The car will not start and nobody seems entirely sure what to do. There are a couple hundred kids standing on a grass field around the corner, and they wait for something awesome to happen. They had been promised something awesome.
“I think I hear something,” Chase Road Elementary principal Sue Geller says into the microphone. She waits a second and says again, “I think I hear something!” It is not entirely clear what she hears. There may have been a buzzing sound in the air for a few seconds. But it is gone. A few television cameras line up and point at an empty space on the concrete playground behind the school. They too were promised something awesome.
“Let’s bump start the car,” someone suggested. Well, it sounds like reasonable enough. Jimmie Johnson nods. He had come to Chase Elementary, just a few miles away from where he grew up in El Cajon, to accept thanks for the running track and grass field his foundation had built here. As part of the deal, he is going to drive this car and spin a few doughnuts on the playground. Geller had said it would be an honor if he would leave a little rubber behind for the kids to gawk at for years to come. Jimmie Johnson nodded.
Now, though, the car will not start — dead battery, probably — and the kids are shuffling around impatiently, and a truck is moving behind the car to bump it forward and, perhaps, kick it to life. Jimmie Johnson waits in the car skeptically.
Yeah, let’s just say that Cannonball Baker never dealt with stuff like this.
* * *
Jimmie Johnson is on top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings and on top of the world again. Around the Fourth of July weekend is a good time to tell his story because his rise to the pinnacle of stock car racing is a deeply American story. It’s every bit as American a journey as those of race car legends Junior Johnson’s or Cale Yarborough’s or Dale Earnhart’s. It’s just that we live in a different America now.
NASCAR as an idea really began on the beach, in Daytona, back in 1936, when a bunch of men who believed they had the fastest cars decided to find out for sure.*
*Among them was the aforementioned, Cannonball Baker — inspiration for the movie “Cannonball Run” — who had made a name for himself by racing across America. Another driver in the race was Bill France, who was so taken by the idea that he decided to organize these men into a racing circuit, which he called the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, NASCAR for short.
That was a wide open time, of course. NASCAR’s first heartbeat sprung from bootleggers, and then moonshiners, who would tinker with their car engines to make them a little bit faster, make them handle a little bit better, all so those cars might elude the law on those back roads in the Appalachian Mountains. Those drivers were proud men, a little bit crazy, and hungry for both speed and winners’ checks.
They were hard men. Yes, Junior Johnson — who the writer Tom Wolfe famously called the Last American Hero — did promise to urinate on the grave of the judge who put him in jail for moonshining.
“Did you?” I asked him once over a breakfast of at least seven different kinds of bacon.
“Of course I did,” Junior said. “I wasn’t going to let the man make a liar out of me as well as a jailbird.”
Yes, Cale Yarborough wrestled an alligator and survived a lightning strike and fought both Allison brothers, Bobby and Donnie, in the infield after the Daytona 500.
Yes, Dale Earnhardt grew up in North Carolina, in the heart of racing, the son of a great stock car driver name Ralph Lee Earnhardt … and Dale never wanted anything else but to be a great stock car driver himself. His father died of a heart attack when Dale was 22. He spent the rest of his life driving right up to the edge and trying to live up to his father’s legend.
Jimmie Johnson does not have that sort of story. But he did not grow up in that America. He knew nothing about stock car driving growing up in a small and unincorporated little section of houses and trailers on top of Crest Mountain generally known as El Cajon and people call around here call “Crest.” He didn’t race his first stock car until he was grown up.
Oh, he grew up around racing. The Johnsons had all sorts of motorbikes, jet skis, bicycles — and they raced all the time. Gary, Jimmie’s father, drove a B.F. Goodrich tire truck for the Baja 1000, where motorcycles and buggies and trucks and various automotive creations, plow through the desert for more than 1,000 miles.
“That was honestly what I thought about when I thought about racing,” Jimmie says.
He followed that path. Johnson almost died in the Baja 1000 when he was 18. He was driving a pickup truck in the race and hit a smooth patch, which is just about the worst thing you can do in a long off-road race like that. A smooth patch coaxes sleep. Johnson nodded off for, what? A millisecond? He snapped awake just in time to slightly mistime a turn. The car hit a rock, flew over an edge, and then started tumbling, end over end over end. Jimmie’s racing partner Tom Grevis was knocked unconscious. Not Jimmie, though. He stayed alert and terrified through the whole thing.
When the truck finally stopped rolling, Johnson climbed out, relatively unharmed, and sat on a bed of rocks. He waited to be rescued. And he pondered his future. He wanted to race cars. He also did not want to die.
