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NASCAR rookie knows success


FOR THE RECORD, the guy leading the crowd in "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" in the seventh inning at SBC Park last night was Brendan Gaughan, a rookie on NASCAR's Nextel Cup circuit.

Brendan who?

For the record, he wanted to throw out the ceremonial first pitch last night, but he blew out his left arm the last time he did that at a major league game.

So he agreed to sing.

Don't let his singing fool you. You really need to hear him talk to truly appreciate him.

Gaughan (pronounced Gone) is the 28-year-old driver of the No. 77 Kodak Dodge. But, you can't spend a Kodak moment with Gaughan to get a complete picture of his life. You need a Kodak hour or two. Or Kodak day or two. If his life were turned into a movie, it would be part "Rudy" and part "Big Fish."

Gaughan is the youngest son of Las Vegas hotel and casino magnate Michael Gaughan and grandson of gaming pioneer Jackie Gaughan, who started the family's gambling business in 1948. Brendan is the only NASCAR competitor who owns a driver's license and a gaming license and perhaps the only one who has bussed tables and dealt cards in Las Vegas.

Gaughan also is a graduate of Georgetown University. He went there on a football scholarship as a 210-pound kicker who led his team to a bowl game. He dumped football in the spring and fall in favor of racing but, in between in the winter, he walked onto the basketball team. That's where, in practice, he said he successfully defended a freshman guard named Allen Iverson. "The Answer" initially had no answer for Gaughan's questionable motivational techniques.

Eventually, Gaughan left Georgetown with two Big East championship rings and a B.S.B.A. degree - with heavy emphasis on B.S. - in human resource management.

Now, he's managing to put together a remarkable rookie season. The year began when, as part of the Speedway Children's Charity, he traveled to Iraq to visit soldiers and fell in love. He met his current girlfriend, who's in the Air Force. In Iraq, Gaughan also met a two-star general who gave him a shiny gold U.S. Marine Corps military coin, which the NASCAR driver has been carrying with him everywhere, including his Dodge race car.

Maybe it's finally bringing him some luck. Gaughan led the DHL 400 for 13 laps at Michigan International Speedway Sunday. He qualified sixth and finished 16th in the race to climb to 29th in the Nextel Cup point standings.

Still, it's been an uphill struggle for someone who first learned in the desert from his father how to race before honing his craft in Wisconsin. To this point in his life, Gaughan has been pretty much successful in every sport and every endeavor he's ever tried. That he's been struggling in his rookie year in NASCAR after dominating the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series would seem to be a realistic expectation.

"I've never believed in the word 'realistic,'" Gaughlan said yesterday. "You have to look at circumstances."

Like the circumstances of him winding up at Georgetown.

"Unfortunately I was just a placekicker and I have always hated placekickers," Gaughan said. "I grew up in a family of linemen and I grew up believing that kickers go golf during practice and show up on their own time."

Gaughan said he was an all-state kicker in Nevada who received recruiting letters from Notre Dame and Nebraska, but he wanted more. He got hurt his senior year at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas. Hoyas football coach Bob Benson wanted Gaughan to come to Georgetown as a kicker, but Gaughan asked that he be allowed to practice with wide receivers and defensive backs so he could feel more a part of the team.

"Unfortunately I had a bad attitude at the time, which, as a young kid, I didn't understand," Gaughan said. "For the most part there is a stigma about kickers and I was not mature enough to handle that situation of wanting to play wide receiver, wanting to play lineman, wanting to play something else but not being able to do at that level."

Nonetheless, Gaughan said he was an all-conference kicker his freshman year and the Hoyas, even with a 4-5 record, wound up beating Washington and Lee (Va.) 17-14 in a bowl game played on a rugby field in Bermuda.

The next season, Gaughan's attitude didn't get any better and his kicking accuracy was worse. About the only thing that pleased him was a couple of game-winning field goals and leading the Hoyas kickoff team in tackles.

Football didn't provide Gaughan with the rugged action he sought but Hoyas basketball coach John Thompson gave him the opportunity to feel the intensity. Gaughan made the Georgetown team as a walk-on with the idea that he was going to push the scholarship players in practice.

"My job was there to be the toughest guy on the court," Gaughan said. "I wasn't there to score 20 points. I wasn't there to even dribble the basketball. I was there for a purpose and that was be the toughest guy."

He was toughest on Iverson, whom he guarded most of the time. Gaughan said Thompson encouraged him to play physical against Hoyas stars like Jahidi White and Iverson.

"In his freshman year and my sophomore year there was one person in the country who could stop him on every play. I shut him down," Gaughan said.

That's because the 5-foot-9 guard from Las Vegas knew the angles. He studied Iverson's tendencies. Iverson, however, was smart and talented enough to figure out how to beat Gaughan.

"His sophomore year I had to bite him, punch him, hit him, pull him, scratch him and claw him and do anything I could to stop him," Gaughan said. "All because he became a better player. If I helped him do that, then great."

Iverson went on to become an All-Star in the NBA and Gaughan is trying to figure out how to be a champion in NASCAR. It takes a special breed of athlete to want to do that.

"To be that this level, you have that innate ability," Gaughan said. "Racing. Last 20 laps of Talladega. Four wide. You're hot, you're tired. Make a mental mistake and you might get killed. Our sport has a ramification level like no other sport."

That living-on-the-edge experience is something Gaughan has spent a lifetime seeking. He has competed at a high level in a great number of sports and games and found that nothing compares to NASCAR.

"Race car driving is the epitome of every sport ever contested plus 10 times over," Gaughan said. "Mental toughness, physical toughness, it takes you to a whole another level."

If you don't believe it, just ask him.

Dave Albee is an IJ staff writer. Write to him care of Sports, Marin Independent Journal, 150 Alameda del Prado, Novato, 94948-6150. His phone number is 382-7300; the fax number is 884-1478; contact by e-mail at dalbee@marinij.com

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