Jimmie Johnson's Road to American Hero
With Jimmie Johnson becoming the first racer in history to win four consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championships on Sunday, FanHouse motorsports writer Holly Cain took a trip to his hometown outside San Diego last week. This is the first of a two-part series looking at the unlikely start for a stock car great.
EL CAJON, Calif. -- The neighborhood sits just beyond a miniature horse farm, up Crest Mountain in unincorporated El Cajon, where dusty pick-up trucks buzz by impatiently, dirt bikes strapped in their truck beds.
A convenience store serves as grocer and shares space with Lenardo Pizzeria -- a five-table local's favorite. A block away Nancy Jane County Park -- about half the size of a football field -- is surrounded randomly by brand new, half-million dollar homes and decades-old tiny block cottages with overgrown weeds and old cars parked in what would be a lawn, except it's all dirt.
This is a blue-collar community of four-wheelers, off-road trucks and dirt bikes only 20 minutes -- but a world away -- from the Mercedes Benz's and BMW's crowding San Diego proper.
A couple houses up an incline from the park, your eyes are drawn to an impeccably manicured corner lot where next to the three pick-ups in the driveway there is a 20-foot flagpole carrying a huge American flag. Under it, an equally large flag flies the blue No. 48 and Lowe's Home Improvement store logo.
This modest community of Crest -- 30 minutes north of the Mexican border -- is where Jimmie Johnson grew up -- an unlikely launching point for someone who on Sunday in Homestead, Fla., became the first person in good ol' NASCAR history to claim four consecutive Sprint Cup championships.
To fully appreciate how far Johnson has come, it helps to grasp where he started.
"The best way I'd describe this area is to say it's a place where everything has been earned and worked for,'' said Jake Gaeir, an assistant principal at Granite Hills High School, from where Johnson, a former varsity water polo player, diver and swimmer, graduated in 1993.
It's become a bit of NASCAR folklore that the humble Johnson once lived in a trailer park. And his background is modest, but the reality is Crest is more like a neighborhood of parked trailers.
For some of the approximately 1,000 people that live here, the trailers are recreational -- mobile weekend homes for the hard-working 9-to-5ers. For many, they were forced sanctuaries. Some of Johnson's former neighbors had to live in trailers while their charred homes were rebuilt.
In 2003, Nancy Jane Park was a command post during a particularly cruel Southern California wildfire season that claimed more than 200 homes in the area.
Flames came within yards of burning down Johnson's childhood home. And without fanfare he acted as any reasonable, thoughtful person with great resources would: he immediately sent help to his neighbors.
Johnson donated money and enlisted the help of his race team sponsor Lowe's. Three years ago, Johnson donated his entire winner's paycheck from a victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway to the fire relief fund. And since then, the Jimmie Johnson Foundation has partnered with Habitat for Humanity in building four completely new homes for families displaced in the fires.
The resulting disparity in the community's homes is a vivid result of those forced to build new -- and a vivid reminder of how one of their own generously and without hesitation gave back.
"Jimmie Johnson is something, you know,'' said Lenardo Pizzeria owner who goes simply by "Sam," "Everyone here is a friend of Jimmie Johnson's because everyone knows he has a good heart.''
It's a typical response from people everywhere you roam in El Cajon. Lunchroom diners at the city's Downtown Cafe, who admittedly might not follow NASCAR, are still quick to celebrate their hometown kid.
And yet elsewhere Johnson suffers from a uniquely NASCAR disease. Despite proving himself a winner on the track -- 47 Sprint Cup victories -- and good guy off it, many of the sport's fans are still slow to give him his due. Those that say he's too polished, too polite, too fortunate, might find they have more in common with Johnson than they realize.
Mark Martin's father owned a large trucking company; Johnson's father drove a large truck.
Jeff Gordon's stepfather moved the family from Northern California to Indiana just so Gordon could meet an age requirement to race. Johnson's father moved his sons -- Jimmie and two younger brothers -- into the desert when he delivered and serviced tires for BF Goodrich in the Baja 1000.
If they gave Johnson a chance, even those hard-core, gotta win-me-over fans might discover someone who is simply genuine and happy and genuinely happy. Because at 34 years old and now having achieved sports history, he has already far exceeded any of his own expectations.
And he's making sure to enjoy the ride - no matter how bumpy or atypical it was out of the gates.
"If even five years ago you stood back and said there would be a driver from San Diego who used to race off-road trucks and he's going to be one of the biggest champions in NASCAR, you would have had people laugh in your face,'' said National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) drag racer Ron Capps, a friend of Johnson's who has lived in the area for decades.
"To come where he's come from and not from a lot a money, it's even more impressive.
"Think about it, the NASCAR world has always been the good ol' boy network and here's a guy rewriting its history. Basically, he's infiltrated that network without having a name like Petty or Earnhardt or Wood brothers.
"You'd think the fans ought to feel lucky they have him as a champion. He's such a great guy, so down to earth. Here's someone who has reason to have become a jerk or an ego monster and everyone that knows him will tell you he hasn't changed one bit with all the success.''
That's greatly due to the fact that Johnson wasn't raised that way. And he's earned every smile he offers, worked hard for each success in the most competitive era his sport has ever seen.
Hendrick Motorsports has created an organizational dynasty and Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, is regarded as a strategical guru, but Johnson's still the guy driving the car. How can you argue with four wins in nine Chase races this year and a championship rate that climbed to 50 percent -- four titles in his eight-year Cup career -- on Sunday.
"People don't realize how hard he worked, how much he wants it,'' his dad, Gary Johnson, said. "People think he was given things. Heck, we had one bathroom in our house in Crest. I remember at one time I had four motorcycles parked in the master bedroom with my alarm clock resting on top of one.
"We could have had a big fancy house, but we chose to spend money on things that we could do as a family."
After Johnson won his first Cup championship in 2006, Granite Hills High Principal Georgette Torres invited him to a school assembly where his car number 48 was retired from all Eagle sports teams uniforms and Johnson was inducted into the school's Athletic Hall of Fame.
Torres once coordinated Johnson's independent studies while he raced as a teenager and is an "original" member of the Jimmie Johnson Fan Club from the early 1990s.
"Back then, it was really more like fund-raising,'' Torres tells with a wide smile. "We were raising money so he could go race in the desert.''
When Johnson -- voted a member of the 1993 Homecoming Court -- came back to address the almost 3,000 students gathered at the school's football stadium, he entered the track driving his famous No. 48 Chevrolet and couldn't resist finishing off the entrance with a loud, smoke-filled burnout that brought the cheering stadium crowd of teenagers to its feet.
"When he climbed out of the car, he gave me that same look I remember, that smile, and said, 'Sorry Miss Torres, but I've always wanted to do that,'' Torres recalled, obviously still amused.
"And all I could do was smile and say, 'It's okay, Jimmie.'
"He's such a positive role model and with today's athletes and superstars that's not always the case. With Jimmie, it's always the case.
"He's just genuinely a good kid. And we're proud of him here in El Cajon.''
(Part Two: See "Jimmie Johnson: Toast of the Coast" -- his off-road to NASCAR)