* * *
There are times when La Cresta Boulevard seems to go straight up Crest Mountain or, more to the point, straight down. Jimmie Johnson wasn’t the only kid in this neighborhood to look down and wonder just how fast a bicycle or motorcycle or car could shoot down La Cresta Boulevard. He was the kid, though, who would go out and find out.
“Jimmie was the craziest one,” his high school pal Billy says, and he talks about times they would test themselves on La Cresta, seeing just how close to the edge they were willing to go. Jimmie, naturally, was the one willing to go the closest. “Fearless,” they called him.
But, Jimmie will tell you that’s not right — he wasn’t fearless then, and he’s not fearless now. In fact, he insists, it is the exact opposite of fearlessness that has inspired his amazing success. He was always driven by fear: fear of failure, fear that he wouldn’t get a chance, fear of not winning the next championship.
From 2006 to 2009, Johnson became the first driver to win four consecutive Sprint Cup championships, and the next year he made it five in a row. He has won 64 races since he started racing Sprint Cup in 2002 — by far the most over that stretch and more than his hero Jeff Gordon (29), his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. (14) and last year’s Sprint Cup Champion Brad Keslowski (9) combined. Over the weekend, he became the first driver in more than 30 years to sweep the two races — the 500 and 400 — at Daytona.
Perhaps even more amazing, he has finished in top five 174 times — almost half the races he has started. That boggles the mind. If there is one thing about Jimmie Johnson that awes the other drivers, it is that fact. In the wild and tight and seemingly unpredictable world of stock car racing, Johnson and his team — led by crew chief Chad Knaus — simply do not have off days.
And yet, Johnson has not done any of it with the sort of recklessness and pedal-to-the-medal guts that NASCAR fans believe it’s all about. No, he says, fear is the driving emotion. He admits that throughout the championship run, he felt this deep tension that never left him. His wife, Chani, says that after a rare bad race, Jimmie disappears into himself, replaying the race again and again furiously in his mind.
“Every time I get into a stock car, I have fear,” Johnson says. “That’s important. That fear is what keeps you sharp and keeps you from going over the edge.”
* * *
Jimmie Johnson is reminiscing with Stan Herzog. They are at a fundraiser for the Jimmie Johnson Foundation. All around are people from Johnson’s past and present. There, for instance, is Mike Wells, CEO of Blue Bunny Ice Cream, a major contributor to the foundation. Jimmie has long wanted to create an ice cream flavor called “Nuts and Bolts.” They’re talking about possibilities.
The Herzogs were the first to put Jimmie Johnson into a stock car. He had been driving off-road buggies for them and he desperately wanted to try stock cars. They gave him a car in the American Speed Association in 1998, when he was 23. Johnson says that he had no idea what he was doing. But he won rookie of the year.
“Do you remember what you got paid when we first started?” Stan is asking.
“Twelve thousand dollars a year,” Jimmie says.
“Twelve thousand,” Herzog says happily.
“I didn’t care,” Jimmie says. “I just wanted a car to drive.”
This was how his journey went. He wanted a car to drive — and he was willing to do anything to make that happen. He worked 18 hours a day trying to make a name for himself on the track and off. He worked for a while as an ESPN commentator in the Short-Course Off-road Drivers Association, in part so he could make contacts. He fulfilled every obligation, gave a little bit more of himself at appearances, thanked all his sponsors profusely, made friends and impressed influential people whenever he could.
Johnson understood: The road to NASCAR did not wind through the Appalachian Mountains, not for him. He had no connections, no money, no name. He was learning how to drive a stock car well, but let’s be honest, lots of people drive well. He had great ambition, but lots of people have great ambition. So, he took more meetings, and he introduced himself to more people, and he offered to help more people. He imagined more possibilities, and he thought up business plans, and he constantly worked to make himself a little bit more marketable.
In 2000, there was a Busch Series Race (now called Nationwide) in Michigan where Johnson found himself racing against his hero and role model Jeff Gordon. And it just so happened that, late in the race, he was just behind Gordon and he decided it was time to try something. Johnson made a spectacular pass to move into fifth place.
“I just passed Jeff Gordon!” he shouted excitedly to his team.
“Great,” his crew chief muttered. “Why don’t you pass Geoff Bodine? He’s actually leading the race.”
But, Johnson knew: That pass had been important. It had left an impression. Later, he saw Gordon at a driver’s meeting and asked him for some advice and the two hit it off. One thing led to another led to another led to another, and in 2002, Johnson was given a car to drive for Hendrick Motorsports as a teammate of Jeff Gordon.
“I was very lucky to go to work for Hendrick Motorports and to have a Lowe’s as a sponsor,” Johnson says. “I was very lucky.”
“You made it happen,” Herzog says. “You made your own luck.”
* * *
Jimmie Johnson has a little gag he plays on Twitter now and again — he will sometimes Tweet something that went wrong and then put up the hashtag #BlameJJ after it.
