True Grits: Stock Car Champ Takes China Club by Storm

There are few people in the United States who have less in common than Jeff Gordon, the champion stock car driver, and Sylvia Miles, the Manhattan actress and party fixture. But there they were on Dec. 3, breathing the same smoky air, at the new China Club just off Times Square.

Mr. Gordon is a 26-year-old Winston Cup champion who is being touted as the Tiger Woods of auto racing (because of his youth and skill, not his skin color). He was in New York to promote the hell out of himself and his sport-a tall order in a city that regards stock car racing as something engaged in by beer-bellied good ol’ boys in dirty T-shirts. Nationally, Mr. Gordon is huge-rich enough to make Forbes’ 40 Highest-Paid Athletes list, famous enough to have several “Why I Hate Jeff Gordon” Web pages devoted to him-but when he sets foot in Manhattan, he’s just a guy who drives fast for a living.

“They’re in their own little world here,” Mr. Gordon said of New Yorkers. But he was here to try and change that. “I come up here to work,” he said. As in, work it.

And work it, he did. Let it be noted that he broke down the barriers of Manhattan media snobbery: He was a guest on Charlie Rose, Good Morning America and Regis and Kathie Lee , oozing Southern charm.

As good as those appearances were, however, Mr. Gordon’s handlers understood that they had to do something a little extra if the champion driver were to make it with the cultural elite.

And so R.J. Reynolds, which sponsors the Winston Cup tour, staged a city-slicker publicity party for media, models and moguls, in honor of its champion and favored son. RJR provided free packs of Winston cigarettes. A New York publicist did the rest, which meant a guest list larded up with the usual suspects, most of whom wouldn’t know a stock car from a stock swap: photographers, gossip writers, models, Baird Jones, Donald Trump, Donny Osmond.

Donny Osmond ? The Donny Osmond? Yep. He alone was proof that as soon as you throw an alien agent like stock car racing into New York’s publicity mix, all kinds of bizarre characters are liable to turn up.

Mr. Trump’s presence was understandable; where there are photographers and babes, there’s Donald Trump. And besides, he occasionally talks about building auto speedways.

But Donny Osmond ? He was in town for a record promotion, and he’s a huge racing fan; in fact, he once considered an oval-track career of his own. “I was this close to going professional,” he said. His presence, therefore, should not be taken as a sign that the underlying motive of the China Club party was to kitschify Mr. Gordon. Yes, we could come to love stock car racing, as long as we learn to strike the right note of disdain for it.

Hey, It’s What’s-His-Name!

But what about, say, Shannon Briggs, the dreadlocked heavyweight boxer who beat George Foreman last month in Atlantic City? Well, you know, you get who you can. Mr. Briggs is a publicity-machine creation, so much so that his marketability helped him win his fight against Mr. Foreman. The judges gave him the win even though he got whupped. And so he had to return the favor by lending a little C-list celebrity glow to his country cousin.

“I came here to see my guy,” he said, unconvincingly. “He’s my man.” How long have you known each other? “I just met him,” the boxer said. He was not, he admitted, a racing fan.

And what of James Hetfield, Metallica’s lead singer? He was in town for a Saturday Night Live appearance. “I’m kind of into racing,” he shrugged. Then he confessed he’d come because he’d heard some of the New York Rangers were going to be there. They didn’t show.

But Sylvia Miles may have been the most unlikely of all. She sat off to the side, her face shaded by a hat trimmed with fur. You’ll recall, no doubt, that in Midnight Cowboy she played the Park Avenue woman with the poodles who gave Jon Voight’s Joe Buck his first hustling gig. “I like the stock car races,” she insisted. “I used to go to them in Bridgehampton in the 60’s and 70’s.”

She hadn’t yet introduced herself to Mr. Gordon, but she had no doubt that he’d know who she was. “He must’ve seen Midnight Cowboy ,” she said.

Bright Lights, Fast Cars

Mr. Gordon’s week in the big city had him feeling like a big shot. “They put you up in a big suite, give you a nice big limousine and a driver to take you everywhere,” he said, speaking softly. He had just had a polyp removed from his throat. “You get treated like a king, which in New York is hard to do.”

Most of the people at the party, however, weren’t knocking each other over to talk to him. They were there for the free booze, the free smokes and a sneak preview of the new China Club, the official opening of which was a week hence. Jeff Gordon was just another Joe Buck, a small-town excuse for a hustle.

The next day, he was at the Waldorf-Astoria, hanging out with his fellow drivers and executives from his corporate sponsors, all of whom were in town for a convention of NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. The wonder kid, the $10 million man, did interviews with members of the racing press. He was doing what he called “the champion thing.”

Late in the afternoon, he stepped out onto Park Avenue for a photo op. Two stock cars were parked by the sidewalk. Pedestrians stopped to look. On a dreary day, the two cars-one red, one gold-were the most colorful thing around. You could see the sport catching on some day-that is, if they’d just run the races up Park Avenue. Mr. Gordon struck a proud pose.

All that was missing was Sylvia Miles and her poodles.