Four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon has been in the series for 20 seasons, but it wasn’t until last week that he got the opportunity to build his own car from the ground up.
The opportunity, however, didn’t occur at Hendrick Motorsports R&D, but rather right in the shadows of Texas Motor Speedway. Gordon took a special visit to LEGOLAND Discovery Center in nearby Grapevine, where he built and tested his own race car against some pediatric cancer patients from the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex during a promotional visit for the Nov. 4 AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Gordon played host to five children -- four-year-old Alaina Jones and her six-year-old sister Averie, of Fort Worth; nine-year-old Ian Lemus, of Farmers Branch; nine-year-old Tyler Nolan, of Grapevine; and 13-year-old Austin Phillips, of Hewitt – and treated them to a day of racing and rides during a whirlwind visit to the LEGOLAND Discovery Center. The group built and raced LEGO race cars, pedaled around on Merlin’s Apprentice whimsical ride and got behind the wheel of a LEGO jeep in LEGO City: Forest Ranger Pursuit exhibit while getting the green and checkered flags from Gordon.
Gordon’s philanthropic work with the Jeff Gordon Foundation has benefitted tens of thousands of children battling cancer, including those who joined him at LEGOLAND Discovery Center. Gordon’s generosity has stretched to North Texas in conjunction with Speedway Children’s Charities-Texas. The Jeff Gordon Corvette Raffle has helped raise more than $2 million, with $500,000 going to Speedway Children’s Charities-Texas during the previous six years. The funds have been used for grants to aid local pediatric cancer organizations, including those affiliated with each of the children he visited with at LEGOLAND Discovery Center. The group represented Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, Ronald McDonald House, Cancer Care Services and Baylor Healthcare Systems.
“It was fun being able to come here and meet some kids that have been battling with cancer, which is something really important to me, and getting to interact with the kids in a way that incorporates both LEGOLAND Discovery Center and racing,” Gordon said. “It’s certainly a place I’ll be coming back to. I enjoyed building the cars. I loved seeing everyone get so creative and seeing their competitive nature come out.”
The competitive nature came out of the group when they had the opportunity to do a timed test run with the newly built LEGO cars on the test track. Dubbed “AAA Texas 500 Qualifying,” Austin Phillips won the pole with a time of 3.74 seconds while the superstar who ranks third in NASCAR history for career poles could only muster fourth fastest among the group.
“It may not have the speed yet, but it sure is a good-looking car,” Gordon beamed. “That was a lot of fun racing with them.”
Lemus, who was diagnosed with Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma in February 2010, shared his cancer survivor story with Gordon. Following more than a year of undergoing surgeries, spinal taps and chemotherapy treatments at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, Lemus won the fight as the cancer went into remission in March. Lemus, a LEGO enthusiast, said the opportunity to spend time with Gordon and share in some LEGO fun was an experience he will not soon forget.
“Meeting Jeff Gordon was amazing and so was playing at LEGOLAND Discovery Center,” Lemus said. “The car racing, the building, the driving, Merlin’s Apprentice, everything, it was the best. It was great. I got to hold the checkered flag and green flag – it was awesome!”
Gordon, who treated each of the kids with signed Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation hats and a gift bag from Texas Motor Speedway, received a surprise of his own from LEGOLAND Discovery Center as it built a replica of Gordon’s No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet.
LEGOLAND Discovery Center model builder Kathyrn Kolb invested 40 hours and more than 500 LEGO bricks building the intricate replica that included a driver’s seat, sponsor decals on the front of the car and the iconic No. 24 in yellow LEGO bricks on the sides.
“This is very, very cool,” Gordon said of the replica car. “If you’ve messed around with LEGO blocks before, you know that it is not easy to build something like this. They did an amazing job with their experts that know how to do this. Somebody here at LEGOLAND Discovery Center was very busy. My kids (Ella and Leo) are going to go crazy over it.”
Gordon will return to Fort Worth for the AAA Texas 500 on Sunday, Nov. 4, the eighth race in the 10-event Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Following a second-place finish Sunday at Talladega, Gordon moved from 10th to sixth in the championship. After a 35th-place finish at the opening Chase race at Chicago due to a stuck throttle, he has reeled off three consecutive top-three finishes and is 42 points behind the leader Brad Keselowski heading into Saturday night’s race at Charlotte.
Texas Motor Speedway has been one of the more challenging tracks for Gordon, but he has found success in NASCAR’s traditional fall stop at the 1.5-mile speedway. Gordon has earned four top-10 finishes in seven fall races, including a sixth-place finish in last year’s AAA Texas 500.
“It’s been a hit-or-miss track for me over the years, but I feel like our mile-and-a-half program has really stepped up this year,” said Gordon, who won the spring Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in 2009. “We have been strong at these types of tracks and I think we’ve only gotten better as the year has gone on. I feel like if we can gain those points that we are lacking right now we come here to Texas for the eighth race of the Chase. We have got a heck of a shot at performing at a high level to keep it interesting for the championship.”
Tickets for the AAA Texas 500 are available by calling the Texas Motor Speedway ticket office at (817) 215-8500 or by visiting www.texasmotorspeedway.com