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Fast Take   Story by Dwight Drum
Web work by Larsen & Drum    Images by Drum
Jeff Gordon, a real step
One of the most frequent questions reporters and drivers get about celebrity NASCAR drivers from fans is -- what’s he really like? Fans want to know what personality lurks beyond the camera and public display. Many of today’s drivers are highly skilled behind the wheel and in front of cameras. When they speak into microphones a polished message represents their sponsors well. That comes with the corporate territory that supports current racing.

Often a different person seems to emerge once the helmet goes on and the race car roars off into tire and engine battle.

As for what a driver is really like – as always the best way to describe any “real” person – is to show, not tell.

A recent invitation to Daytona 500 media to Disney World by ESPN included a Richard Petty Driving Experience exciting ride in an IndyCar and a stock car, a day at the theme park and an interview opportunity with Jeff Gordon. ESPN and Disney also arranged for attraction rides for Gordon and wife Ingrid Vandebosch with young daughter Ella Sofia. The media were also invited to observe the Gordon family at the Aladdin ride and participate in a brief interview opportunity afterward.

The entertaining Disney day proceeded as planned even with the timely arrival of the Gordon family to the Aladdin ride. As they walked up the ramp toward the ride seat a photo opportunity occurred that propelled this photojournalist’s urge to snap an image over the sense to pick up a dragging left foot. The ride waiting area had three foot corral chains separating lanes for crowds. When my left foot snagged in the chain this media guy went down swiftly – with a thump.

Gordon stopped and asked, “Are you okay?”

After saving the camera, I got up, dusted off and moved my arms and legs to be sure I could still do that and replied, “I think so.”

Gordon continued on the path to the ride and I moved along to snap shots. When I called his name he turned around for a moment. I asked him for one more shot and joked about the tumble, he responded.

“Man, it’s not that important. It’s not worth falling.”

Later that evening after driving home his words had more meaning. My left elbow that slammed the concrete had swollen and stiffened. Early morning I was sitting in the emergency room at James Haley V.A. hospital in Tampa. By late morning my arm was x-rayed and a staff doctor directed me to the specialist section for a slight break in the radial bone of my arm. Before noon an orthopedic surgeon told me the hairline fracture didn’t require at least a splint as I had expected.

The remedy was stretching the bare arm over the next two months to get it to back the proper range-of-motion. He also told me that the good news is I had a slight hairline fracture which doesn’t require surgery, but the bad news is I had a slight fracture -- the pain is anything but slight. He prescribed medium strength pain medication at my request so I could drive back to Daytona for the 500 coverage.

Although feeling stupid, I realized that I was not the first person to slip and fall or trip and fall. It comes with the human territory of walking and running erect. Yet for so many years I somehow avoided broken bones along my life path.

After leaving the VA hospital I survived a one-handed drive to Daytona only to discover I needed to avoid crowds. Simple tasks like tying shoe laces were impossible. I could only punch away on my laptop for just a few minutes at a sitting. When I took the pain medication even though it was not a controlled substance, it still made me drowsy and unable to function properly. I knew I had to heal in private so I returned home.

While I was undergoing therapy, my mishap had company in the NASCAR family. Driver Greg Biffle took a tumble too while on a fishing trip.

“I jumped over to the dock and the boat was kind of drifting out a little bit,” Biffle said. “The platform must have been wet, and when I jumped over, it just shot my foot out from underneath me. It turned me around backwards and put me right on my side and on my back on the edge of the boat. It’s not a normal boat. It’s got a sharp edge on it because it has a platform on the front, so it’s just one of those freak, stupid accidents where you take a fall and you have no way to stop it or brace it or grab. It was a stupid deal. I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. Everybody’s jumped onto a boat before, but I just lost my footing.”

Misery loves company and maybe stupidity does too. Biffle had to withdraw from one NASCAR Nationwide race because of his injury and I can understand why. He broke no bones, but the bruising was deep. The dangers he faces as a driver slams the danger I’ve known snapping photos with dragsters launching and stock cars roaring, but it’s still laughable for me to be taken out by a kiddy ride.

After two weeks I was able to prop my arm on a pillow and work on my laptop much longer but still without normal production. As a right-handed male it’s amazing to discover how often the left hand and arm is handy even if no sport is involved. Fortunately the timeline explained by my doctor was exact. After eight weeks of stretching my left arm frequently and using it carefully I got back full range-of-motion. The pain nearly disappeared. I could punch away at a keyboard again.

So despite my mishap, I’ve got great mileage out of telling my careless trip-and-fall story with Gordon as a centerpiece. A new awareness and meaning for “watch your step” has been etched in my experienced brain. My pain has past and the joy of Disney that surrounded that one sore moment still puts a smile on guests daily. The Magic Kingdom prevails.

Gordon explained his new role as a tourist that day of my fall.

“If it weren’t for the folks at Disney I probably wouldn’t get to experience this and not in the way that we are getting to,” Gordon Said. “So I’m very thankful and appreciative of that. They make the whole experience great. It’s amazing how many race fans are here. We were out at the Princess Breakfast this morning at 9 a.m. and there were tons of race fans just here visiting the park, not because I’m here. They are here just having a blast. Some are probably in town for the race as well or they just happened to be race fans that are at Disney. It’s cool to get to interact with them as a tourist as well. You know –‘Have you been on this? Are you enjoying this?’ We’re getting our picture taking with Cinderella together.”

When I spoke to Gordon before departing that same day before I knew I had a broken arm I mentioned that the fall incident will make for good content in my article.

”Write the story however you want,” Gordon said “I just want to know if you are okay.”

Gordon was unaware of the consequences of my mishap, but his reaction is a genuine answer for those who wonder what he is really like. Neither he nor anyone else fakes concern. It’s there or it’s not. He showed concern repeatedly.

Maybe Gordon’s season that has him leading in the points and snatching a win early is showing more of his real character too. His performance appeared to be on a slide prompting many to doubt his return to the top -- that his future was all downhill.

I’m sure I learned more about watching my step from Gordon and maybe too I learned again it’s not so much about any fall, it’s more about how real we are and how we get back up.

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