FRANKFORT — In the parking lot of a Florida motel, Butch Smith kept looking around for the race-car driver.
A mutual friend had asked Frankfort's Smith to help a man named John Bickford. Smith owned a race team that had won owners' championships on the All-Star Circuit of Champions, a Sprint Car division. Bickford was a California businessman who believed his teenaged stepson could become an American racing star.
So heading to Jacksonville, Fla., for the first races of the season, Smith agreed to stay in the same motel as Bickford.
"My wife and I, we pulled up in this Red Roof Inn parking lot, had our rig behind us and everything," Smith said. "(Bickford) had their race car rolled out of the trailer. They were working on the car right there."
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Smith looked and looked for Bickford's driver. All he saw was a boy. "I told my wife 'He can't be the driver.' He was very, very, very, very tiny," Smith said.
The kid was the driver.
Jeff Gordon was 13 years old.
On Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, the same Jeff Gordon, 43, will try to add one final milestone to an iconic NASCAR career. The face of NASCAR's 1990s popularity boom, Gordon announced in January that 2015 will be his final year as a full-time driver.
Kentucky Speedway is the only current Sprint Cup track on which Gordon has never won. In Frankfort, one Kentucky family has unique incentive to pull for Gordon to make history in his final Quaker State 400.
Butch Smith, owner of Smith Automotive Machine Shop, and his stepson, Chris Wetherby, were part of Gordon's life as his rise to racing superstardom was just launching.
Over two years in the 1980s, Butch Smith helped Gordon learn the ropes of Sprint Car (think World of Outlaws-type cars) racing.
Car racing runs in Smith's DNA. His father, James "Chick" Smith, was a race car driver. According to family lore, Chick Smith was within a year of perhaps racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when he was killed in 1948 in a racing accident in Franklin, Ind.
Butch Smith, now 70, was too young to remember the wreck that took his father. As an adult, he, too, became a racer. Yet a serious wreck of his own led Butch to give up driving and build a Sprint Car racing team as an owner.
That team eventually brought Jeff Gordon into his orbit.
"The guy who built my chassis got tied in with Jeff's (step-)dad, John Bickford, somewhere in California," Smith said. "That guy advised (Bickford) to hook up with me in Jacksonville for that February. We'd help him support the car, show him the chassis setups and stuff."
The families hit it off.
Jeff Gordon eventually took to referring to Smith's wife Janie, now deceased, as "My Number Two Mom."
On some weekends during the school year, Gordon would fly from his home in California into the Cincinnati Airport.
"He'd fly in on Friday night or Saturday morning and we'd pick him up at the airport and go racing," Smith said. "Back then, we ran a lot of Saturday night shows. Jeff would run my backup car. After that, he'd fly back (to California) on Sunday night, go back to school. The next weekend, he'd fly back here and we'd do it again."
During those days racing at small-town tracks around the Midwest, Smith's stepson, Wetherby, and Gordon became fast friends. When the race car driver got married for the first time in 1994, Wetherby was a groomsman.
"First day I ever met him, I was 14 and he was 13, and we were in Findlay, Ohio," Wetherby said. "I met him at the track. He had just come in from California. ... He'd raced the night before and his dad gave him the money he'd won and we were going to go buy fireworks.
"Well, Dad gave me $30. That was plenty back then. Well, Jeff spent $200 on fireworks. We rode around the town the next night blowing fireworks up everywhere. Jeff threw jumping jacks out the front seat of this brand new car. They blew into the backseat with me. We burnt holes in the seat. He was just a kid. We had a lot of good times."
The modern Sprint Cup driver travels like a rock star, a world of private planes and luxury motor homes. For Gordon, there was a time when that was not so.
"One time, Jeff and I were coming down from Findlay, Ohio, and they put us on a Trailways bus," Wetherby said. "We were stopping along the way. Stopped in Cincinnati. Thought we were big time, got us a sandwich. They picked us up in Lexington at the depot. I'll betcha Jeff has never ridden on a bus like that since. ... It was fun."
By 1994, the skinny teen that had once driven Butch Smith's backup car was blowing up into one of the biggest stars in American motorsports.
Wetherby, then an Eastern Kentucky University student, got a real-life Entourage experience thanks to his friendship with Gordon.
"I skipped about two weeks of college one time — told my teacher I had kidney stones — and went down (to Charlotte) and hung out with Jeff," Wetherby said. "I remember going to one of his first (fan club meetings). That was crazy. ... I was his bouncer, kind of, going through this crowd. I was like 'You are going to need a whole lot bigger bouncer.'"
Wetherby was with Gordon at North Wilkesboro Speedway for a Cup race when he saw people he knew from Frankfort. They asked Wetherby to bring the driver over to sign autographs.
The Kentuckian knew if he did that, literally hundreds of people would demand autographs from Gordon.
So he declined.
"They were upset with me," Wetherby said of his Frankfort friends. "And I can understand that to a point. But I was Jeff's guest. I was not going to put him in that spot."
Once at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Gordon brought Wetherby along while the driver served as a race spotter for Ricky Craven. They climbed on top of a trailer and found there was another driver up there also working as a spotter.
"I'll never forget that," Wetherby said. "(Earnhardt) was very nice. But he was all business."
Even after Gordon's 92 career Sprint Cup wins and four season championships, Butch Smith says the driver has not forgotten those who helped him when he was on the climb.
Janie Smith passed away some five years ago. Gordon could not make the funeral. "He was racing," Butch Smith says. "But he called and we talked."
After Butch Smith remarried, he wanted to introduce his new wife, Nancy, to Gordon. The driver arranged for them to visit him in his car transporter at Kentucky Speedway. When Wetherby wanted his old friend to meet his children, Mallory and John, Gordon had his driver sneak them past security at Kentucky Speedway and posed for pictures.
Smith and Wetherby have family ties to Ben Rhodes, the 18-year-old Louisvillian who is driving part-time for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Xfinity Series. So their connection to NASCAR will not end with Gordon's career.
Still, they feel the emotion of the impending departure from racing of the iconic driver who they knew when he was just a kid starting out.
In January, when Gordon announced that 2015 would be his final year, Smith sent him a text. "He got back with me," Smith said. "He said 'I owe it to you for helping me get where I am now.'"
His voice breaking, Butch Smith says, "That made me feel good."