Making it in NASCAR isn’t easy, and for Camping World East Series owner/driver Jarit Johnson, there’s another, surprising obstacle: his name. When your older brother is the Sprint Cup champion, it can be hard to pave your own way in the same sport. But Johnson is trying to do just that, and without a full-time sponsor to boot as he looks to build his racing career from the ground up.
Amy Henderson sat down with Johnson at his race shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, for an extended discussion on what it takes to field a team, run a successful fabrication and cooling system business, and raise a family. As Johnson shows here, he may sound like his brother (they could probably play some serious phone gags), but he’s his own man, and one determined to forge his path against the odds.
Amy Henderson, Frontstretch: At the beginning of the season, you had a deal with Trail Motorsports. When that didn’t pan out, what made your decision to do the series on your own?
Jarit Johnson: The big thing is that you can race late models all you want. 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 Yates. But he hasn’t gone very much past that. He’s a very successful racecar 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. That’s why I just kept on pushing forward to it. The East Series is a fairly cheap series – you can go run on a limited budget, just like racing a late model.
Henderson: What, in terms of sponsorship, time and money does it take to field a car in that series?
Johnson: The good thing about it is, the first few races were at Greenville, Tri-County [N.C.] — really close. Then we went to Iowa, that’s a long haul. I don’t have a hauler or a transporter or any of that. I have a 26-foot enclosed trailer, and my Dad tows it with his truck he uses for his excavating company. I think that you could run the series on a really limited budget, say maybe $10,000 a race. But once you get the bigger stuff, a hauler and all that, the price just goes up. That’s why I’m able to go and do it for so cheap [not having all that]. I also have some volunteer guys who help me out. If there’s any extra money left over at the end of the race weekend, it’s distributed to them. I just can’t let these guys work their heart and soul out and not get anything for it. The bigger you get and the more stuff you bring along, hauler, transporter, all that stuff, it’s just going to drive the cost up. I’d love to have the stuff someday, but….
Henderson: You mentioned having a volunteer crew. What is your day-to-day routine at the shop?
Johnson: The big thing is, if we’re getting back from the track or getting ready to go to the track is getting our stuff prepped. Going through the rear end, servicing everything. Once we get that done, and the car is completely set up, we focus on the fabrication business. I restore Jimmie Johnson’s cars for him. I have one guy here who helps me. He works on the fabrication side, but when we’re working on the East team side, he’ll jump in on that side, too. It’s an all-around situation here. People will bring stuff in to have it fabricated, and we’ll jump in on that, so there are two different things going on all day long.
Henderson: You’re looking for sponsorship to continue racing. What kind of sponsor is going to be a good fit for this team?
Johnson: I’m open to everything. The biggest fit is someone who just wants to give somebody a chance, that’s how I look at it. This sport isn’t driven on talent anymore. I’m not saying I’m the most talented racecar driver in the world at all, but I know I can get the job done. I know I can win races – I know I can. I have faith in myself to do it, and we just need somebody to come aboard and give us a shot. It could be race-by-race, that would be great. If they wanted to do a full program on a very limited budget, which we could pull off, it can be done.
Henderson: Any plans for 2010?
Johnson: We have a few things happening right now, but we’re still trying to make stuff happen. The economy is bad. Asking for a thousand dollars is like asking for a million. If there was a million-dollar sponsorship to come on board this team, it would be top notch. There would be no excuses why that car shouldn’t be winning races. As of right now, the car is capable of winning races. We’re behind on funding; we don’t have what everybody else has. We’ve had failures and got caught in wrecks, but we’ve been running in the top 10, top eight – we’ve got good equipment.
Henderson: You’re married with two young children. How does family fit in with what you’re doing?
Johnson: It’s tough. She [Trinity] loves it. She loves the racing. She’s not a person that likes to be in the limelight, and I’ll tell her I’m going racing, and there’s nothing bad about it. She supports me 100%. My little son, Connor, is three years old, and he loves it. He’s come to a few races at Hickory, to watch. I’d love to take him on the road with me some day and to have them more involved with it. We’ve got our hands full with the business and racing and my wife’s job – she’s a veterinarian and running the household – it’s an awful lot to take care of.
