PITTSBORO, Ind. (AP) — Jeff Gordon felt right at home Thursday back in small-town Indiana.
His parents, some of his longtime friends and even some of his former high school teachers were among hundreds of people lining the streets in Pittsboro to celebrate Gordon as he wraps up his final full-time season in NASCAR.
It was a fitting place for the biggest stop yet on his farewell tour.
Here, a short drive from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Gordon honed his racing skills before he was old enough to obtain a driver’s license. Here, he learned the importance of balancing weekend races with daily life. And now, three days before driving in his final Brickyard 400, Gordon came back to a community full of tall corn stalks, endless farming fields and dozens of mementoes bearing his well-known No. 24 to thank his biggest fans.
“This is very cool,” Gordon said after participating in the short parade and brief awards ceremony. “Pittsboro is obviously very memorable to me because we lived here, raced out of here. Several years ago, they named Jeff Gordon Boulevard, so there have always been great experiences here. But to come here and have it be my last Brickyard 400, it’s pretty overwhelming. It’s putting a big smile on my face for the weekend.”
The only thing that would make this weekend better would be reaching victory lane Sunday to become the first six-time winner on the speedway’s historic 2.5-mile oval.
While the 43-year-old Gordon is not an Indiana native by birth, he is one of the state’s favorite sons.
His parents moved from California to Pittsboro when Gordon was a rising star on the teenage racing circuit. They wound up in a small, suburban community west of Indy that was willing to support their son’s aspirations along and the importance of Midwestern values.
If Gordon didn’t understand those principles before arriving in Indiana, he did by the time he started racing stock cars.
After winning one race with a daring late move, Gordon’s stepfather forced him to hand the winner’s trophy to the second-place finisher and told him: “That’s not how we race.”
Gordon never made that mistake again and his genteel approach to racing has won over fans throughout Indiana — and beyond.
“I think it’s pride, pride to have somebody from a small town do as good as Jeff’s done and to be the kind of a man, the gentleman that he is,” 78-year-old Pat McClain said.
In Indiana, there couldn’t be a better combination.
From Milan’s Bobby Plump to Martinsville’s John Wooden, from Bedford’s Damon Bailey to Rushville’s Tony Stewart, every little town seems to have a story -- and a celebrity. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler hails from Santa Claus. Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens played prep basketball in Zionsville and college basketball at DePauw in Greencastle. And everyone knows Larry Bird is from French Lick.
But Gordon has become one of the state’s best ambassadors, which is why everyone wanted to share the stage with him Thursday.
Pittsboro Police Chief Christi Patterson named Gordon an honorary police officer and presented him a real badge. Tri-West superintendent Rusty King gave Gordon a plaque of the diploma he earned in 1989 with an inscription that read in part, “to our most famous graduate.”
Town officials handed Gordon the proclamation papers from county and state leaders declaring Thursday as Jeff Gordon Day, and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence presented Gordon with the Sagamore of the Wabash award -- the highest state honor for a civilian.
“He may not have been born in Indiana. But as his parents told me, he came here as soon as he knew about it,” Pence joked. “He is a Hoosier through and through.”
This year’s farewell tour has included some memorable stops including driving the pace car in May’s Indianapolis 500. The No. 24 will be on the hood of the pace car Sunday, too.
Yet after 92 Sprint Cup wins, four titles and five victories down the road at Indianapolis, the Rainbow Warrior saved his most emotional moments for his hometown crowd.
“This has been one of the best days of my life and I say that sincerely,” Gordon said, his voice cracking, “because I not only get to see what Pittsboro’s meant to me, I get to see what Pittsboro’s meant to you by the way you’ve come out and supported me. This to me is a very, very special day.”