There are no lasts in American folklore. New times bring new heroes. And the Newest American Hero wears a khaki suit in a dark room under a bright spotlight. The smell of banquet steak lingers in the air. Jimmie Johnson hates wearing suits, of course. When this luncheon ends, he will not wait 10 minutes to tear the suit off. There's nothing interesting or strange about that. Jimmie Johnson drives race cars. Race car drivers do not like wearing suits that can catch fire.
His 30-waist pants have creases that could cut through beer cans. He does not sweat under the lights. Every hair stays in place. The Newest American Hero looks like a young entrepreneur. He might be about to make an offer on your company.
"I feel lucky every day," Jimmie Johnson says. His clear voice fills the room; he has used a microphone before. His voice carries no detectable accent other than American. Later he will tell you that only sharks scare him more than talking in front of people, but there is no way the man talking is scared. He looks not merely confident; he looks and sounds as though he was born in a suit and spoke his first words at an awards banquet.
"I'm just so fortunate," he says, and then he casually mentions his sponsor (Lowe's, of course) and his racing team, led by crew chief Chad Knaus ("they are incredible"), and his wife, Chani ("my best friend"). There is applause, a short standing ovation.
That's when Junior Seau takes the stage. This is his fund-raiser -- the Junior Seau Foundation Teammates Luncheon, in San Diego in early October -- and the six-time All-Pro linebacker attacks it with the same ferocity with which he used to attack running backs for the Chargers. Junior bullies people in the crowd to raise their bids on auction items. Junior pokes fun at his mother for not exercising more and at his father for having droned on too long during the invocation. Nobody is out of his reach. Junior Seau is a runaway train, and now he looks over Jimmie Johnson, measures him.
"I don't get you, man," Junior shouts. "You're up here, and you're all humble and meek and stuff. And then you get on the racetrack, and you're
Jimmie Johnson looks at Junior Seau awkwardly and shrugs his shoulders.
"That's what I'm talking about," Junior Seau shouts even louder. "WHAT'S WITH YOU, MAN?"
Jimmie Johnson has won 40 Cup races over the last six years, more than have been won by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin. Combined. Also more than Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon combined. As Gordon says, "No one is even close." Or as Martin says, "He's Superman." And it grows more apparent, year after year, victory after victory, championship after championship, that no one who has climbed into a stock car -- not the good ol' boys or the moonshiners, not the intimidators or the kings, not the fireballs or the silver foxes or the men named Cale -- has ever driven it better than Jimmie Johnson.
Isn't this the American Dream come to life? Well, isn't it? Poor kid makes good. Thrill-seeker testing the limits. Jimmie Johnson can't help but see it that way. And still: the Vanilla Thing. He knows he bores people. He hears the boos that have followed him in his career. He catches the groans from the racing writers when he walks into the pressroom. He could not help but notice that before the season began, those racing writers -- a bit too enthusiastically, perhaps -- named Carl Edwards the favorite to win the championship this year. Carl Edwards? Johnson had won three in a row. How could he not be the favorite? But he knows: It's the Vanilla Thing.
"Go stand next to your refrigerator, it's more quotable than Jimmie Johnson." That was a line in what was actually a positive story in
"The dude is more consistent than Wonder Bread -- and about as colorful." That was the review in the
"It's hard to find NASCAR fans who admit they love Jimmie Johnson." That was the lead for a story in the
"If Jimmie would just get out of the race car and just slap someone one time," NASCAR pitchman and track owner Bruton Smith announced, "that would help a lot."
