Editor’s Note: Welcome back to the Frontstretch for 2010! In preparation for going back to full-time writing February 1st, we’re trying to give you a taste of what some of our driver features. This in-depth look at Jarit Johnson was initially published in May, 2009. Hope you enjoy it … and get ready for more of Jarit on the Frontstretch in 2010! He’ll be doing a monthly driver diary for us starting the first week in February.
The shop is located in a part of Mooresville, North Carolina that is still mostly in the country, though the growth is slowly encroaching like so much kudzu; but for now, there are still pastures out here. Tucked within a modest office park, you’d all but miss it if you didn’t know it was there. But park at the back of the building, and the sign on the door will tell you that yes, you’ve found the right place.
Open the door and the foyer is… lived in. There’s no receptionist; just a few interesting artifacts that suggest that racing happens here. Poke your head into the office, and you get greeted by the driver and team owner, dressed in a team T-Shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. It’s a small room, but slightly cluttered in an inviting way. What hits you first is what will stay with you: there is no pretense here.
“Here” is the shop of Jarit Johnson Racing and the No. 74 NASCAR Camping World East Series team, which also houses Johnson’s fabricating business. Follow Johnson through to the back, and there are a number of projects going on. Front and center on this day is a chassis that brings to mind the dinosaur fossils assembled in museums: the bones of some behemoth that, at the moment, defies identification because it certainly isn’t the carcass of a late model stock car. Tear your eyes away from this and there’s a handful of race cars in various states of completion. Johnson’s late model looks race ready, while the Camping World East Series car is missing its skin, the result of a late race tangle with Matt Kobyluck at Thompson International Speedway that ended a top 10 run for Johnson. Typical Kobyluck, but that probably doesn’t do much to boost the spirits of the rookie owner/driver, because, well, that’s the East Series car at the moment. The other car in the shop is an older Nationwide Series car, pristine and shiny, and not Johnson’s. This car belongs to his brother, and he’s fixing it up.
Go back through to the office, and Johnson will offer you a spot to sit and talk to you like you’ve known him all along. And here is where the real story begins. The wrecked car in the shop back there is Johnson’s only East Series car right now, and ordinarily, it might be the focus of the day’s activity, but the team isn’t going to the next race at Lime Rock Park — not that they had much of a choice. You see, reality is much more of a presence at this level of racing than in the fantasy world that is Sprint Cup to many teams. And right now, the reality is that there is no sponsor and no money.
The stark reality of Johnson’s sponsorship hunt is not unique. There are Cup teams in the same boat, and Johnson is racing in the East Series, where a team can still race competitively on a tight budget; but, however large or small, the bottom line is you have to have a budget to work with. “Asking for a thousand dollars right now is like asking for a million,” Johnson muses, and right now, nobody has a thousand dollars to part with for a driver who hasn’t yet made a name for himself. But the part that might surprise fans is that even though Johnson does have a family name well-known in the sport, it doesn’t make things one iota easier.
Jarit Johnson’s brother is three-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. That’s Jimmie’s old Busch Series car out back — the one he got his first win in at Chicago in 2001 — and the strange behemoth skeleton out there is Jimmie’s, too, an off-road Trophy Truck as it turns out. Jarit restores his brother’s cars — and does a beautiful job — as part of his fabrication business. There’s a definite resemblance between Jimmie, 33, and Jarit, 30, and they sound so much alike they could certainly fool people should they choose. But please don’t refer to the younger Johnson as Jimmie Johnson’s brother. That’s not what he’s about.
Right now, he’s about finding sponsorship for the car that doesn’t involve his brother, something that, it turns out, isn’t that easy. “You talk to a sponsor or a car owner or whatever, and it’s like, ‘What is Jimmie going to do for us?’” Johnson says. “Uh, no. Leave Jimmie out of the picture, just put him aside and let’s try to build something between Jarit and yourself. That’s the hardest thing.”
