Labor of love in restoring Jeff Gordon’s car for sale

Gordon's Baby Ruth Flyer
Gordon's Baby Ruth Flyer

Well of course it was a fellow named Jeff Gordon who discovered a fellow named Jeff Gordon's celebrated inaugural NASCAR winning car – the debutante drive of what would become a Hall of Fame racing career.

And now — after years of effort to historically and meticulously restore the former Busch Grand National car that Jeff Gordon first drove to a NASCAR Victory Lane in 1992, three times total — the famed No. 1 Baby Ruth Ford will be showcased and available for purchase at the Barrett-Jackson auction Jan. 29 in Scottsdale, Arizona under the rather nondescript lot heading: "1094.1: 1992 T-Bird NASCAR."

It has been both a labor of love and antiquity for the dozen or so involved in this project from the original guys who worked on the car like Billy Hess [original chassis builder], Keith Simmons [crew chief] and Ray Evernham — efforts led and inspired by the retired NHRA star Darrell Gwynn, who will donate the money raised in the auction to his Darrell Gwynn Quality of Life Chapter of The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis.

The Buoniconti Fund is the fundraising arm of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis — the world's most comprehensive spinal cord injury research center located at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

This has not only been an interesting history lesson, but a true testament of care and inspiration.

And it all started innocently enough with Gwynn's friend Gordon striking up a conversation at a car show in Daytona Beach years ago with a woman wearing a vintage Jeff Gordon Baby Ruth race car T-shirt. The woman surprised and confirmed to Gordon that her family actually owned the car, lived locally in Daytona Beach and after years of taking it to car shows, may be ready to sell it.

"So no one in this garage knows at the time that Jeff Gordon's car is right around the corner, how is that possible?" Gwynn recalled with a big smile.

After examining the car Gwynn made a deal to purchase it from the family. He transported it from Florida — also Gwynn's home — to Charlotte, where it sat for years. Hess and Simmons were able to confirm its authenticity with a couple of idiosyncratic details they were privy to knowing that the original car sported. Specifically, there was an extra roll bar under the dash. And they both helped immensely in carefully and authentically restoring the car for this month's auction.

"So sure enough, Billy Hess goes outside his office and looks underneath the car and there's that bar,'' Gwynn explained. "I was so excited on the phone because I have 'the car' and my Jeff Gordon discovered it. I said, 'I have to have this in writing.' They got on a conference call and put together a certificate of authenticity and signed it.

"This car has been sitting for four, five years and Jeff made that announcement he was going to retire, so I felt like it's time to do this,'' Gwynn said. "I have a lot of fans at Barrett-Jackson and this car is one of the assets for [my foundation]. … one of the assets we gave when we merged our organizations.

"My superiors see this old beat-up stock car and I have to explain to them, 'You don't understand.' But they smile and say 'OK, Darrell. We believe in what you do.'

"Why am I doing this?'' Gwynn offered with another huge smile. "I like to raise money for a great cause, number one. One of the stipulations when I partnered with the Miami Project was I'm going to have fun doing it.

"And this is my idea of having fun."

Gordon's stepfather John Bickford said he and Gordon are hoping to attend the auction for the sale of this car — Gordon's appearance of course depends on his new work schedule as a NASCAR analyst for FOX Sports. But Bickford just looked at the finished product a week ago and was extremely impressed with the auction-ready result.

"Darrell did his research and was adamant he made the right choices and it was only earlier this year that everyone took a "relief breath" when Keith Simmons took a look at the car [to authenticate],'' Bickford said.

"Everyone was on pins and needles. Darrell called and said, 'it's the car.' I told him, 'you're one lucky dude, that's all I can say.' "Bickford recalled with a laugh.

"I'm happy for Darrell. I think Darrell is an iconic guy in motorsports and I think when you're given a personal challenge and still find a way to give back to the world and try to make it better by what you've learned, you have to have respect for a guy like that.

"Life isn't as easy for a guy like him as it is for you and I, but he gets up every day and works hard at it to give back to the people. It's hard to find the right things at the right time, and sometimes things fall in place."

Bickford was especially appreciative of the great attention to exact detail on the car, noting the white letters on the tires because it was just before Goodyear used gold coloring and the bias-ply tires, for example.

"What I like is Darrell really studied the pictures from Victory Lane,'' Bickford said. "They really worked hard on the car. … These guys found all the Victory Lane pictures and made sure the car looked like the Victory Lane shots because that's what they're representing."

Another key part of this restoration and auction has been the reassurance and encouragement from the car's original owner, Bill Davis, who not only helped launch Gordon's NASCAR career but fielded the 2002 Daytona 500-winning car for driver Ward Burton and who will be inducted in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame this March.

"It's a real cool thing,'' said Davis, who sold his NASCAR assets in 2009 to focus on his successful trucking business. "The car basically got preserved and now restored to what it was and somebody will hopefully take it and love it and put in to collection."

Davis especially appreciates being a critical part of the certain NASCAR Hall of Famer Gordon's career storyline.

"I certainly look back at my entire NASCAR career with great fondness,'' Davis said. "It was a wonderful thing for us to get to do and have the success we did and make the friends we did.''

Seemingly from the very beginning, this whole project seems "meant to be" — its work authenticated and verified by so many of the people originally involved in the car and what was to be, the start of much greatness.

"The stars weren't aligned the last several years I was trying to make this happen,'' Gwynn said. "I didn't have room to store it, for example, so I stored it at Ray Evernham's shop, which is around the corner from Billy Hess' shop and Billy is the original chassis builder.

"He started taking the car apart and then Jeff makes the announcement he is going to retire. So I said, we've got to accelerate this process.

"I've always tried to do it around special times when I take a car to Barrett-Jackson. And this is certainly a special time."

And certainly a special effort. Holly Cain/

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