Henderson: Your dad drives your hauler, and drove Jimmie’s motorhome for awhile as well. Talk about the support you have had from your parents.
Johnson: They support me 100%. Dad has always been trying and trying and trying to help me get to a point in racing where I can run full-time in the Truck Series or the Nationwide Series. It’s just been a struggle. I was on a development deal with Hendrick Motorsports and then the plane crash happened [in 2004] – that put things aside, which I can understand. I’m not going to go there and beg and beg and beg and beat on the door. [But] that was a huge loss.
We’ve just been trying every angle to make something happen. Dad dedicates his time, he leaves his business here and tows the car to the racetrack, which means the world to me. He just wants to see me go and race, because he knows I could do well in it.
Henderson: Talk about the path that you have taken in racing, starting with racing bikes in the desert back in California.
Johnson: I started racing motorcycles when I was four. We started racing at Barona Oaks, a motorcycle track, and I raced bikes up until I was seven. But there were always people getting hurt, even getting paralyzed, and Dad just couldn’t take it, seeing other kids get hurt. So he pulled the plug on it and said that if we were going to race, it was going to be in something with a roll cage on it. We’d truck all over the place racing bikes, and after some people got hurt and Dad pulled the plug on it, he went to go work for B.F. Goodrich tires. They were the factory support for desert racing and short-course racing. So Dad worked his way there and got me in a ride with a B.F. Goodrich factory sponsor, and I started racing off-road.
I raced the Baja 1000, and two years of short-course racing. I won the Glen Helen track championship out in California in the Superlite division in 1995. Before that, I raced go-karts for a couple years. It just hasn’t stopped – two years of desert, then after that, Dad bought me a late model truck back in California. Then we moved here. I took four or five years off and tried to make something happen [before] I picked up a late model and raced the late model a bunch at Hickory. Now, I’m in the East Series.
Henderson: I think a lot of fans look at you and think, “Hey, this should be easy for this guy because of what his brother has done.” How do you answer that? It’s never easy.
Johnson: It’s not. You just can’t go out and walk into somebody’s shop. You’d hear stories of somebody doing that and being successful, but that was 20 years ago, somebody walking into the shop and saying, “Hey, I want to drive this racecar, put me in it,” and they’d go out and win that next weekend.
But it’s not easy. The thing about having Jimmie as a brother, there are a lot of doors that open, and a lot of people I get to meet that other people don’t, and a lot of resources for my use. On the other hand, having Jimmie is a crutch. There’s such a demand for him, he’s a three-time champ, he’s won 45 races or so, and you talk to a sponsor or a car owner or whatever, and it’s like, “What is Jimmie going to do for us?” 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.
There are ups and downs.
Henderson: Is it harder to have your own identity because of his success?
Johnson: It is harder. Jimmie’s Jimmie. I’m me. He’s my brother. Throughout growing up, running around our hometown, I was always “Jimmie’s brother.” I’m used to it. It doesn’t get under my skin, but I do want to make my own footsteps and not be in his. It is tough to get away from that.
Henderson: What kind of relationship do you and Jimmie have off the track?
Johnson: We have a great relationship. Jimmie supports me a lot. He knows what I’m trying to do. We don’t see each other as much as we used to – he’s in such demand, he’s all over the place.
Henderson: Do you ever look at the demands on him and think, “I never want to deal with that,” or do you want to deal with it because it means success?
Johnson: If you’re going to be a firefighter, you know you’re going to have to run into a burning house someday. If you’re going to be a racecar driver, you know you’re going to have all kinds of demands – it comes with the job. There are advantages to it: a nice motorhome, a home away from home, there’s a lot of stuff that comes with it. That’s just the way it is.
Henderson: Did you ever race against each other?
Johnson: We raced against each other in the Mickey Thompson Off-Road division in Superlites. We had one battle going in Seattle, Washington, and Jimmie’s transmission ended up breaking and I won the race – that was pretty neat. But that was really the only series. Even in the Baja 1000, they have different classes – we’d race the same races, but he was in a different class than I was.
Henderson: What moments in your career stand out the most?
