Author’s note: Here’s the first installment of my new commentary, Holding a Pretty Wheel. In upcoming installments, I’ll share some opinions and some facts, some humor and some drama on the sport we all care for: NASCAR. Look for it periodically throughout the offseason and every Friday once the 2007 season hits full swing.
In the weeks since this year’s Nextel Cup championship was decided in favor of Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team, I’ve heard a lot of people complain about him. The reasons why are as diverse as the crowd of Manhattanites currently welcoming the world’s fastest-growing sport on wheels for the yearly awards banquet. Some people say Johnson cheats (Get over it; the team served the penalty NASCAR assessed – if you don’t like it, complain about the rules). Others say he’s too politically correct. He’s too much like Jeff Gordon. He wins too much (bet Johnson doesn’t care if you don’t like that, either – if you compete at anything, you know there is no such thing as “winning too much.” He’s had everything handed to him. He’s too perfect, too unemotional.
There are a lot of race fans who share those last two opinions. That really is too bad, because their opinion of the champ is so far off base, they’re in center field. Johnson never had anything handed to him. He had to learn at an early age how to play nice with the sponsors – or he wouldn’t race. So, he was always polite and always said what the potential sponsor needed to hear. That’s not arrogance – that’s done out of necessity, to get the big break in today’s NASCAR, where money trumps talent nine times out of 10. And Johnson has spent a long time on the phone this week, making sure he’s thanked everyone who has helped him along the way. That doesn’t sound like arrogance to me.
Johnson didn’t grow up with a racing career on a silver platter for the taking. In fact, he probably grew up a lot more like you or I than some of his competitors. He spent his childhood in southern California – the gritty, desert, wind-in-your face part of southern California, not the soft, palm-lined, ocean breeze southern California that many people think of. Raising a family in a trailer park, Dad Gary worked construction and drove trucks, and Mom Cathy drove a bus to pay the bills and make sure that their three boys had a little something extra when they could. That something was motorcycles; for Jimmie, it was also the first taste of racing… and of winning. He liked that winning feeling and never forgot that racing – and winning – was fun at its very core. Getting hurt didn’t deter Johnson, either – he had knee surgery while most kids his age just skinned theirs. In fact, his father was often more fazed at Jimmie’s ER escapades than he was. It wasn’t unusual to see them both on gurneys – young Jimmie reeling from a racing injury, as well as father Gary, fainting from having to look at Jimmie’s racing injury.
When it was time for the next step in Johnson’s racing career, his family simply could not finance it, so the prodigal racing son learned to make contacts and then keep them interested, both by winning and by talking. He had to be respectful and polite to ensure the funding to race. But it wasn’t an act – just a young kid being sincere and grasping at his dream. Johnson once co-drove 500 miles at Baja being sick in the car the whole time, because he wasn’t about to give up this chance, lest it not come by again. Even then, he was racing every lap as if each opportunity was his last. Nothing in Johnson’s career has been handed to him so much as Johnson has reached out and held on tight until he couldn’t be denied.
Unemotional, you say? That criticism is aimed at the same kid who jumped onto the roof of his car after a hard crash in celebration, in gratitude that he was just happy to be alive? It’s aimed at the driver who wept in Victory Lane back in 2004, all because he was able to pay tribute to some dear friends he’d lost in a plane crash? Unemotional is tagged to the same person whose charitable foundation is dedicated to kids and families and animals? Who took the ultimate jab at his detractors when he dedicated his Daytona 500 win to them? I’ve never understood that label… not on Johnson.
Does Jimmie forget himself and rant and rave at NASCAR or his competitors? Not often. Every once in awhile, he’ll express an immediate disappointment of the moment in a quiet voice; usually, he’ll apologize for it later. Don’t mistake that for unemotional – it isn’t. Self-consciousness, yes. Johnson does often seem to possess a small fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. That isn’t lack of emotion; if anything, it’s an overabundance of it. And every once in a while, he forgets himself. Usually, it’s on the team radio in a jumble of angry words – just the driver venting to his crew chief. But sometimes, it just boils over. When Robby Gordon dumped Johnson at Bristol a few years ago, Johnson stomped onto the track and told him in no uncertain terms who was “number one.” With both hands. But those instances are few and far between.
Johnson has certainly faced his share of losses to racing, and he’s borne them with grace. His best friend was killed in a crash at Lowe’s Motor Speedway just hours after Johnson qualified for his very first Cup race. He raced through his grief that weekend, sometimes crying quietly in the car between practice laps, caught between his dream and a cruel reality. Johnson won at Martinsville only to go from the rush of winning to the searing pain of loss within a matter of minutes when the team was informed of the Hendrick Motorsports plane crash that killed 10 of their friends and teammates. He spoke sadly at a press conference the following week and then went out and gave the best tribute he know how – winning that race. He sat in his racecar for a long time in Victory Lane, sharing a tearful phone call with Rick Hendrick and then fiddling with his drink and sunglasses, trying to pull himself together enough to speak to the waiting throng.
And when he won the championship he’s dreamed of since he was a little boy? Johnson clearly relished every moment. He hugged everyone in sight when he got out of his car at Homestead – including the Nextel Cup trophy… especially the Nextel Cup trophy. His voice shook with gratitude. During a photo shoot in New York City this week, he climbed onto a light pole at 48th and 1st and swung on the “Don’t Walk” sign like an exuberant kid. The smile hasn’t left his face all week long.
Johnson wears his heart on his sleeve. He may not say everything that goes through his mind, a la Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Tony Stewart – that’s not his style. Rather, his emotions are in his actions and in his eyes. It’s a more subtle display than forgetting himself and saying certain four-letter words on TV or climbing fences in victory celebration; but don’t mistake Johnson’s polished words for not feeling anything stronger. The emotion is always there… if you look past the surface. It’s never disappeared; not since he was just some unknown kid in underfunded equipment, and not now, when Johnson has the best cars and crew money can buy – a ride that he worked his whole life to get.
Johnson will no doubt be a good champion for NASCAR. He’ll say and do the right thing the vast majority of the time, and he’s truly a nice person to boot. Of course, fans will still dislike Johnson for being too nice, too perfect, too successful, too employed by Jeff Gordon. But to dislike him for being overprivileged and underemotional? That’s a mistake… because it isn’t true.
This driver is worth a second look.