In a perfect storm, ESPN Thursday Night Thunder had captured the imagination of many, Bob East was really on top of his game, and Jeff Gordon was prepared to truly become a household name in racing circles.
Then a truly odd set of circumstances led to a tremendous marketing opportunity.
“We were doing a Thursday Night Thunder deal and Rich (Vogler) was leading, Don Schilling was second, and Jeff was running third,” Rollie Helmling, Gordon’s car owner, remembered. “And Rich was holding everybody up. He was doing what he could do to defend himself. About halfway through the feature, Don got a run going down the backstretch and Jeff was right behind him. Going into three, Rich pulled down on him and he took out Don’s right front. Jeff got caught up in it and they both were in the wall. So, they both got crashed, and everybody is madder than hell.
“So, whoever was interviewing Rich asked what happened over there and Rich said, ‘I don’t know. I came out of four and saw the yellow. Those two guys just crashed into each other and took each other out.’ There were people going after Rich and beer cans came flying over the fence. What a night. And I was furious.”
It seems a night’s sleep didn’t change his disposition.
“The next day I had a Pepsi guy in my office and I said, ‘Hey, I got a problem with you guys. I don’t know if you know about my little race car, but it got destroyed last night by a guy sponsored by Pepsi. You have one unhappy customer.’
“So, about an hour later I get a call from someone from Pepsi, and they said, ‘We don’t know about this racing deal, but we know about Jonathan Byrd (Rich Vogler’s owner). But whatever it costs to fix your car we will pay for it. I said ‘No, it was a racing deal, but let’s talk about a sponsorship.’ The marketing guy at Pepsi looked into it and said, ‘Hey, with Thunder and everything, this is a good deal,” Helmling explained. “So for 1990 we are going to have the Pepsi racing team: Rich Vogler and Jeff Gordon.’ And I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s not going to work. We aren’t going to be teammates, we’re going to be competitors.’ They said Byrd, with his Kentucky Fried Chicken deal, has to have Pepsi on the car. I said, ‘I’ve got no problem with that, that’s your business. We are going to run another Pepsi brand.’ They said it was going to be either Mountain Dew or Diet Pepsi. Being an old school guy, Mountain Dew was green and I wasn’t going to have anything to do with that.
“The deal was cash and product, and it was a regional sponsorship with Indianapolis.”
It was the start of a particularly magical ride.
“We built a new car, and it was going to be a pavement only car,” Rollie said, “and the original car was going to be for dirt. We brought it out and we painted it like a Pepsi can and everyone had uniforms. It was the real deal. We debuted at the Night Before the 500 and blew them away. We went to Winchester and broke, but we went to Salem the next day and won. Then we headed to Granite City to run on the half-mile and I said let’s try this car on the dirt.
“New track record, won the heat race, and ran away with the feature. Then the following week we went to Sun Prairie and it was a combination Badger/USAC race. So (Kevin) Olson and Fox and those guys are on us. ‘That kid hasn’t been to the Prairie,’ they all said. We set a new track record and it was one of the best midget races I have ever seen.
“Stan was in Steve’s (Lewis) car, and he and Jeff are going at it at the white flag. I have no idea who is leading, but on the backstretch Jeff drove underneath him and won the race. We just kept the ball rolling. We ran a few Thunder races and won those, so by the time we get to Belleville (Kansas) everyone wants to see this kid they have watched on Thunder. So we ran Thursday night and ran away with it. Scared the crap out of me how close he is running toward the guardrail.
“On Saturday they went around and said if anyone wants to go out and try to break the track record they will win a $500 savings bond. Jeff and I talked and decided why not. He did it, he broke the record.”
Later Gordon lapped the entire field, save for Steve Knepper, in one of the most memorable races in Belleville Midget Nationals history.
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