NASCAR superstar Jimmie Johnson already has five consecutive Sprint Cup Series victories under his racing suit. But No. 48 has his sights set on even more — both on and off the track.The term trading paint is fairly common in NASCAR circles. IT refers to one driver’s nudging another with his car, thereby sharing pigments. In recent years, most of the paint that has been taken off Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 car has been taken from his rear bumper, because he’s usually out in front.
Johnson has won the sport’s Sprint Cup Series an unprecedented five straight times, and he’s gunning for a sixth win in November. But the 35-year-old native of El Cajon, Calif., who lives with his wife, Chandra, and young daughter Genevieve in Charlotte, N.C., is about more than just left turns around an oval track. When he’s not racing, he’s deeply involved in the Jimmie Johnson Foundation — which raises money for several charities — and with various off-the-track business ventures, including a new video game, Jimmie Johnson’s Anything with an Engine. Forbes recently named him the most influential athlete in all of sports.
Johnson zooms by at blurring speeds, but he slammed on the brakes long enough to have a chat with American Way about NASCAR, family and regular pit stops at the White House.
American Way: If you’ll forgive the pun, what drove you into racing?
Jimmie Johnson: For me, I just grew up around racing as a kid. My grandparents owned a motorcycle shop in Southern California. I grew up around motorcycles and started riding as a hobby. I realized it was fun to race and fun to compete. So it all started there.
AW: What sets a great driver apart?
JJ: At this level, it all boils down to communication. Every driver at this level has been a champion before and has had great success throughout his career. At this point, it’s a matter of how well you feel in the race car and describing that to your team. I find that to be the most challenging thing.
JJ: It’s a little of both. I felt like it was much more dangerous racing motocross as a kid. We’re in pretty safe vehicles, and our sport has worked very hard to make it as safe as it is. There are head-neck devices that we use and special seats inside the cars. I feel like we’re much safer today than we’ve ever been. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t enter my mind. There was a rash of five drivers killed in a 12-month period, with Dale Earnhardt being the final one (at the 2001 Daytona 500). I was concerned. We knew as a sport it was something that we had to get to the bottom of. We understand the dynamics of a wreck more now, and we’ve been able to dramatically decrease the chances of fatalities.