Jimmie Johnson was no different. As a youngster growing up inCalifornia, Johnson knew he wanted to be a Winston (now Nextel) Cupracer. The difference between the soft-spoken son of a racing father andthe vast majority of racers who never do make it to racing's top levelis the way in which he accomplished that goal.
Johnson's path to stardom started early--very early. He first tackledthe rough-and-tumble motocross world at the age of four. Off-roadracing--as much a staple of the Southern California landscape as palmtrees, surf boards, and smog--was his next stop on the path to becominga stock car superstar. Finally, with the help of his off-road teamowners Stan and Randy Herzog and Herb Fishel of General Motors, Johnsonentered stock car racing at a high level, in the short-track series ofthe American Speed Association (ASA). ASA was the crucible in whichchampions such as Alan Kulwicki, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, andMark Martin were forged.
From there, Johnson took the next step in his road to Nextel Cup stardomby tackling the NASCAR Busch Series (NBS). He finished seventh in hisfirst NBS start, at the historic Milwaukee Mile in Wisconsin, and he wonthe inaugural event at Chicagoland Speedway the following season.
His performance, both on and off the track, caught the eye of four-timeWinston Cup champion Jeff Gordon. In the midst of his fourthchampionship season, Gordon, who had earlier signed a lifetime contractwith Hendrick Motorsports, was on the lookout for a young driver hecould field in a Hendrick car for a team Gordon would own a piece of,and Johnson was that driver.
The interesting thing about Johnson's meteoric rise through the ranks tothe zenith of American motorsports is that once he began racing onasphalt instead of dirt, sand, and gravel, he spent little time at eachrung on the ladder: two years in ASA, followed by two seasons in theBusch Series. Then he reached the promised land.
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When he traded in his motorcycle for a 1,600cc buggy in the MickeyThompson Stadium Off-Road Series, he was only 15 years old. Thefollowing season, he graduated to the powerful Grand National Truckdivision, where the battles are bitter and hard fought. Enter HerbFishel, whose eye for talent rivals any movie scout or corporaterecruiter. He saw something in the clean-cut, clearly talented youngCalifornian. As head of worldwide racing for Chevrolet, Fishel wasconstantly on the lookout for talented young drivers to install invarious programs around the world, and Johnson fit the bill.
"A lot of people know Herb for keeping an eye out for young drivers,"Johnson said back in 1999, as he was about to make the jump to the BuschSeries. "He expressed interest in me when I was 16, and he's so deep inmotorsports [that] he knows what's happening at all times and he has mybest interests at heart. With my background and upbringing, there havebeen a few people that have made this possible, and Herb's one of them."
In addition to a slot in a factory-backed Chevrolet truck for thestadium series, Johnson was being groomed for bigger things. Publicrelations training, public speaking courses--it all came with theterritory, and Johnson threw himself into them, applying the same tenetof hard work that had brought him there.
From here, it was up to Johnson where he wanted to go. First thingsfirst, however: Johnson had to prove himself in the stadium seriesbefore his other goals were broached.
In the stadium series, Johnson won three straight Grand National TruckSeries titles (1992-'94), captured the Short-Course Off-Road Enthusiasts(SCORE) Desert championship in 1994, and raced in the SCORE Trophy TruckSeries in 1995. He won the 1996 and 1997 Short-Course Off-Road Drivers'Association (SODA) Winter Series titles, and then it was time to leavethe desert for the Midwest and ASA racing.
When he came to the ASA in 1998, Johnson was untested as a stock cardriver. So far, his driving talents had been best showcased in thedeserts of the Southwest, ripping through sand and rocks at better than140 miles per hour in a howling, full-sized Chevrolet truck. Coupledwith his experience on motocross bikes, the young man had learned athing or two about car control from those experiences. Still,controlling a big, heavy vehicle through wide-open spaces has little todo with close-quarters racing on asphalt. Contact among off-roadersusually has to do with hitting rocks or other desert detritus, not thequarter panels of your competitors.
Crashing has always been part of the oval-track racing scene, and givenhis relative inexperience, many racing observers figured that Johnsonwould crash a lot while learning the ropes. However, that did not happenbecause Johnson learned to take care of his equipment the hard way. Hecrashed during the annual Baja 1,000 in western Mexico while driving aChevy Trophy Truck and spent two days with about 100 race fans at thebottom of a wash. "Ever since then, I've been really careful not to tearup my equipment," Johnson joked.
After a three-race get-acquainted campaign in ASA at the end of 1997,Johnson entered his rookie season in that series in 1998, driving theHerzogs' Pennzoil Chevrolet. His performance that year was solid: Hefinished fourth in the points and earned his fourth straight Rookie ofthe Year award (he had won them in the Stadium, SCORE, and SODA seriesas well).
While there are few absolutes in the world of motorsports, one tends tobe revered: If you can drive, you can drive, whether you're in a stockcar on an oval track or banging around out in the desert with nothingbut cacti and coyotes for company. It's all about that little part ofyour brain that tells your hands and feet how to react to save the otherless capable parts of your body. One thing you learn about while drivingaround the desert at high speed is limits. Driving a stock car on fairlyconsistent surfaces is relatively easy when you're used to sand, dirt,and gravel. Driving on the limits is what it's about, and Johnsonlearned to be comfortable out on the ragged edge in a stock car.
In the following season, 1999, Johnson won his first two stock carevents. He took the checkered flag at Memphis Motorsports Park and thenwon the season finale at North Carolina's Orange County Speedway--thelast ASA race in history using the aluminum-block V-6 racing engines theseries had used since the early 1990s.
In 20 races that year, Johnson finished in the top five 11 times and inthe top 10 a staggering 16 times, in addition to winning three poles.
He was now ready for prime time.