WASHINGTON – Despite being just 5 years old,Jimmie Johnson vividly remembers his first motorcycle – a yellow 1979 Suzuki JR50,a bike that weighs 84 pounds and is 33.9 inches tall. His father,Gary,loves the bike so much,he still keeps it in his garage.
Johnson's father bought it so his son could get a jump on the competition. The plan worked.
Johnson,32,now races stock cars for NASCAR and is considered one of the premiere drivers on the circuit. He drives the No. 48 Chevy Monte Carlo sponsored by Lowe's Home Improvement and operated by Hendrick Motorsports.
Johnson rode his vast experience in racing to back-to-back NASCAR points championships the last two seasons,winning the 2006 Nextel Cup and the 2007 Sprint Cup.
Tuesday,he came to Washington to tell his story at the National Press Club in front of 108 fans,NASCAR representatives and reporters.
Johnson timidly walked to the podium wearing a light beige suit and his shaggy brown hair,usually concealed by a helmet,exposed.
Johnson joked that hitting the wall at 200 mph was easy compared to public speaking. “The racetrack is where I grew up. It's just what my family did,” Johnson said,describing his childhood in the desert hills of El Cajon,Calif.
His grandparents owned a bike shop. Johnson naturally followed the path laid out by his family. He recalled how the sunny weather was perfect for practicing on his motorcycles. He'd ride his bike off the hills and straight into his driveway.
Johnson started racing full time for NASCAR in 2002,when he finished fifth in the points standings. In 2003 and 2004,he finished second. He stayed in the top five most of the 2005 season,and finally broke through to win the 2006 and 2007 championships.
After 18 of 36 races in 2008,Johnson is fifth in the standings.
The season hasn't been easy on the reigning NASCAR champion or any stock-car drivers. Since NASCAR introduced the new cost-efficient cars in an attempt to narrow the differences among larger,more profitable teams and smaller squads,this season has been a transition.
The new car has a larger,more aerodynamic body and will be driven in 16 of 36 races this season and might be in place for all races in 2009.
“The reason for the new car is to make the racing more competitive and help close the gap from the big teams to the small teams,” Johnson said. “The car has been difficult to adapt to and to learn,but it's the same for everyone. From NASCAR's standpoint,they don't want the cars to be too technically advanced. They want small teams to be able to come in and adjust.”
Johnson said he hopes to adjust quickly. After all,Hendrick also operates cars for Jeff Gordon and NASCAR's golden boy,Dale Earnhardt Jr. With the three drivers' competitive natures,Johnson has no room for error. Earnhardt is second in the points standings this season while Gordon is right on Johnson's tail in the sixth spot.
“We'll get out of the cars at times really mad at one another,and we'll get really mad on the track at one another,” Johnson said. “But there is this imaginary line out there that you don't cross when you have respect for someone,and that's what keeps it all working for us as a team.”
Off the track,he and his wife,Chandra,run the Jimmie Johnson Foundation,which helps children,families and communities in need throughout the United States pursue their dreams.
This year the foundation will host its second annual golf tournament in San Diego to raise money for Habitat for Humanity,a project that's personal to Johnson. Growing up in Southern California,an area often hit by wildfires,he saw houses burn down. The golf tournament will fund housing projects in areas devastated by wildfires. Johnson said he plans to have similar projects in his wife's hometown,Muskogee, Okla.