With an eye toward his future, Jeff Gordon is leaving IMG to chart a new course with Just Marketing International, a motorsports marketing agency in Indianapolis that has not been in the driver representation business before.

Gordon had spent more than ten years with IMG, and during most of that time he was the only NASCAR driver in the agency's talent stable. But as Gordon, 38, approaches the twilight of his driving career, he's looking for a deeper selection of business opportunities within motorsports that extend beyond endorsements.

"I think Jeff is past the point of looking for the traditional deal that gets you a patch on his sleeve," said John Bickford, Gordon's stepfather, chief business adviser and general manager of Jeff Gordon Inc. "What we're looking for is more integrated business opportunities that will position Jeff post-racing."

Those opportunities could involve racetrack design, team ownership or other business ventures inside motorsports, Bickford said. Gordon is currently working with a developer in Canada to build a Gordon-signature track that he designed.

"To think about going into a project with the marketing support of JMI behind you, it became crystal clear that this was the direction to go," Bickford said.

Among the endorsement deals that IMG struck on behalf of Gordon were Tag Heuer watches, Foster Grant sunglasses and Halston Z-14 cologne, the type of lifestyle plays that were good fits when Gordon was at the peak of his driving career. He was represented at the agency by Alan Zucker.

Gordon's #24 sponsors at Hendrick Motorsports include long-time partner DuPont, National Guard, Pepsi and Chevrolet. Those sponsorship arrangements are separate from the personal endorsement deals signed by IMG, which did not sell team sponsorships for Hendrick.

"Jeff was a celebrity client for over ten years, and we had a great relationship," IMG spokesman Jim Gallagher said. "It was a parting on good terms."

IMG loses Gordon after a year of growth in its motorsports division. It added a sales and marketing relationship with Joe Gibbs Racing and representation of Danica Patrick as she moved into NASCAR.

IMG also has a sales and marketing deal with the NHRA and its top names, John and Ashley Force. Bickford said those deals, most of which IMG struck in the past year, did not influence Gordon's decision to leave.

"Not at all," Bickford said. "In fact, Danica called me, and I recommended IMG to her. It's an agency that does a lot of things very well. We just felt, given where Jeff is in his career, that he needed to be with an agency that does one thing well and that's motorsports."

JMI's consulting clients include LG, Lenovo, UPS, Subway and Verizon, and it has struck several driver endorsement deals for its clients, including Subway's relationship with Carl Edwards, but Gordon marks the first driver that Zak Brown's agency has formally represented.

"We're not looking to get into the driver representation business," said Brown, JMI's chief executive and founder. "But we do want to get into the Jeff Gordon business. We're not going to have a roster of drivers, but Jeff is the biggest name in the sport, especially internationally, and we think he provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

It was around November when Bickford approached JMI about representing Gordon. Brown's agency, which he founded in 1995 and sold to Spire Capital Partners in 2008, does business in all of the US motorsports series, as well as Formula One internationally.

It's internationally that Gordon could find the most opportunity, Brown said.

"What we're looking to do goes beyond the TV commercials," Brown said. "He's a driving legend, and he certainly has the most recognisable name internationally. ... When I'm out of the States, which is frequently, and people reference NASCAR drivers, Jeff's name is always the first to come up."

Brown offered a glimpse into one idea that he'll promote to Gordon. He'd like to see Gordon drive in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the famed sports-car road race in France that often is referred to as the most important race in the world.

"It would create a ton of exposure for NASCAR internationally and a ton of exposure for Jeff internationally," said Brown, who drives competitively himself and just recently competed in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. "It's not been discussed, but he's a great road racer, and he'd love it."

Brown said he would personally work on the Gordon business, along with the full team at JMI.

A recent Taylor agency survey of avid NASCAR fans showed that Gordon ranked second in popularity behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. Gordon also was among the most disliked drivers, giving him that "love him or hate him" dynamic.

The Davie Brown motorsports index, which measures driver attributes, shows that consumers rank Gordon first among NASCAR drivers in awareness and steadily in the top ten in just about every other category, among them trust and influence. But they don't rank him as highly for appeal, again speaking to that polarizing effect he has on audiences. He ranked 21st in appeal, which is up slightly from 23rd the season before.
by Michael Smith
Michael Smith is a reporter with SportsBusiness Journal