On the surface, it shouldn’t be hard. It wasn’t hard for Michael Waltrip, but times have changed and, as Johnson will tell you, it’s not simply about talent anymore. It’s about what you bring to the table, and Johnson isn’t bringing his brother. End of story. So it’s back to the drawing board to sustain his career, and looking for someone who wants to sponsor a race car with a hungry driver – a car capable of running in the top 10 with any kind of funding. There’s no question the talent is there: Johnson won five in a row at Hickory a couple of years ago. He’s run remarkably well in his self-funded Camping World East car, though the finishes haven’t been there to show it. This, with a volunteer crew, who work more for love than money… though Johnson gives them a little something when he can. These guys — Andy and Julian and E-Rock and Steve, along with younger brother Jessie and dad Gary — work when they can, as hard as they can, doing whatever they can.
It’s not easy work, and the road is long, both figuratively and literally. Johnson’s father, Gary, drives the 26’ trailer that houses the car and equipment. The team will borrow equipment and crew when possible, but it’s never easy, and nothing is ever guaranteed. But when the money is there, they go, because in NASCAR, you have to be seen. “You can race late models all you want,” Johnson says. “You can go to all these different tracks, but that exposure level isn’t very good. Matt McCall got recognized for winning races and got the opportunity to race for, I think it was Yates. But he hasn’t gone very much past that. He’s a very successful race car driver, but I believe you need to be in the bigger cars, in a bigger series, so that you can run with the bigger names.”
He believes that strongly enough to take the chance. There was a ride, with newly-formed Trail Motorsports, but the money was never there, and so Johnson decided to make it on his own. The sacrifice is more than money. Johnson and his wife Trinity, a veterinarian, have two young children: Connor, 3 and Lily, 1. He’d love to take them on the road, but right now that’s not feasible. In the meantime, Johnson spends as much of his spare time as he can at home with the kids, watching them grow up. He’s a family man, raised in a tight family as well, and racing has just always been a part of it.
Johnson could give up driving and find a job fabricating for any team in the business. He’s worked for teams in that capacity and it’s still his primary business, but it doesn’t soothe the hunger inside the way racing does. So in the meantime, it’s nice to know it pays the bills, along with the cordless cooling system Johnson developed to keep drivers cool when the car sits in the garage during practice. It’s got plenty of other uses as well, and the way Johnson developed it illustrates an observance that could take him far as a driver. In the garage one day, he noticed a crewman holding a fan on the driver while the team worked on the car — and realized right away that there was a better way. Soon after, he developed a system that runs on an 18-volt battery, so there are no cords to trip on and that crewman could be doing something else. Hendrick Motorsports uses them, as do motocross racers: the uses are endless, and it’s another piece of what keeps Jarit Johnson Racing going.
Keep on keeping on: that could be the team’s motto, because it’s simply what they do. In the meantime, Johnson is considering leasing his late model to a young racer. He’d love to be in it himself, but leasing it will bring in more money to run bigger races, and so Johnson says he’ll probably do it. If there’s a hesitation in his remark, it’s fleeting, maybe not there at all.
There is no pretense here. That much is clear. No pretense, only determination and drive. After you sit in the office for awhile, you can see it, feel it, in every word. There’s an honesty in Johnson that you know is genuine. He’s not quite as polished as Jimmie, and that’s OK. It’s more than OK, actually, because it creates another degree of separation, another reason to see Jarit as Jarit and not an extension of his brother. There’s not a big difference, but it’s noticeable because you can’t help but find Jarit Johnson refreshing. By all standards, this guy should be a sponsor’s dream. The sponsors just don’t know it yet. Johnson has faith in his ability to drive a car and please a sponsor. There isn’t a sponsor on the hood, but there should be.
However, asking for a thousand dollars right now is like asking for a million, and Johnson will keep asking until he finds the thousand. The million comes next.
No pretense. Just racing.
Like what you read? Keep your eyes peeled for Part II of Amy’s feature on Jarit Johnson that is scheduled to run tomorrow.
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