Johnson: The biggest thing that comes to mind is, I struggled with asphalt racing out in California. We got the truck and had no idea what we were doing – absolutely clueless. We were used to racing in the dirt. From that, to come back here and get the late model, and my first time ever in a late model, my first time racing at Hickory, we ran second, racing Dexter Canipe Jr. for the win. I just couldn’t get around him. That’s a huge thing in my career was coming out and doing that.
I’ve won 12 races at Hickory. In 2007, we came out and won five races in a row and eight races total. The biggest thing right now though is getting into the East Series and showing up at the racetrack with a 26’ enclosed trailer and racing with Matt Kobyluck, Austin Dillon – I’m racing all those guys. We have nothing, and they’re showing up in half-million dollar setups.
Henderson: Can you talk about the Camping World East Series as a development series? Are the East and West Series more important as development series with all the Cup teams in the Nationwide Series now?
Johnson: I think it’s all a stepping stone. For sure, there’s a lot of recognition in it. The biggest thing about it is, you can race late models at Hickory, or wherever, but those officials don’t go sit at the table in NASCAR’s R&D center. The officials in the East Series are in that office with all the main people – Brett Bodine, the Pembertons – all the big names. So if they see something good, they come back, and it’s like, “Wow.”
It does create a bigger buzz in the NASCAR community besides the short tracks. I know they’re NASCAR-affiliated, but they’re not there every week. But there is a lot more recognition in the East Series. It’s an awesome series, and they do a good job promoting it and taking care of it.
Henderson: Another thing you have going on is Johnson Cooling, the cooling system that you developed. Tell us about that, and how it works.
Johnson: I just had a thought one day and started building one. You see these drivers, and they’re sitting there with a crew member holding a blue fan in the window [during practice sessions]. Well, why have somebody stand there holding a blue fan when you could have something cordless, where there’s nothing that can get run over or get pulled over off the roof, or somebody trip over it? On top of that, the crewman could be helping to change a spring or change a gear, getting parts, doing something besides standing there… so we developed this.
It’s speed-regulated, and runs off a wireless 18-Volt DeWalt battery. You can just set it on the roof, turn it on, and adjust the speed to how much air the driver wants blowing. When the battery dies, you just get another one off the pit box and put it in. We also have other tooling for the devices to where you could run a Mikita battery, or Snap-On, or any other 18-volt battery.
Jimmie uses it, Dale Earnhardt Jr. uses it, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin. We’re in the process of getting more exposure on them and getting them out there. They’re multi-purpose – you could put them under the tarp on pit road if it rains, to dry off pit road. We actually have a guy in street bikes using them. You could put them on a fire truck or use them when you get a carpet cleaned to dry the carpet. They can be used for anything. So, that’s a really good deal there.
Henderson: One thing you touched on earlier was that NASCAR isn’t just about talent anymore. So how do you establish yourself as a presence to potential sponsors? What else do you have to do to stand out besides winning races?
Johnson: You know, appearance says a lot, although I’ve got a ‘fro going on (points out hair, laughing). But I’m not seeing anybody anytime soon, so…
It’s also being fit. Being able to be in that car for three hours. You have to represent the sponsor, public speaking. There are a lot of drivers who went to college for business and public speaking. It’s just all around – looking good, and on top of that, not walking around with a big head on your shoulders – being a genuine person to everyone you meet. Treat them the way you want to be treated.
Henderson: What do you enjoy away from the track?
Johnson: Going home. Playing with the kids. There’s a lot of time lost there between running my business and racing. That’s a lot I’m missing of their childhood. We go out in the boat, take the kids on the boat and just relax. I’m an at-home person. I like to come home and relax and mess around in the garage, mow the yard.
Henderson: What’s the strangest request or question you’ve had from a fan?
Johnson: That’s a tough one. I had a guy ask me at Loudon why Jimmie is growing a beard. I had no answer for it. “Because he wants to? I don’t know.” There are a few stories – they mainly revolve around Jimmie. We’ll have these autograph sessions in the East Series and people always ask, “Are you Jimmie’s brother?” It’s like, “Yeah.” That’s the hardest thing to get away from.
Henderson: You go to the grocery store – what’s the one thing you have to come home with?
Johnson: Cheese. Pepper Cheese. I’ll pick up pepper cheese and some sweet tea. And salsa. But I’m a big pepper cheese fan.