As a pit reporter for NASCAR, I often find myself trying to track down drivers after the races for comment. Sometimes they want to talk, sometimes they clearly do not.
A couple years ago, I was trying to get a comment from Jimmie Johnson after a race in which he finished poorly, so I followed him to the drivers' lot, and he turned around and denied the interview. I was frustrated, but what happened the next weekend, shocked me. I felt a tap on the shoulder as I was walking through the garage doing research. I turned around and it was Jimmie Johnson. He had stopped me to personally apologize for walking off the week before.
It was classy and unexpected and something that I think gives great insight into the character behind the 4 time NASCAR champion.
I stopped by Hendrick Motorsports while in Charlotte and was able to get some time with Johnson to do a "Lunch with Lindsay" interview.
As I pulled up to the compound in the morning, what struck me immediately was the size of the campus Hendrick operates on. Large buildings house the different teams' shops and they’ve got the large "48," "24," "88" and "5" on the sides of the buildings.
Jimmie's office is more like what you would expect of an executive office in New York City or L.A. It's adorned with photos of his team, his wife, a large Jack Johnson poster on the wall. I noticed a book Duke's Coach K had sent him on Jimmie's desk. He told me the coach had sent it personally but he hadn't seen it yet because he rarely spends time in his office.
Everything about the professional setup of his office goes along with the impression I think a lot of NASCAR fans have of Jimmie the driver. He seems squeaky clean and tempered to some (not very fiery and, as indicated by his four consecutive championships, a bit predictable) but there's much more to driver 48.
The first thing he asked me when he came in was if I wanted to try on one of his championship belts – pretty funny stuff. There were a lot of things I learned about him that I couldn't fit in the piece. Here are a few:
- He is very humbled by the fact that he is the first NASCAR driver to be named AP athlete of the year. It means the world to him to have reached the level of respect of the legends of the sport.
- He think that “Yes, NASCAR drivers are athletes,” in other sports, there are those more fit and those less fit, same in NASCAR
- He can run 5 miles in 35 minutes and he’s working on getting faster.
- He has a "fat gene," as he told me. That's why he’s gone on a recent health kick
- He has no fear that "fatherhood" will slow him down. In fact, he could get even better like he did when he got married.
His crew chief, Chad Knaus, happened to walk by while we were talking about him, so he popped back in to chat briefly. Chad is a meticulous surgeon of racecars. He is very focused and organized, and I think Jimmie for the past four years has been a key piece of the perfect storm that definitely relies heavily on Chad’s direction. People wonder if Jimmie Johnson’s success will hurt the sport because no one can compete. He's already won two races this year, and I don't see his team dropping off, but I do see other teams rising to different levels this season.
The biggest thing I learned from my time that afternoon was that Jimmie Johnson is a much more "normal, engaging" guy than what his success makes you believe. He's funny and he's the kind of guy anyone would want to have a beer with, just not necessarily his competition.