so many different obstacles you have to overcome at the Dakar, and not only with the challenge of preparing the vehicle and moving the team from camp to camp every night to be able to reassemble the cars, but the terrain we go through. We go through mud, we go through gravel, we go through sand, race on pavement, and some of the driest, gnarliest desert in the world.”
Although he’s best known for his seasons in CART and NASCAR, off roading is where Gordon feels right home. His father, “Baja Bob” Gordon, was a long-time fixture of off road racing and Robby’s first championships were in Mickey Thompson’s SCORE International, winning five in a row from 1986-1990.
Eventually, Gordon’s career strayed away from full time off road racing, but he never lost his roots and has always been in it to win it. In the 2005 Dakar Rally, he became the first American to win stages in the car division. In the years since, he has totaled nine total stage victories, including the final stage in 2015.
Preparations for 2016 have already begun.
A Long List of Lessons Learned and Observed
Gordon’s win percentage at the pinnacle of American motorsports isn’t strikingly good. He won three times in 396 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts and only twice in 107 CART races. Most memorable to the casual race fan might be the conclusion to the 1999 Indianapolis 500, where he led coming to the white flag only to run out of fuel. However, he says he wouldn’t do any decisions over again. The byproduct of those choices has led him to where he is now.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to drive for some very good team owners over the years. Looking back, in the beginning days with A.J. Foyt, then moving from there to a guy like Derrick Walker, who now runs IndyCar. I got to learn a lot of tricks of the trade and a lot of experience from these guys who have been doing it for a long time. And then from Derrick Walker over to Richard Childress.
“I came to Childress right after the Earnhardt era, so it was an eye opening experience and I would say I learned a lot there.”
A lot has changed since Gordon scored his final CART win at Belle Isle in June 1995. Back in his prime, the Indy 500 regularly reached at least a 6.0 rating, compared to only a 4.3 at last weekend’s 99th running. And even though fans buy Grand Prix tickets to see IndyCar, a high percentage of them leave most satisfied with SST.
For better or for worse, he has never been one to mince his words. That’s why it may be surprising that, when asked what’s wrong with IndyCar, he insisted the series is only one piece away from resurgence.
“They’re going through the same thing that NASCAR is going to be going through right now. Who are the next names? Who’s the next Earnhardt? With IndyCar, I was fortunate enough that I had a very strong group of drivers that had a huge following in motorsport. Rick Mears was racing IndyCars when I was. Mario Andretti was racing IndyCars. Emerson Fittipaldi, Nigel Mansell, Al Junior, Al Senior…that’s probably the thing they’re lacking the most, is these star drivers,” Gordon said.
Even after the damaging split in 1996, he still had the chance to compete against CART mainstays such as Michael Andretti, and also the next generation of heroes like Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon, and Helio Castroneves. Having experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly at IMS, he has seen enough recently to believe the series and its marquee event are on the right track.
“I went to last year’s Indy 500 when Ryan Hunter Reay won and I thought that was one of the best Indy 500s I’ve ever been to, including ones like ‘99 or back all the way to ‘95 before the split. I thought the Indy 500 was as strong as it’s ever been.”
Love him or hate him, he’s one of a kind. An intense, take-no-prisoners, authentic competitor willing to drive anything, anywhere, anytime, an increasingly rare attitude as racing becomes more corporate and the personalities within become more sterile. Now that the Stadium Super Trucks are on the rise and have a TV contract with NBCSN, he amazingly continues to find new ways to make an impact in racing — and most importantly, keep having fun.
Gnarly entered the general lexicon in the 1980s, coincidentally the same time Robby began racing and winning in off road racing.
However different each dictionary definition of the word may be, a unanimous fit for each of them would be to put a picture of Robby Gordon on the page.
“Formula One Racing PLUS” on the Performance Motorsports Network is hosted by Joel Sebastianelli and Steve Aibel. Listeners will be in the middle of the action with up to date results from Formula One, IndyCar and sports cars.
Catch “Formula One Racing PLUS” on Wednesday and Thursday at 4 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 11 p.m., and Sunday at 6 a.m. (all times Eastern)
Listen in as our Joel Sebastianelli caught up with Gordon on a recent edition of Formula One Racing PLUS on the Performance Motorsports Network: