June 30, 1997 12:00 PM

JEFF GORDON IS RUNNING LATE, WITH A flight to catch and miles to go. before he gets to the airport in Charlotte, N.C. So stepping on the gas in his black Chew Camaro Z28, he cruises comfortably over the speed limit—until a cop pulls him over. “I’m Jeff Gordon,” auto racing’s Golden Boy remembers saying. “Do you follow racing?” Nodding, the officer replies, “Yeah, here’s your ticket. I’m a Dale Earnhardt fan.”

Okay, so Earnhardt and other top drivers still have plenty of followers, but few can match the broad appeal of Gordon, at 25 his sport’s answer to Tiger Woods. In 1996, his fourth full year on stock-car racing’s premier circuit, the Winston Cup, he racked up 10 victories and $2.5 million in prize money. This season, Gordon has won 5 of his first 11 races, including a season-opening triumph at the Daytona 500 in February and last month a thrilling, come-from-behind win at the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. Says Gordon, who has never been seriously injured in a race: “I can get the job done as good as anybody out there.”

But some of Gordon’s most impressive victories may be off the track. His all-American looks and self-promotional savvy—he’s been on The Late Show with David Letterman three times—are attracting new followers to this traditionally male-oriented, blue-collar sport. Gordon has his own popular Web site, a 15,000-member fan club, a multimillion-dollar-a-year business that licenses his likeness—and an ever-expanding base of female admirers. “My mother-in-law is 83 and she’s become his greatest fan,” says John A. Krol, CEO of DuPont, one of Gordon’s main sponsors. “She’s never even had a driver’s license, and now she watches every race. It’s incredible!”

Part of the explanation is Gordon’s accessibility. Unlike so many stereo-typically churlish athletes, he mingles with fans the morning of his races, signs scads of autographs and even helps raise funds for a Christian ministry. (He’s a traditional Southern Baptist.) “Jeff is the hardest working athlete I’ve ever seen,” says tennis superstar Monica Seles, friend and fan. “Every second, he has something booked.” In fact, Gordon is determined to make the most of his time in the winner’s circle. “I want to be able to enjoy it,” he says, “as long as it doesn’t take away from racing.” So far, nothing has. “Out of the car, he’s like a junior high school kid,” says fellow driver Kyle Petty. “But inside the car, he’s a fierce competitor. Whatever it takes to win, that’s what he does.”

A need for speed has possessed the Vallejo, Calif., native ever since his mother, Carol, an office manager, and stepfather John Bickford, an auto-parts manufacturer, bought him a miniature race car at age 4. (His parents had divorced when he was 1.) “Once I realized, ‘Hey, I can control this car,’ ” says Gordon, “I was fascinated by it.” Four years later he was the Grand National Champion among quarter-midget race-car drivers, then won all 25 GoKart events he entered at age 10. In 1993, Gordon was named the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year.

But that was only the second best thing to happen that year, way behind spotting Brooke Sealey. The reigning Miss Winston was in charge of awarding trophies to race winners but was prohibited from socializing with drivers. Gordon phoned her several times for a date; she didn’t return his calls. They eventually met on Valentine’s Day, before a race. “He was so sweet,” says Brooke, 26, “so down-to-earth.” She handed him a box of heart-shaped candies for luck—and, not much later, the winner’s trophy.

Married in 1994, the couple live in a roomy four-bedroom mansion on scenic Lake Norman outside Charlotte. Brooke travels with Gordon to all of his races (“when he gets in a race car,” she says, “I want to be with him”) in their Learjet 35A. They also own a custom-fitted 45-foot motor coach, a 29-foot speedboat and a cherry-red Jaguar XK8, a Christmas gift to Brooke from Jeff. Says Gordon with a grin: “Toys are fun.” Just ask the man who saw his future in a $450 minicar.

ALEX TRESNIOWSKI

DON SIDER in Charlotte

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