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With Gordon Stepping Away Bickford’s Journey Also Ending

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As @JeffGordonWeb stood next to the grandfather clock in Martinsville’s Victory Lane with his opportunity to race for the Sprint Cup championship secured, his wife Ingrid and two children Leo and Ella joined him in the celebration.

But there is one family member who has been on this journey with Jeff since childhood, his step-dad John Bickford. And for Bickford, it has indeed been the journey of a lifetime, which started many years ago born in the roots of his own passion for racing.

“I’m so old, I don’t even remember how my interest in racing started,” Bickford said with a laugh. “But I can’t remember really when I wasn’t interested in racing. I think I was probably eight or nine or ten years old in California when I got interested. We used to race boxes with skate wheels on it. I made my own go kart out of wood and put some wheels on it and ran it downhill.”

“The first chance I had to be around a race car was when I had an opportunity to weld something on someone’s car. I was like fourteen and I knew how to weld because of my grandfather, who owned a construction company,” Bickford continued. “He let me practice welding and so I welded something for a guy on his race car and then I hung around.

“I became ‘the welding guy’, so whenever someone needed something welded, I was the guy. I was the guy who worked on cars. It was a natural thing and I became more and more passionate and probably had a small aptitude for it. So, I just kind of worked my way up.”

Bickford’s love of racing was solidified when he met Gordon’s mother Carol in 1972.

“I met Carol at work and she had this little newborn guy. We became friends and in 1973 we got married,” he recalled. “Her son was little so he wasn’t going to be an NBA basketball player plus I wasn’t much of a dad coach.

“So, we went to races and went camping and off-roading. We did all of those exciting things and he started bicycling when he was five and mom didn’t like that. So, there was an opportunity to build him a little car. So, that’s how we got going.”

For Bickford and Gordon racing that first little car led to more and more interest in the racing journey, as well as trying to improve and move up each and every week.

“We heard about another kid who was driving at fourteen and Jeff was thirteen at the time, so we thought we could do that,” Bickford said. “We did this sprint car thing, which looking back was somewhat insane, but it was a demonstration of the skills that he had.

“And Jeff ran with the bigger kids and the very best that was out there. He had a lot of skills then and it was one of those things that I probably knew that he could keep advancing.”

At the time, Bickford was designing vehicles for individuals with spinal cord injuries. In fact, he designed the very first vehicle ever driven by a quadriplegic. As for his focus at home, one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the family’s racing journey was the expense and the money needed to advance in the sport.

We’re not wealthy at all and it takes a lot of money to field cars. At the grassroots level, there was no sponsorship so you built your car and you fielded it,” Bickford said. “In the 1980’s there wasn’t big shops that built cars that you could call up and order. You built the car. So, one of the advantages that Jeff had was that was my skill set.

“I had the ability to coordinate what was available in the industry and built the rest of it. We actually built a company around it where we made race car parts. So, we made parts for the handicapped industry and we also made race parts using the same equipment. And when we ran short of money, we sold the handicapped business and took that money to advance Jeff’s career.”

Bickford was able to buy a couple more years in Indiana and get Gordon in front of more people. The thought was for him to become an IndyCar driver, but it didn’t work out.

“We got there a few years late with his age and the motorsport world was changing at that time where drivers were playing a large role in establishing the funding to keep the cars running,” Bickford said. “Most of the beginner guys were bringing money and we didn’t have any to bring. So, stock car racing was still hiring talent and Jeff was able to get a couple shots at that. And he got hired on his talent.”

One of the most important aspects of the journey was something that Bickford hopes that he has imparted to the four-time champion. That of the positive mental attitude needed to win.

“I think racing is a roller coaster thing for the drivers but I don’t think I’ve had any downs. Certainly I’ve had disappointments and you get frustrated when something doesn’t go right,” Bickford said. “But for me, people will tell you I’m the ultimate positive guy. I’m the ultimate motivator and I tend to find the positive in every situation. I think when you look at Jeff, he also gets over his disappointments pretty fast.

“When he leaves the track on Sundays and if he didn’t win, or if there was an issue, or even if there was a confrontation with another driver, he goes home, takes a shower, turns on the TV and he’s over it. He’s thinking about next week and the opportunity that comes next. I think a little bit of that is how we’ve lived our lives.”

As Gordon focuses on winning his fifth championship in his retirement year, Bickford is also reflecting on what his next step in his journey of life will be.

“I truthfully don’t know what I’ll be doing next,” Bickford said. “The plan for me right now is to stop working for Jeff at the end of the year.

“Jeff has his Fox deal and his Axalta program and Pepsi and Chevy and Hendrick Motorsports. So, there really is no need for me anymore. He’s got a team of people that work for him that are young and enthusiastic and leading edge on technology. He doesn’t need an old dinosaur like me.”

Whatever the future holds, Bickford is not quite sure how he himself will feel when Gordon takes the checkered flag and ends his Hall of Fame career in just a few weeks.

“I certainly hope Jeff takes that checkered flag in first place!” he said. “I’ve never done this. It’s been 39 years of continuous focus on this racing. So, I don’t know how I’ll feel. I guess I’m hoping for a bit of a sense of completion.

“Our daughter graduated from college and I felt a sense of completion. She’s moved back home a couple times so I realize quickly that there is no actual completion in the life of a parent. Once they are your child, they are always your child and they never go away. They’re with you forever. You say goodbye to them but hopefully they never say goodbye to you.”

While Bickford doesn’t know how he’ll feel in Homestead, he does know everything that has led to that moment has been a journey.

“I know when the kids moved away, it was just Carol and I and the dog and we looked at each other wondering what we should do now. Should we have a fight? That was too much energy,” he said. “Should we kick the dog? No, we love the dog so why would we do that.

“So, we asked each other what we wanted to do and we still don’t know. And then the next thing you know, the phone rings and someone is asking for your advice on a problem. And another phone call comes and pretty soon the opportunities come. So, we will see where the journey takes us next. I would say check in with me in March and ask me what’s going on.”


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Mary Jo Buchanan

Mary Jo Buchanan has been a race fan since her childhood, having grown up at a local Pennsylvania dirt track. With her experience in the pits, she has developed an interest and expertise in all levels of racing, from the local scene to the highest level of the sport. Many of her articles focus on the ‘behind the scenes’ and sometimes ‘off the beaten path’ stories about the world of racing. Buchanan also enjoys writing about up and coming drivers and the people that make NASCAR work on a daily basis.