Fast Take Story by Dwight Drum
Web work by Larsen & Drum Images by Drum
Riding with 'Gentleman' Jimmie
Jimmie Johnson is known for his gentleman image and steady character, but does this same person win three NASCAR champions in a row by being overly gentle? With or without a beard Jimmie Johnson has genuinely pleasant personality. But does his gentleman character accompany him every time he jumps into a car and slides on helmet?
When the helmet goes on Johnson explains it like so -- "There is an old saying that before you put your helmet on, you take your brain off,” Johnson said as he laughed. “From when I was a kid on a motorcycle, I've always been kind of quiet and I certainly like to have fun, but my element has really been with the helmet on -- that's my space, that's what I'm good at, that's what I do, that's what I look forward to. We all have that thing that we're good at -- for me, it's when that helmet goes on. That's my little piece of the world and I enjoy it."
So does his personality change? Not likely. It’s more like his fierce desire to win is balanced by a fine work ethic and a dedicated team backing him on every turn of the wheel.
Would a fan expect a ride-along with Johnson to be a gentle happening from a gentleman champion? Before we jump into a car with him let’s examine ride-along comments from other champions.
When Jeff Gordon was asked if fans really understand what it’s like to race a stock car he was swift to comment.
“Until you really push it hard to its limits, it’s hard to understand what the drivers are going through,” Gordon said. “But I always love getting the opportunity to see the media or fans and sponsors getting the chance to ride or drive a race car because they always come out of it with a smile on their face and a greater appreciation for what we do.”
When Dale Jarrett was asked if he could tell whether fans enjoy or are scared by the many ride-alongs he has participated in, he laughed.
“There’s no doubt,” Jarrett said. “It’s easy to tell the ones that are really enjoying it. There are some that their eyes are literally wide open. They are not sure what’s going to happen. Those are the ones that are fun. You don’t want to scare anybody in doing it. You want them to appreciate what’s happening. I’ve had ones that you could have hit the wall and they wouldn’t have cared. They were looking for something exciting to happen. Others are sitting there and realizing that this is a ride of a lifetime for them.”
Jarrett was also quick to point the reality of riding with a skilled race car driver.
“What you have to understand if something happens,” Jarrett continued. “I was doing one at Rockingham years ago and actually blew an engine going into turn three there. I got into oil and we were spinning. The guy thought that I was doing that on purpose. Whenever that happens we have no control either. If you blow a tire it doesn’t matter how good we are.”
So a ride in a 2010 Chevrolet Camaro with 426 horse power, stick shift with enhanced suspension should be a smooth but powerful experience. It surely is that right out of a showroom onto local highways but how about on high banks and bumpy surfaces at the hollowed track known worldwide as Daytona.
(Historic note: When they built the Daytona International Speedway track the height and degree of banking was determined by how high they could pile the sand without it sliding back to the ground via gravity)
When this media guy got into the back seat of a new Camaro with Jimmie Johnson at the wheel after watching a dozen others do the same thing I expected a fast 120 mph ride like a few I’ve had in pace cars before.
I didn’t expect that Johnson would roar down pit road and utilize his Grand Am Rolex 24 knowledge to slide the accelerating two door sporty car left and right on road course lanes before steering for the 2.5 mile tri-oval. With only a camera to hang on to while snapping images my body shifted back and forth with the attacking G-forces.
Once on the legendary track and through the corners Johnson pushed the pedal into straight-aways reaching speeds of 160 mph. Watching the steep angles come at the windshield with that momentum created memorable visual effects.
Only later did I remember interviewing many drivers who mentioned that Daytona was a track where the pedal can go to the floor and stay there with little need for braking. I did remind myself a few times that we were speeding around a legendary track with one of the very best race car drivers in the world. Usually that happened when he turned off the track for more road course fun while completing two full laps.
“Gentleman Jimmie” was anything but gentle.
When asked later about the many ride-alongs he has done and how he tells whether fans are thrilled or scared or both Johnson went graphic.
“You can usually tell when you shake someone’s hand after the experience. If their palms are sweaty, if you did a good job or not and you did scare them. The other day in that Camaro there were a lot of reasons to have sweaty palms. That’s a fast, fast car and I think we all had a lot of fun.”
When I mentioned it was great fun that surely scared me, the gentleman smiled.
“Good. Mission accomplished.”
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