Unlike most famous drivers, Jeff Gordon can pursue his favorite hobby in near solitude 125 feet under water.
Sharks don't want autographs, of course, and not many NASCAR fans can be found beneath the sea off the Caribbean island of Saba.
The three-time Winston Cup champion's new passion is scuba diving, which at first was scarier to him than driving at 200 mph in a pack of cars.
"It was kind of a frightening experience, but I've become quite comfortable down there now," Gordon said. "It's just so relaxing. It's my escape. You know, the phone never rings."
He calls the warm and crystal-clear waters near St. Maarten the biggest aquarium in the world, and says the beauty of the deep is beyond comprehension for those who haven't experienced it.
Gordon's schedule does not permit him to dive as often as he would like, and he doesn't do any spear fishing. The only thing he shoots are photographs, some of which he brings to the race track as if he were a travel agent trying to lure vacationers to some remote destination in the Netherlands Antilles.
"Some of the stuff I've shot is just unbelievable," Gordon said. "If I'm lucky, I see a shark."
He was a bit apprehensive the first time he saw one. He felt like a driver leading a race knowing he might run out of fuel before the end.
"But once I realized they wouldn't harm me, I began to snap pictures like crazy," Gordon said.
And, like a driver who knows not to go three wide through high-banked turns, Gordon realizes the limit of his subterranean talent. Although certified as a diver, he hires a guide to accompany him into the dark caves and crevasses so common among coral reefs.
Entering caves creates the greatest danger because there is no margin for error, and sometimes few places to turn around.
"I've been in some caves where you can't see more two inches in front of you," he said. "That can be a little frightening."
Somewhat less exciting is Gordon's other love -- bowling. He and his wife, Brooke, unable to escape the public eye in the NASCAR hub of Charlotte, N.C., can roll a few lines in the afternoon near their home in Florida.
He averages about 145, and isn't a sure bet to outscore his wife. Her high game is 195, two pins better than his.
"It's something I really enjoy," he said. "But, yeah, I'm not very good at it."
What he has become very good at is incorporating personal appearances and testing into his schedule so that a rare week off means as much as 10 days of relaxation. Gordon believes breaking away makes him a better driver.
He once was so inundated that it burned him out. Now, after two subpar seasons, he takes a lead in the points with him into Sunday's Brickyard 400. He's a much happier racer.
"It used to be that I would just say, 'Oh, no, another race,' but I don't feel that way anymore," Gordon said. "Now I come back from vacation renewed, ready to go. And I think that shows in the performance."
His desire for privacy aside, Gordon will be on the scene for some years to come. He turns 30 this week, an age when most drivers are just breaking into a sport in which he's been a headliner for most of the last decade.
He could race for another 20 years, adding many more victories to the amazing 55 -- the most of any active driver -- he's already got. But even retirement from the sport probably won't take him away from the track.
Gordon has part ownership in his car, and hopes to emulate one of his heroes, four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Rick Mears. Gordon wants to be a consultant, a driver coach.
Unofficially, he's already taken that job, choosing to be a mentor to Jimmie Johnson, a Busch series driver who will move up next year to become a teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.
"Jimmie has the whole package," Gordon said. "He's a good driver with a great personality."
Johnson is flattered and almost bowled over by that.
"Every once in while I go down to look at the contract to make sure it's all true," he said.
But next year, he'll join Gordon, will be housed in the same shop and given the same equipment -- but no scuba gear.
"There are times when I want to get way from it all," Gordon said. "You know, no NASCAR, no racing."
Just a dive to the ocean floor to spend some quality time with a few friendly sharks.
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