If you happened to watched the unbelievably thrilling livestream of the BC39 on the dirt track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last week, you got to see a guest of honor fire up the crowd by doing something he once did practically every night. Jeff Gordon showed up at the speedway and strapped on the Midget of Tim Clauson, whose late son was the race’s namesake, before firing up the crowd by hammering the cushion in a hot lap session. It was entirely fitting, because Gordon, one of the United States Auto Club’s brightest young stars before he headed south to NASCAR immortality, was named that same night to the 2021 class of the USAC Hall of Fame.
This photo from USAC by Rich Forman makes clear that Gordon was one happy guy after his little demonstration. A fuzz-faced teen from California, Gordon leaped to national stardom thanks to his performances in the series of live USAC races that ESPN televised on either side of 1990, when he won the USAC national Midget title in Rollie Helmling’s famous Diet Pepsi car. As with other young open-wheel stars, the road to greatness took a turn toward tin-tops in those years, and to a great extent, still does. Gordon capped a hall of fame career in NASCAR – four titles and then some – with an impressive stint in broadcasting and more recently, a move into the corporate side of racing that will leave him in charge of Hendrick Motorsport once founder Rick Hendrick steps aside. Personally, I can’t imagine any of this happening to a more talented, humble and thoroughly decent individual. So yeah, I’m a major mark for Jeff Gordon and always will be. The rest of 2021 class consists of Doug Carurthers, who won more USAC Midget races as a car owner in the 1970s than anyone else, often with sons Danny and Jimmy; the great TQ Midget, Western States Midget and Sprint car champion Jay Drake; the legendary Indiana mechanic and car owner Galen Fox, for whom Gary Bettenhausen took fifth in the Indianapolis 500; Dan Gurney, one of America’s greatest road races, who runner-upped at Indy in 1968 and 1969; Ray Nichels, who led all team owners with 70 wins in USAC’s Stock Car division; iconic Sprint owner and former chief steward Johnny Vance; and Joe Shaheen, longtime promoter of the very famous “Little Springfield” speedway in Illinois.