Jeff Gordon, Cancer, And The 2015 Season

Before I was born my dad was wrenching on sprint cars at dirt tracks around Ohio and Indiana like it was his job. Bouncing with his team from Chillicothe to Lawrenceburg and up to Eldora. That’s where my dad first saw Jeff Gordon.

A scrawny kid with more talent than half the field combined who sometimes arrived by helicopter. He tells me all the time “when he started winning we all looked at one another like what are we doing?” A kid beating guys more than double his age. So when Gordon popped on the NASCAR scene it was only natural my dad became a fan.

I had no choice as a kid. We were a racing family, my dad stopped wrenching on sprint cars before my brother was born. Work, kids, life all get in the way of the weekend hobby. That didn’t halt his love of racing though. So there we were every Sunday watching races, and more specifically watching Jeff Gordon.

So when Jeff Gordon announced before the 2015 season he was going to retire it was a huge downer for my dad and myself. Since 1994 this was the guy we watched and now the circle was near completion. For that 2015 season, we decided to see him at two of his best tracks. Martinsville in the spring and Indianapolis in the summer. Naturally, he didn’t win either of those races because life isn’t a Disney movie and happy endings aren’t always possible.

After a stellar 2014 season for Gordon we hoped that 2015 would be the same. Unfortunately thanks to a package change Gordon didn’t seem to grasp the high downforce as well as other guys. So as the season ticked by the opportunities for wins got less and less.

While the NASCAR season was happening my dad had a yearly checkup as you do. The doctor said you’re at that age to get a colonoscopy so do that before Thanksgiving. My dad is a punctual man so he scheduled his test for September. Colonoscopy’s sound like they suck but if you’re at that age please schedule one.

I still remember that day in September. My mom took my dad to the appointment because you’re groggy afterward and driving isn’t recommended as if that man hasn’t done 20-hour drives in one shot before. When the family group chat went silent for a few hours something seemed off. After, work I went to my parents house. Silence is never a great thing. You never want to tell someone their dad has cancer over text.

So there we sat, my dad, explained that he had colon cancer. It’s surreal to think about because you’ve never seen your dad that vulnerable. Three years prior we sat in the same spot as he told us our Grandpa didn’t have much time left and the same emotions came rushing back. There was uncertainty in his eyes but the conviction in his voice was all we needed. Losing wasn’t a scenario that he had even thought about.

The cancer was on his colon and barely on his kidney but it was operational with hopefully no chemo. Fantastic news to hear. So surgery was scheduled for the first week of November. Meaning we had all of October to get ready for a life-altering surgery, at least for the months that followed.

For the month of October we lived life normally. He bought a new truck, went to work, and we kept watching NASCAR races. Which brings us to November 1st at Martinsville.

Jeff Gordon was still in the playoffs, while he had no wins there was still a chance and this was his best track. Gordon was the third best car that day. Logano and Keselowski had the field covered until, well you know, he got Kenseth’d. As soon as that happened and we saw Gordon skirt by underneath we knew this was it. He was going to win this race if he could survive the closing laps.

As that #24 came off turn 4 in near darkness with the spotlights from the press tower reflecting off the AARP Chevy SS we were yelling at the TV. Hands were smacking the leather ottoman, and my mother ran into the family room very concerned. Gordon was going to Homestead and the chance at a 5th title was still alive. John Elway won and rode off into the sunset, why couldn’t Jeff Gordon?

That Sunday provided the perfect distraction for the week ahead. A few days later we went to the hospital at 5 AM to see my dad off. He was coherent for a while and wasn’t worried at all. About 10 hours later he came out of surgery, his colon cut apart and stitched back together, tubes everywhere, bloated and not looking anywhere near the cover of GQ.

Surgery turned into a three-week hospital stay as he rehabbed from a massively invasive surgery. Through that, we still had to watch Jeff Gordon race for a championship. Truth be told he doesn’t remember the Texas race that weekend or really the first two weeks post surgery. Like the time he tried to escape at 2 AM by ripping a catheter out of himself all while yelling for the nurses as if he was being held hostage in North Korea.

I’d stop in after work each day for a couple of hours. Over those three weeks I got very comfortable with the visitors recliner. We’d talk about racing, life, the Bearcats, what we were going to do when he got better and if we thought Gordon really had a chance.

Racing served as a distraction and Gordon making a run in those closing weeks couldn’t have come at a better time. Phoenix weekend came and went and the hospital stay continued. After being bed ridden for nearly two weeks my dad was essentially learning how to walk again. We’d take short walks around the 5th floor. Shuffling feet covered by those special hospital socks while clutching onto the railings just trying to get back to some sort of normalcy.

Homestead weekend was finally upon us. Three weeks after watching Gordon win Martinsville from our living room life had completely changed. Instead of being kicked back on the couch eating whatever he wanted a hospital bed was the preferred seating area and jello cups replaced wings. A Pepsi was snuck in because sponsor loyalty, obviously.

He didn’t want me watching the race from the hospital. My dad is a selfless person and likely wanted me watching on the best TV possible. And probably because he didn’t need me getting worked up in a hospital.

The race played out and my texts would go unanswered for long periods of time as he nodded in and out of sleep. After it was all said and done I got a text that said “he gave it a hell of a run.” And Gordon did. He led laps at a 1.5 mile track where he struggled all year, the #24 found speed where it previously hadn’t. Kyle Busch was just too strong.

Not all stories have magical endings. Hell yes it would have been nice for Gordon to win the championship. But the distraction of a Gordon championship run was enough for us. Cancer sucks, it can consume all of your thoughts. You need distractions, as the family member you need distractions. Gordon making one last push came at the perfect time.

Thankfully my dad made a full recovery. One near death major setback in December was scary but he made a full recovery by April. After his cancer, he wanted to take advantage of more things in life. So in February of 2017, we went to the Daytona 500, something he’s always wanted to do. As we walked around the merchandise tents (remember those? they were fantastic) a Chase Elliott lanyard was purchased along with a Daytona straw golf hat. The #24 tradition carried on all thanks to a kid from the dirt tracks of Indiana 27+ years prior.

As Gordon goes into the Hall of Fame Friday night I just wanted to share that sometimes racing is more than what happens on track. We all obsess over finishes, points, what this driver said and so on. Every now and then though it can serve as a distraction. Racing is entertainment, it is there for your enjoyment and for those final three weeks of the 2015 season that’s what we needed.

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