It’s race week once again as the Toyota – Save Mart 350 at Race Sonoma (what used to be Infineon Raceway) is approaching, Northern California’s sole date on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule always brings 4-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion, Vallejo native and Crackerjack Track alumni Jeff Gordon back home.
Home in this case is not Vallejo or Sonoma, but Rio Linda, and the Roy Hayer Memorial Speedway (The Crackerjack Track).
At five years old, father John Bickford strapped Gordon into a quater-midget at Hayer Speedway. On his first attempt, he flipped his car in Turn 2 and snapped the rear axle. After lengthy repairs, Gordon crashed twice more in the same spot.
On his fourth attempt, he turned the fastest lap of the day.
“He never gave up. He just kept concentrating on what he had to do, and he didn’t allow himself to be distracted by the parents who were coming up to me saying, ‘Give him a break; don’t force him.’ There was a signal there that he really wants to do this.” Says Bickford.
Within a year, Gordon had won the first of three national quarter-midget championships racing against kids as much as four years older. After Gordon won four more karting titles, Bickford moved his family to Pittsboro, Ind., jump-starting a championship open-wheel career that eventually led to NASCAR’s premier series.
Even though he makes a living maneuvering through traffic at 200 mph, velocity always takes a back seat to victory when it comes to Gordon’s motivation — a lesson learned on that dirt oval in Rio Linda.
“The thing that caught my attention with racing early on was seeing the checkered flag wave and experiencing what it’s like to win,” he says. “That brought out the competitive edge in me. From that point on, it’s never been the same. It’s always just looking for that checkered flag. I’m not a speed demon. I’m not a guy who likes to go fast. It’s about just trying to make the car go faster than anyone else.”
Rare Hayer Speedway Footage: Jeff Gordon racing in Rio Linda, circa 1976
Without Gordon’s help, the Roy Hayer Memorial Speedway might have vanished in 2007 when the Sacramento County parks department planned on bulldozing the track to make way for open space as a buffer between the airport and the Dry Creek Parkway bike path.
Capitol Quarter Midget Association members, who lease and operate the track, went into overdrive to protect the 57-year-old track, where three generations of racers from ages 5 to 16 have competed.
If not for a Gordon-penned letter to Sacramento County supervisors, a large check and the donation of racing memorabilia for an auction, the association would not have been able to raise enough money to pay to the Rio Linda Elverta Recreation and Park District to lease the land from the county.
The new lease is for 50 years with an option for another 50 years, said Doug Wilson, former association vice president.
“I was so thankful to be a part of saving that racetrack,” Gordon said. “I heard that there was a chance it was going to go away, and I did everything that I could to try to keep it there because I think it’s vital to kids growing up in that area.”