Jeff Gordon’s winning attitude at home, on the track, and championing children’s health

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Jeff Gordon got behind the wheel of his first race car when he was 5 years old, running laps on a racetrack that his stepfather built for him in their hometown of Vallejo, Calif. At age 6, the future NASCAR champion piloted his quarter-midget car — a tiny professional racing vehicle for the 5 to 16 set — to 35 victories, setting five track records in the process.

It was an auspicious start to an astonishing career. In the years since, Gordon has won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship four times and the Daytona 500 three times. He has racked up more than 80 NASCAR wins. Only five other drivers have placed first more times than Gordon.

This year, the competition is as high as always, but he has a new source of inspiration: his daughter, Ella Sofia, who had her first birthday in June. Has becoming a father forced the legendary driver to shift gears? WebMD checked in with him recently to find out, and we learned that in Gordon’s drive to succeed — both on the track and off — he is not the only winner.

Jeff Gordon, Racing Champion

In Jeff Gordon’s 31 years of racing, nothing has prevented him from climbing into the driver’s seat on race day. Well, almost nothing.

“The only thing that’s kept me off the track was eyes and mind on his car, on the road, and on the racers around him rather than heart rates to near maximum levels for hours at a time. “You don’t have to be particularly strong to race cars,” Melvin says, “but you have to have a lot of endurance. These drivers burn oxygen at the same rate as soccer players.”

According to Melvin, drivers feel a g-force (the force of gravity on the body during acceleration) of up to 3 g’s around the banked curves common on NASCAR tracks, where speeds average 180 mph or more. Isn’t that dangerous?

Race Track Improvements

Yes, says Melvin, but not nearly as risky as it was just a few years ago. Following a series of deaths, including that of legendary driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001, a number of safety improvements to cars and tracks were put into place, vastly reducing injury rates.

The most important was the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device inside race cars. Melvin describes it as a carbon fiber collar integrated with restraining belts. It locks the driver’s head in place so that in a crash it moves with the body rather than whipping forward or to the side. That prevents the most common fatal injury: a fracture at the base of the skull.

For race tracks, SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers were introduced in 2002. Square steel tubes filled with crushable foam, these barriers absorb some of the impact when drivers crash into them, reducing the severity of the crash.

Both safety measures seem to be working. There have been no deaths or serious injuries since these safety upgrades were introduced, says Melvin, but “we cross our fingers, because it’s still a very dangerous sport.”