Written by: Kevin Heaney (Pocono Raceway – Director of Media Relations)
Jeff Gordon is a living legend, a pioneer in the world of auto racing, a man respected for all the charitable work he has done and someone, I am personally proud to say, I had the privilege to work with during my career. As a kid growing up on Long Island (NY), racing was definitely not an important part of my life. My father was a gear head, who had a brief stint in amateur races, but racing was not a sport I followed.
I saw my first NASCAR race here at Pocono when I was about 12 with my father. We stayed for 50 laps and I begged my dad to leave. However, I did take a liking to a rainbow-colored No. 24 car I saw on the track. Before leaving, we headed to the souvenir hauler and I purchased my first piece of NASCAR memorabilia. I didn’t wear the hat every day, but when I watched races on Sunday with my dad, this is the hat I wore…
Now, as the years progressed and I began studying Sport Management in college, my love of NASCAR grew. Not necessarily as a fan, but as a person who was interested in the marketing aspect of the industry. I was blessed with an opportunity to be a summer intern at Hendrick Motorsports between my junior and senior years of college. I actually met Jeff once or twice during my time in Charlotte. Our encounters were brief and I can promise you, he didn’t know my name back then.
Fast forward to about three months after graduating college, I landed a job as the Media Relations Assistant for DuPont Motorsports and Jeff Gordon. Who would have thought me, a 21-year old kid from New York who grew up not watching NASCAR, would have the chance to work with one of the greatest driver to ever live? Not me, I can tell you that much. I often had to pinch myself because I was truly living a dream. Over the course of a year, I helped Jeff with a few media obligations, interviewed him during hospitality visits with his sponsors’ guests and even took a photo with him in Victory Lane at Darlington. Jeff was always friendly, but he never addressed me by name.
The day I realized Jeff Gordon truly didn’t know my name was Wednesday, Sept., 12, 2007. Now, I know Jeff meets tons of people on a daily basis, but I thought for sure he would know my first name as we worked together almost every weekend. Anyways, Jeff’s long-time and current media representative took a vacation and I was sent to New York City for the NASCAR Chase Media Tour.
I went into the week both excited and nervous. It was a big deal for me to be tasked with this responsibility, but I was confident I was going to do a good job. I mean, Jeff Gordon and I were on a first name basis…right? Here’s the phone call which explained it all.
Me: (phone rings with blocked number) Hello, this is Kevin.
Caller: Yeah, where are you?
Me: I beg your pardon. May I ask who this is?
Caller: It’s the guy you’re supposed to be representing this week.
Me: Oh! Hey Jeff. How you doing?
Jeff: Where are you?
Me: I’m walking up to the Trump Tower now for the ESPN Sportscenter Sunday Conversation interview.
Jeff: Geeze, rookie. A mistake already…
Me: (Nervously) Mistake? Wait, what mistake? What? I mean, did I do something…
Jeff: (Laughter) Relax, I’m just busting your chops. NASCAR updated the location for the interview.
Me: Oh, okay. I thought I did something wrong. Where’s the new location?
Jeff: (Laughter) It’s the Trump International Tower in Central Park. Can you get here in 10 minutes?
Me: I’m about eight blocks away and it is rush hour, but I’ll be there as fast as I can.
Jeff: No rush. We’re just hanging out with ESPN. They’re going to wait for you to arrive before we start.
Me: Thanks, Jeff. I’ll on my way.
Jeff: No problem.
Me: See you in a bit.
Jeff: Hey, before you hang up, what’s your last name?
Me: My what?
Jeff: Your last name?
Me: Heaney, but why?
Jeff: I had no idea what your last name was, but I knew it was something Irish so I told them Connolly. When you arrive, just tell them you are… (long pause)
Me: So, I should tell them I’m Kevin Connolly.
Jeff: Right…that you’re Kevin Connolly. If they ask for your ID, tell them you’re here for the ESPN interview. They should, hopefully, let you right up.
Jeff: Cool. See you in a bit.
(I arrived 15 minutes later, drenched in sweat from running through the streets of New York on a humid fall afternoon. I checked in, under the name ‘Kevin Connolly,’ and was escorted to where the interview was taking place.)
Jeff: (Laughter) Hey, look who made it!
Me: (Still out of breath) Yup Sorry…I…was…so…late.
Jeff: Someone have a bottle of water for…um, him…over here.
Me: (handed bottle of water by ESPN producer) Thank you!
ESPN Producer: Did you run here?
Me: Yes. Yes, I did.
Jeff: (Laugher) Good job, buddy.
Me: Thanks. So, I had a question Jeff. Connolly???
Jeff: I don’t know.
Me: You must have been watching Entourage or something. Kevin Connolly plays the manager of the main character in that show.
Jeff: E! (pointing at me)
Me: Right, E is the character Kevin Connolly plays on the show.
Jeff: No, it’s you. You’re now E! I’ll never remember your last name.
Jeff: Alright E, time to get this interview started.
Me: Sounds good, I guess.
Four years later, I was working my first race at Pocono Raceway. Who wins the June 2011 race? None other than Jeff Gordon! I’m waiting patiently to congratulate him as he completes interviews, the trophy presentation and some photos. I am just about to walk over when…
Jeff: Hey, what’s up E! Man, how you been?
Me: I couldn’t be better. Congrats on the win, Jeff! How are thing with you?
Jeff: Thanks and things are great! How is Pocono treating you?
Me: It is awesome. I love working here and…hey, it looks like they need you for more photos.
Jeff: Yeah, guess I have to go. Good luck with the new job here at Pocono. It was great seeing you, Kevin.
Me: Thanks and it was great seeing you too, Jeff.
Jeff can surprise you, even four years later. It just goes to show you how this man has been admired and respected by fans and his peers. And, to all his fans, he may not know your name, but he can hear you loud and clear this weekend. I truly hope he surprise us again and ends his career as this year’s champion.
So, for the first time ever, I’ll be wearing the Victory Lane hat I received after Jeff’s win at Darlington in 2007. Just like I did as a kid, I’ll be cheering on the No. 24 on Sunday.
Good luck, Jeff! #24EVER