NASCAR’s biggest stars are grown men now, drivers who earn comfortable incomes and great perks, and get to live a dream millions would love to have the chance at.
But no matter how different they are today, they all have one thing in common: Once upon a time they were little kids. And like most little kids, Christmas was a big deal for them. Not surprisingly, things with wheels were big for the future stars of racing.
“I remember getting a really cool bike one year for Christmas,” said four time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon. “You know a bike was a big thing. It's like you learn how to ride a bike on a piece of junk and then you get better at it and you hope for that really cool shiny bike. I remember my first bike and my first helmet. My first helmet, I think I was five or six. Well, when I got the cool bike, I was probably nine. Oh man, it was a BMX bike, but it was a name brand, like some kind of cool aluminum wheels, I mean it was awesome.”
Gordon’s teammate, five-time defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, has similar memories.
“I think I was five years old at Christmas, and walked out and under the tree there was a motorcycle sitting there for me,” said Johnson, who raced motorcycles before moving to cars. “That's what started racing for me, so that would probably be the most memorable.”
That first motorcycle proved pivotal for Johnson.
“It really started everything,” he said. “We've got some footage that's absolutely hilarious of me riding that day. My parents took me out to an area to ride and I could ride a bicycle at the time, but my dad was holding the back fender and trying to show me how to twist the throttle and ride off. I can't believe I was on a bike that young, but it's pretty funny to see it.”
Vehicles were also a big deal in the Busch family, where brothers Kurt and Kyle were big into radio-controlled cars, a passion the two share to this day.
“When I was a kid I always loved RC cars and stuff like that, and I had never gotten a new one before,” said Kyle. “I always got Kurt's hand-me-downs and he'd always go out and buy himself new ones, so I finally got my dad talked into buying me a brand new RC car. I built it and did all the things that I needed to do to it and it was fun.”
As for NASCAR’s most popular driver, his favorite Christmas gift of all time had nothing whatsoever to do with racing.
“This little machine that threw a football, from my grandma when I was about seven years old,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr. “It was like a rubber band and it would sling-shot this football at you. It'd throw it a good 15, 20, 30 yards. You could run patterns and set a timer on it and it was real cool. It sat outside and the rubber band eventually rotted and broke and I could never repair it, but it was probably the coolest thing that I ever had.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.