Jimmie Johnson: A Desert Rat's...
Jimmie Johnson: A Desert Rat's Race to NASCAR Stardom is available at bookstores or by visiting www.motorbooks.com
Excerpts from Jimmie Johnson: A Desert Rat's Race to NASCAR Stardom, byRon Lemasters Jr. and the editors of Stock Car Racing magazine.Published by Motorbooks International, the book can be purchased atbookstores nationwide, or go to www.motorbooks.com for details onordering.
A Two-Wheeled Start to Life on the Track
Like many of today's top NASCAR stars, Jimmie Johnson began hismotorsports career early--before he entered kindergarten. Starting whenhe was just four years old, he and his family pulled to tracks allacross California and the Southwest, unloaded, and went racing, justlike thousands of youngsters do every year all over the country.
Of course, being a native of El Cajon, California, there was a betterthan even chance Johnson was racing something other than quarter-midgetsor go-karts like most of his contemporaries. Being on the West Coast,where motorcycles are as popular as cars, he began his racing career ontwo wheels rather than on four.
His family, led by father Gary and mother Cathy, was one of those racingfamilies that seem to dot America's motorsports world: They believedthat racing is the main thing, not winning or getting the biggesttrophy. Johnson looked up to his father, who was a mechanic on a desertbuggy, and his father's varied racing interests soon rubbed off on him.
Hard on the gas, Johnson leads...
Hard on the gas, Johnson leads the way.
When Johnson was 15, the Mickey Thompson Stadium Off-Road Series wasjust cranking up in a big way, so Gary Johnson arranged for his son toget a tryout with a five-buggy Superlite team. At the time, Gary wasworking for BFGoodrich as a truck driver on the West Coast, and he askedBFG's Dan Newsome for some help in getting his son a shot.
That shot paid off as Jimmie Johnson became the youngest driver inMickey Thompson Entertainment Group (MTEG) history that season. Thefollowing year, he got a ride in the second Chevrolet-backed GrandNational Truck in the showcase division of the MTEG. A star was born.
As the young Johnson began to be more and more successful, his parentsdecided that he should focus on staying loose and having fun on thetrack. "If I ended up never getting here, they still would have beenvery proud of me and happy of what I tried to do," Johnson said of hisfamily, which includes brothers Jesse, also a racer, and Jarit. "That'sthe thing with my parents . . . they just want to see you work hard andwhere you land is cool. It's all about working hard."
Hard work is the hallmark of Johnson's career. Back then, he wassuccessful, yes, but he also had fun, something that many other parentsseemed to miss the importance of. "I'd watch these parents that wouldforce their kids to win, force them to jump the big doubles, force themto do all this stuff, and my dad would be over there leaning up againsta tree whistling at us as we went by.
"If we got off the bike and we'd tried as hard as we could, he was fine.It didn't matter where we finished. That's been something I've beenextremely lucky about--that my parents took that approach with us."
Flush with the guiding principles supplied by his parents, Johnsonentered the world of off-road racing as a teenager. Three straightstadium titles led to desert racing for John Nelson and the Herzogfamily. That latter association, along with the careful consideration ofChevrolet's global racing boss Herb Fishel, carried Johnson all the wayto Winston Cup. The Herzogs, led by father Bill and sons Stan and Randy,owned the vehicles Johnson drove from 1996 through 2001, when he quicklyrose through the American Speed Association and Busch ranks and became adriver that everyone in NASCAR has their eyes on. --Ron Lemasters Jr.
The Early Road to the Top
Off-Road Racing and the ASA are Short Pit Stops Along the Way
If there's an 800-pound gorilla in today's motorsports world, it'sNASCAR. Every racing driver wants to be there, racing Nextel Cup onSundays for the big bucks, the media exposure, and the chance to driveright into the record books as the best there ever was.
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.
As Johnson gets ready to go...
As Johnson gets ready to go to war at Talladega, one member of theArmy's elite Black Knight parachute team floats (upper left-hand corner)down toward the speedway.
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.