Most of you are probably aware of the new look on the 24, but if not, you can check out Jeff Gordon’s new black-focused paint scheme here.
OK, now relax. I’m confident that the pseudonym “Man In Black” won’t stick to the four-time Winston Cup champion.
When people hear “The Man In Black”, of course, they think of one or both of two men—Johnny Cash, iconic country singer and wearer of ubiquitous black leather outfits, or Dale Earnhardt, iconic driver of the black racecar with the trademark white number 3 on the side. Both are no longer with us and the world is lesser for it.
Cash and Earnhardt both relished the “man in black” role. Dark clothing or a dark car. Black like the night. In Johnny Cash’s case, black like much of his life, even if much of the blackness was self-inflicted by his own admission. In Earnhardt’s case, black like Darth Vader—and to be feared just as much on the racetrack.
Dale Earnhardt had proven himself plenty driving a yellow and blue Wrangler car. But he didn’t quite have the menacing image, the imposing dark aura then. Not until he started driving the black number 3 did the color of the car mesh with his driving style. The marriage was perfect. He had just been nicknamed the Intimidator. Now he was also the Man In Black. Fans of Johnny Cash didn’t seem to mind. Why would they?
The paint scheme on Dale Earnhardt’s car played more of a part in defining his character than possibly any other on the track or even NASCAR history…with the possible exception of Jeff Gordon, who probably would have preferred to let Dale keep that distinction. Earnhardt was painted with a flattering light (or absence of it), while the image attached to Gordon was with the intent being most unflattering.
Few of us could forget the rainbow-colored scheme on the 24 from Gordon’s early years. It didn’t look like anything else on the track or in the sport’s history. Some took it to mean Gordon was gay—the rumor occasionally persists, at least among fans arguing about their drivers, despite his two marriages to beautiful models. (I think this may be partly because gay bars in Key West and other places have rainbow-colored flags over the door—and before you ask, I learned that only so I would know to avoid them and the ensuing uncomfortable situation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
The rainbow car was indeed colorful, almost gaudy. Maybe it was a little on the effeminate side. You couldn’t very well miss it on the track…but the fact that it was in victory lane almost every other week for four years helped draw attention to it, too. Combine a rainbow-colored racecar with its pilot being a wide-eyed, excitable young Wonderboy and one can almost see how his detractors made the leap to his possibly being attracted to other men.
Few drivers in NASCAR history have had personas that were influenced by their paint schemes the way Earnhardt and Gordon have. Sure, Matt Kenseth’s crew in their black and yellow DeWalt uniforms get called the “Killer Bees” and Tony Stewart was often called “Big Orange” when he drove the Home Depot 20. But those images don’t stick with these drivers all day long. The light blue STP 43 might be the most well-known paint creation in motorsports history, but no one ever regularly called Richard Petty the “Man In Light Blue”. That probably would not have been taken well by Petty fans. Fights would likely break out.
There are several reasons for the role paint schemes played in Gordon’s and Earnhardt’s images. Both drivers were multiple champions, for one, so fans already heard their names and saw their cars plenty. I haven’t yet heard anyone call Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, or Martin Truex, Jr. the “Man In Black”. But they haven’t won multiple championships. Both drivers were controversial and polarizing, more so than any other of the drivers of their day or perhaps any day—and both grew large fan and anti-fan bases as a result. Only Darrell Waltrip is even in their league in that regard (and D.W. had a fairly glaring paint job with Tide too, come to think of it). Kyle Busch may get there someday.
And both drivers’ paint jobs did somewhat fit their personalities—Earnhardt the hard-nosed, tough veteran; Gordon the baby-faced, gregarious young hotshot. Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon may have had very, very different personalities. Rough vs. clean cut. Redneck vs. California kid.
But on the track, where these two made their most indelible mark, there wasn’t much difference between Gordon and Earnhardt at all. Both are known for an utterly fierce competitive drive that wouldn’t spare their grandmother. Gordon loves to win and hates to lose every bit as much as Earnhardt did. Gordon would be just as eager to move someone out of the way for a victory as Earnhardt would have. Both of them are even known for excellence at restrictor plate tracks, an arena where excellence seems almost entirely random. Both of them, to look at their biographies, seemed born to battle on asphalt. Black asphalt.
In that light, it isn’t insulting to anyone to liken Jeff Gordon to Dale Earnhardt, even with a similar nickname. That is, after all, what both men are known for.
Gordon has grown through the years. He is a car owner as well as a driver (and hasn’t done too badly as a car owner). He has gone through a difficult divorce and is in his second marriage, both of which have served to humanize his once squeaky clean image. He is a proud father now. It’s a far cry from the wide-eyed mid-20s kid who turned an entire sport upside down more than a decade ago.
One wonders if the constant accusations of homosexuality from jealous fans of other drivers would be dogging Jeff Gordon had he driven a jet black car from the beginning of his career. Or if Dale Earnhardt would have been the daunting figure that he undeniably was if he drove a rainbow car. He wouldn’t have been the Man In Black obviously. One wonders if even the Intimidator moniker would have stuck.
It seems ridiculous to actually think about it, but the black 24 car may give Jeff Gordon a different image from the early 20s Gordon who drove a rainbow-colored racecar to three titles in four seasons. People will see the black 24 this season and might see a different driver, a different person even. He may not become a “Man In Black”, but if he finally completes the Drive For Five with the black car, he just might earn a new nickname and reputation. He already isn’t Wonderboy anymore.
Fans of Dale Earnhardt and maybe even Johnny Cash might be insulted by the polished Indianan, the anti-redneck, also assuming a nickname of “Man In Black”.
Then again, fans of Jeff Gordon, weary of the constant abuse they take when they attend races, might not give a damn. Far be it for me to stand in their way either.
So maybe we could meet in the middle and call Jeff Gordon the New Man In Black.
Kurt’s NASCAR 2009 Shorts! (Sorry about THAT visual…)
- The Official Columnist of NASCAR, in his empathy with those who yearn for the golden days of the sport, salutes George Gillett for changing the name of Gillett-Evernham Motorsports to Richard Petty Motorsports, or the undeniably catchy RPM for short. It takes a lot of dedication to build a business; to name it after someone else is demonstrably unselfish. Such generosity unhindered by ego should not go unnoticed, particularly while many in the press and blogs were writing obituaries for Petty Enterprises. Good on yer, George.
- I knew about the Caterpillar sponsorship of the 31 this year, but it never clicked that Caterpillar is once again sponsoring a Burton until someone pointed it out to me. Good for them. Perhaps now Jeff Burton can finally breathe a sigh of sponsorship procurement relief, after his inexplicable inability to find one at Roush and the hideous legal migraine involved with Cingular/AT&T. The guy was probably thinking he just wasn’t meant to hawk, even though he did just fine for Allstate and Holiday Inn.
- The Official Columnist also salutes Goodyear for putting in an extra effort to get the tires right at Atlanta Motor Speedway this time out. Sometimes Tony Stewart ranting isn’t a bad thing.
- Speaking of Tony Stewart, Rebecca Gladden recently quoted Smoke talking about the most difficult aspect of ownership being learning the names of his employees: “The hard part is everybody has it at their waist, and you don’t want to look down there and give away that you don’t know their name.” That you don’t know their name? That’s the least of the things I’m worried about a guy thinking if I look down at his waist.
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