“Twitter crashed. #BlameJJ.”
“Rained out. #BlameJJ.”
The idea is that many racing fans don’t really cut him any slack and never really have. Though he spent part of his youth in a trailer park and worked his way up through the racing circuits, many fans tend to believe he was born on third base. Though he has repeatedly shown himself to be one of the most generous of athletes – in a recent example, he and Chani visited Moore, Okla., after the tornado devastated the city, and he donated all his earnings from the All-Star Race in Charlotte to the relief efforts — he heard boos over the rumbles of his car, especially in the early years.
Though he has an obvious genius for stock car driving, fans often say he simply was fortunate to walk into a perfect situation, with the Hendrick money behind him and the genius of Knaus working the engineering. Some even complain about his winning style as a driver. He’s not a huge risk taker, except when absolutely necessary, and he has a knack for staying out of trouble — NASCAR fans love trouble.
It’s surprising how often people talk about the greatest drivers in the sport’s history, and they mention Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Allison and Jeff Gordon … but not Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson says he used to spend a lot more time thinking about all this kind of stuff, used to wonder why some people didn’t get him. But now, it’s different. For one thing, a lot of people do get him. Forbes estimates that he’s the 41st highest paid athlete in the world,. He has a huge fan base — by some measures the biggest in NASCAR. He sells a lot of merchandise.
“I think there was a time when I thought, ‘Hey, why don’t some of these people like me?’” Johnson says. “But I think I’ve come to understand it better. People who like Dale or Carl (Edwards), they’re not going to like me. And my fans don’t like them.
“I had someone come up to me and say, ‘I’m a Dale Jr. fan, and I always root for you to lose, but I really respect you.’ I realize that was really one of the nicest compliments you can get in our sport.”
* * *
Jimmie Johnson is still rolling. He won the Daytona 500 for the second time (and the Daytona 400 over the weekend). He also won at Martinsville and Pocono. If not for a couple of balky restarts, he might have won one or two other races. He had a coffee table photo book come out last year — it is filled with photographs of Johnson and his family and the life they live — and he has kept up his triathlon training — he has this dream, someday, of competing in an Ironman Triathlon (a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride and a full marathon). His daughter, Evie, turns three this month, and he and Chani are expecting another child in September.
“I really am in a different place in my life right now,” Johnson says — this moments after he took his daughter to see Monsters University. “They say that fatherhood changes everything, and it really does. Everything about my life is different. I just see the world through my daughter’s eyes a lot more.”
In fact, the Johnson are expecting that second child right around the time the Chase — NASCAR’s playoffs — begin. Johnson has led the standings pretty much the entire year, and he will enter the Chase as the favorite again. It has been three years since Johnson has won the championship. He says this one would mean as much to him as any … maybe even a little bit more.
“When we won the five (championships) in a row,” he says, “there was just this constant pressure. I mean, of course, everybody is under pressure, and believe me I’m not complaining. I never like when athletes talk about being under pressure, I know that the pressure of putting food on the table for a family is a lot bigger than what I’m talking about here. So don’t get me wrong.
“I’m just saying there was this pressure that was always there — I don’t think I even knew it was there. I just thought about winning every minute of every day. And when we didn’t win in 2011, it hurt of course, but it’s like that pressure disappeared and I was able to breathe. We’re all still as hungry as ever to win, but I don’t feel that same pressure.”
All this leads to the obvious question: What’s left to prove? He has spent his whole life just wanting to race for a living. Then he spent years trying to become the best. They he spent year trying to stay the best. And he’s done all of it, made his many millions of dollars, won all those races, what’s left to prove?
“Everything,” Johnson says. He shrugs. “I don’t want that to sound trite or whatever, but it’s true. I feel like I haven’t really proven anything yet,”
* * *
As the truck at Chase Road Elementary School backs up to bump Jimmie Johnson’s car to get it started — gotta spin a few doughnuts for the kids — he has this distinct feeling that this plan is not the smartest one ever devised. His feeling is right. It doesn’t work. The truck bumps the car, and it moves forward, but it does not start. The truck does tear up the car’s bumper, so it did accomplish something.
Of course, the kids still wait impatiently for something awesome to happen. The TV cameras point at the corner where, any minute, they expect something awesome to happen too. And then, someone shouts, “Wait, he’s coming,” and the cameras flip on and the kids start to scream.
And instead a blurring race car burning rubber, Jimmie Johnson runs around the corner. He runs and he waves and he runs a little more. The kids race over, he high-fives a bunch of them, and the cameras follow. Then, Johnson runs around the track with the kids. Is it as awesome as a car spinning doughnuts? No. Probably not.
“But sometimes,” Johnson says, “you just have to improvise.”