The baby boom is on in NASCAR. Whether it’s a whole generation of drivers reaching that age where they want to start a family – or one too many rain delays – either way the next generation of stock car children is upon us. Jeff Gordon led the charge with the birth of his daughter Ella in 2007, and this year he and wife Ingrid will be welcoming their second child during the summer.
But he’s far from alone. Joining the ranks of new dads include Elliott Sadler, Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya (this will be his third child) and Jimmie Johnson. These men are some of NASCAR’s biggest names, and while they may be stars of their sport, some are rookie dads going through the process for the first time.
For Gordon, the adjustment to being a dad and a driver is something that took a little time. In 2007, Gordon scored six wins and finished second to Johnson in a thrilling Chase. One year later, this new dad went winless for the first time since his rookie year in 1993 and had one of the worst races of his illustrious career at Texas Motor Speedway – where he finished 43rd (dead last).
“I didn’t have enough people that were honest with me before we had Ella to say how difficult it really is,” Gordon admitted. “The ones that are honest say, ‘It’s amazing, it’s the greatest experience ever, but it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.’ That’s the honest truth, and you don’t appreciate and understand that until you go through it. You can’t really plan for it; you just got to do it.”
Gordon admitted the biggest adjustment factor in his first adventure in parenthood was altering his sleeping patterns. As a young guy, the four-time champion was known to hit the local nightlife in Charlotte and New York, staying out late and waking up late. Settling down into his role as a family man, Gordon was forced to change those ways and morph into a morning person capable of balancing work and play.
But over time, one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers adjusted to the challenges of fatherhood. These days, Ella is by his side on most race days and Gordon even appeared on a episode of Sesame Street. Happy to welcome his second child, the mature NASCAR veteran has learned from his rookie years, so to speak, and is ready to not make the same mistakes twice.
“We wish we had traveled with [Ella] in the early months, because it was actually easier,” Gordon said. “We thought after six months, then we’ll travel with her. Well, it should have been the opposite way, but you don’t want to be far away from your doctors and all.”
“Your first child you’re so – you want to do everything all the time and you just can’t. I think this time around, we’re a little more relaxed. Even through the pregnancy, we’re more relaxed. You never know what it’s going to be like with two. Some people say, ‘Oh, it’s easier once you have one.’ Then other people say, ‘No, it’s three times as much work.’ We’re just not expecting anything, and we’re going to do the best we can to give her the best life she can have, and I’m going to do my best to do my job. There will be some sleepless nights, but I think I’m already used to getting up earlier in the mornings.”
While Gordon prepares for his second child, teammate Jimmie Johnson is gearing up for his first. Following his record-breaking fourth-straight championship title, Johnson announced he and wife Chandra were expecting – meaning sometime this summer, they’ll be taking on their biggest challenge yet. Gordon says he has given his teammate advice on the “logistics” of being a NASCAR dad, but went on to say Johnson would have to learn it all on his own like everybody else.
Meanwhile, two drivers getting firsthand experience at being new dads within the last two weeks are Sadler and Edwards.
One day after finishing 24th in the Daytona 500, Sadler’s wife Amanda gave birth to Wyatt Herman Fritz Sadler. Since then, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver has been balancing his role as a driver both at the shop and track with trips back to his new baby boy. Traveling across the country for races in California last week and Las Vegas this weekend are difficult, but the 34-year-old seems to be doing well. He has even been sending pictures and updates about his new adventure in parenthood via his Twitter account (@Elliott_Sadler).
Then, news emerged late Wednesday that Edwards and his wife Kate welcomed their first child, Annie, into the world. On edge since Daytona, Edwards had his phone on his hip and a replacement driver on standby the last two weeks in case he got the call (Kate’s due date was the Wednesday after the Daytona 500). One of the most adventurous guys in the NASCAR garage, he claims he’s clearly up for the challenge of balancing being a successful dad and a successful driver.
“People that don’t sit in the race car always try to come up with reasons for success or lack of success,” Edwards said earlier this month in Daytona. “On the baby thing, I think someone said Darrell Waltrip didn’t really have his best success until he had a child [winning the Daytona 500 in 1989]. I think every person is different.”
“For me, I probably shouldn’t say this but I’ll just say it. I always felt our mission in life is to have children and pass on your genes and your legacy lives on and all that,” he continued. “I feel like I can just kind of go for it now [in life]. I’ve kind of accomplished [that goal], so I don’t think I’m gonna hold back any. If anything, I feel a little bit more free. That might change once I see that little baby there, but I don’t think you’ll see anything different from me on the racetrack. I’ve got a very well-structured life in the fact that I have great people that I work for and with, and I’ve got the airplane and my home base is home, and I’ve got a good group of people around to help me, so I think I’ll be fine. But it is a question. A couple people have commented and said things about it, but I think it’ll be all right.”
Becoming a new parent is a difficult and exciting task for anyone out there. As a relatively new father myself, I understand the difficulties of balancing a career, changing my lifestyle and learning to be a parent all at the same time.
Yet for these guys, the demands of their high profile and highly risky job present unique challenges. Being able to balance focusing on a 500-mile race, constant sponsor appearances, continuous travel, living out of a home and motorhome simultaneously, all while trying to enjoy the delights of being a new parent is something that many of us could simply not imagine.
Editor’s Note: In last year’s Chase, just three of the 12 drivers who made the field had children (Gordon, Mark Martin – whose son Matt is all but a legal adult, and Montoya.) It’ll be interesting to see how that number plays out in 2010.