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Speed Demon : Next Week at the Indy 500, Robby Gordon Will Be Racing Against the Best in the World--and His Own Reputation for Dangerous Driving.

May 22, 1994|Peter McAlevey | Peter McAlevey is a motion picture producer and a former Newsweek correspondent

SCREAMING DOWN SHORELINE DRIVE IN HIS REGAL BLUE VALVOLINE LOLA-FORD race car at three times the national speed limit, Robby Gordon all but pounds on the steering wheel in frustration. Italian driver Teo Fabi, in the bright yellow Pennzoil-sponsored car, is blocking his path.

With the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach just laps from the finish, Gordon is sitting safely in third place, but every nerve ending in his body is telling him he can catch the leaders, Al Unser Jr. and Nigel Mansell, who are within sight, just beyond Fabi.

Gordon knows he should be able to leapfrog a back-marker like Fabi. After all, he qualified seven places ahead of the Italian, who is now a lap behind. The problem is, Gordon's car is seriously down on power, so instead of being able to pass Fabi easily on the straightaway, he'll have to try to take him on the twisty back side of the Long Beach course. In the dangerous curves, driving skill can compensate for lack of power.

"Take it easy," comes the radioed order from Valvoline team owner and manager Derrick Walker as Gordon flashes by the pits. "Pace it."

In previous years, Robby Gordon might have ignored such advice and followed his instincts, risking everything trying to pass in the curves. In 1993, his first full year in Indy car racing, a similar maneuver here at Long Beach landed him on the sidelines, disqualified for deliberately crashing into another car after they came together on the same curve.

Which set the tone for Gordon's season. That DQ for rough driving--virtually unheard of in a sport where rubbed wheels and swapped paint are everyday occurrences--combined with nine accidents in his first six races. By midseason the rookie had gone from "Flash" Gordon, the fair-haired boy of Indy car racing, to "Crash" Gordon. No one doubted he was fast, the question was, could he ever learn to control it?

What a difference a year makes. With 85,000 fans lining Shoreline Drive, straining against the catch fences, waiting for the pass, Gordon makes a non -move. In front of him, it's clear that Fabi is in his own battle with another driver and could easily miss seeing Gordon's go-around attempt. It isn't hard to imagine a crackup--Fabi punting Gordon into the course-side tire barriers or another car--and Robby Gordon risking life and limb while blowing another race.

So Gordon swallows his frustration. When he hears Walker's gravelly, Scots-accented voice say "pace it" over the two-way radio, he does just that, reining himself in and holding on for a respectable finish. In the pits, Walker's stiff jaw relaxes into a smile.

GRAND PRIX SUNDAY DAWNED CHILLY AND OVERCAST IN LONG BEACH, but by the time Gordon jumped up on the three-tiered podium last month to accept his third-place award, the marine layer had rolled back to reveal resplendent late-afternoon sun. With the winner, Unser, and second-place finisher Mansell, Gordon accepted the accolades of the crowd and spent nearly a quarter of an hour taking off and putting on sponsor hats for photographers from around the world. It was his first podium finish of the year, and it was doubly sweet: As an Orange County kid, not only was it nice to finish well before the hometown crowd, but it helped to make up for last year's defeat.

"I'm the worst loser of them all," Gordon readily admits the next day, at his race shop in an Anaheim industrial park, close to Disneyland and the Big A. "You show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser."

But now, at the age of 25, he says he understands that there's losing and there's losing. His day in Long Beach began with the discovery that his car was running slow (a valve problem it turned out). So from the start, he and Walker were determined to pace the race, counting on the action coming back to Gordon as the faster runners burned themselves out over the course of the 166-mile event. Even though he was tempted to change that game plan, Gordon opted to win by losing: "I wanted to pass Fabi," he says, complaining that Walker had him driving at 75% capacity by the end, "but it would have meant a chance at missing the podium finish, so I didn't."

Gordon has hoisted himself up onto a counter in the immaculate shop. Across from him, a team of mechanics is working on a gleaming desert-racing truck that he will be driving this year when he isn't taking care of his Indy car duties. Sandy-haired and movie-star handsome, Gordon smiles a lot. For all his brashness, he's almost shy, and when it comes to talking about his 1993 season, he puts on a sheepish look. He knows that he has to live down a rambunctious reputation. "You can't finish first if you don't first finish" goes an old racing saw. Gordon laughs: "I've heard it a thousand times over the last year."

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