Johnson says he won't think about the Vanilla Thing anymore -- he can't think about it, he has races to win -- but he can't quite let it go, either. People seem mad at him because he's not . . . well, what? He's not Junior Johnson, Wolfe's Last American Hero, the moonshiner driving the dirt roads through the night like a demon. He's not Dale Earnhardt Sr., the man in black, his hard look frozen in other drivers' rearview mirrors, the look that said, "Get out of my way, or I'll run you into a wall." He's not Cale Yarborough, the only other man who's won three straight Cup championships, Cale, who wrestled alligators and boxed in the Golden Gloves and took on both the Allison brothers in a brawl in the infield at Daytona. He's not Richard Petty, the King, magnanimous, irrepressible, 200 victories, always in his cowboy hat and sunglasses, speaking in that friendly Southern accent that never left Level Cross, N.C.
No, he's plain old Jimmie Johnson, adrift in a sea of similarly named sportsmen -- the brash football coach who led the Cowboys to dominance (Jimmy Johnson), the Hall of Fame cornerback (Jimmy Johnson), the Northwestern quarterback who made the College Football Hall of Fame (Jimmy Johnson), the NFL tight end (Jimmie Johnson), the late defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles (Jim Johnson), the relief pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles (Jim Johnson) and the onetime East Carolina football coach (Jim Johnson), not to mention a couple of hockey players named Jim Johnson.
"Is Peyton Manning that interesting?" Johnson asks quietly. "Tom Brady? Derek Jeter? How about Tiger Woods? I guess that's what I don't get about the Vanilla Thing. I guess I've always tried to do the right thing. I thought that's what people wanted."
He shakes his head. It doesn't matter. He has plenty of fans -- "I'm anywhere from second to fifth in popularity, according to our numbers," he says -- and, anyway, what difference does it make? He has a great sponsor (Lowe's, of course) and a great team ("Those guys work so hard,") and a great wife ("I couldn't do it without Chani"). And he's winning. There's nothing in the world like winning.
Jimmie Johnson drives a golf cart from hole to hole. He's at the Jimmie Johnson Foundation golf tournament in Del Mar, Calif., early last month, and he must mingle. This means one thing: More or less every person he sees will ask him if he plans to surf on top of the cart.
"Goin' surfing, Jimmie?" one golfer asks.
"Watch out for big waves," says another.
"Better get your helmet," says a third.
Johnson smiles each time someone says it, as if it's brand new. Three years ago, only a few days after he won his first Cup championship, he was horsing around at a celebrity golf tournament. He decided (and he readily admits that his decision-making skills might have been slightly impaired by an adult beverage or two) that it would be fun to surf on top of a moving golf cart. This led to him falling off, busting his lip and breaking his wrist. This led to him feeling foolish. This led to him telling people that he was inside the cart when he fell. And that led to his spokesperson, Kristine Curley, phoning him and saying, "Jimmie, the Associated Press called. Were you actually on top of the cart when you fell off?"
He copped to the crime. Word went out. Jimmie Johnson had a few moments as America's sporting goofball.
"I was embarrassed when it happened," he says, "because I thought I had to be perfect. It took me a while to realize, Hey, I can't be perfect. I'm really not embarrassed by it now. It was stupid. I do a lot of stupid stuff. I really don't mind people talking about it. The thing that amazes me is how many people still talk about it."
Maybe people still talk about it because it's the one funny thing they know about him, the one bit of humanity and imperfection they cling to in Jimmie Johnson's windstorm of sponsor-speak ("Lowe's has just treated me so well") and team ("Chad and the guys are amazing") and wife ("I couldn't do any of this without Chani").
"I'm just not good at telling stories," Jimmie says, "and I'm terrible at telling jokes." Only then he tells some stories and a couple of jokes. And, of course, he's as good at that as he is at wearing suits and speaking in front of crowds. Did you know Jimmie Johnson gets carsick when he's not driving? He has suffered from chronic motion sickness his whole life. He gets sick on boats and on merry-go-rounds, and there have been many times when he was being driven somewhere and had to ask the driver to pull over so he could throw up out the window.
That's funny: The world's greatest stock car driver gets carsick. "Really?" Johnson asks. He tells about the time in Charlotte (where he and Chani live year-round) when he ran out of gas on the way to the airport, and people angrily honked their horns and glared as he stood helplessly on the side of the highway, and not one person recognized him and shouted out the window, "Hey, it's harder without a pit crew, isn't it?" He talks about the safari he went on in South Africa, and the crazy diet he just finished (he had to wake up every three hours to take a protein shake), and how he really wants to jump out of a plane but Chani has told him, "You go ahead, but I won't be here when you hit the ground."
He talks about his more fanciful dreams. He wants to start his own ice cream brand. He already has the name of the first flavor -- Jimmie Johnson's Nuts & Bolts. ("The only problem," he says, "is I don't really like nuts in my ice cream.") He wants to create a new kind of racing video game. ("I have a lot of really cool ideas," he says.) He and Chani want to own their own vineyard. ("I wouldn't want to just buy the grapes to make wine. What's the point of that?") He thinks about writing a book, but it would have to be a series of short stories because he reads in bursts. It's no wonder that people who know Jimmie Johnson cannot understand the public persona, and the public knows nothing about this Jimmie Johnson.
"You have to understand something about racing," says Ivan (Ironman) Stewart, one of the legends of off-road racing and another hero of Jimmie Johnson's. "Racing people can talk to other racing people. We know what it's like out there. We know the feeling of being in a race, the way it looks, the way it sounds, the way it smells. Jimmie is a racing guy."
A racing guy. People can't help but wonder, What's left for him to conquer? Once you've won your fourth straight championship, is it that important to win a fifth? A sixth? At some point does it all lose its thrill?
"Jimmie just likes to go fast," Rick Johnson says. "That's what drives him. That will never get boring for him."
Jimmie Johnson nods. "I know this will sound like a cliché, but there's always another challenge," he says. In 2008, when the undefeated New England Patriots played his hometown Chargers, Johnson was asked which team he wanted to win. "The Patriots," he said. Later, his publicist asked why he would say that. Johnson shrugged.
"Perfection," he said. "I always root for perfection."
Jimmie Johnson sits in the
"Name a driver," he says. "Go ahead. Name any driver."
"Mark will be the guy on the bottom of the racetrack grinding it out. When he comes on you, you just let him go past because you have so much respect for how hard he works and how much he will grind it out."
He is engaged now. Friends know there are times when you have to leave Johnson alone, when he is beating himself up for a mistake or trying to figure out what went wrong or just crawling into himself. But now he's in the moment. He's racing.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"Junior, if he gets a chance, will pass you up on the outside. That's what he wants to do. He wants to pass you on the outside."
Johnson closes his eyes now. He's visualizing. He spends hours visualizing the track, the line he's on, the drivers around him. He never misses a chance to test the car. He never leaves an empty moment. "He will be in bed just staring into space," Chani says, "and I'll say, 'What are you doing?' And he will say, 'Driving laps.' "
"Oh, man. Jeff will always put you in a position where you have to make a decision. That's what he's so good at. He's so calculating, and he's going to put you in a position where you have to decide what to do."
His voice is getting louder, more excited. The 38-year-old Gordon is Johnson's mentor. At a drivers' meeting years ago Johnson, who was racing in the Busch Series, approached Gordon to ask for advice. They hit it off. Before long, team owner Rick Hendrick wanted to add another driver, and Gordon pushed hard for Johnson. And since then Johnson has spent time watching Gordon, studying him, copying him, asking him for advice (and, inevitably, beating him on the track). He loves Jeff Gordon. And he loves beating him.
"Kyle is undependable. You can't be entirely sure what he's going to do. He's really aggressive. He's going to put pressure on you."
He shrugs. People have many opinions as to why he's so good at driving. Some say it's because of the loyalty he inspires in his team. Some say it's because of the preternatural calm he displays no matter the situation. "I just think he works at it all the time," Chani says. "He's so hard on himself, and he just thinks all the time about how to get better."
"Aw," Jimmie Johnson says as he walks to the stage, "I'm easy to figure out."