From motorcycle racing to current NASCAR success, Jimmie Johnson has had father's backing.
By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 15, 2002
HOMESTEAD -- Chasing his son's racing dreams down the nation's highways, Gary Johnson logged nearly 500,000 miles behind the wheel of a white 1977 van.
Another year, another engine.
He drove that van from the family's home outside San Diego to races in Las Vegas, northern California, Oklahoma and Tennessee. The back was converted to a bed where the family of four slept, enduring hot summer nights without air conditioning. A trailer hitched to the back carried little Jimmie's racing motorcycle.
"In five years of racing, we put four engines and four transmissions in it," Gary said. "We would just completely wear it out, completely rebuild it and go another year. We did a lot of traveling."
They still do.
This weekend, Jimmie will put the finishing touches on a most remarkable rookie season in Winston Cup. The stage is more grand and the vehicle more plush, but Gary still is chasing his son's dreams down the highway, piloting the motor coach Jimmie calls home on race weekends.
It sleeps four, has a kitchen, a bathroom and satellite television. On the way to Homestead-Miami Speedway, the odometer turned 20,000 miles.
"NASCAR is so big and a lot of attention is paid to it, but inside the garage and motor home lot, it's the same stuff we've always done," said Jimmie, 27. "You don't really have a chance to get caught up in anything. We're just going to the racetrack like we did when we were younger and having fun."
Gary, 50, also plays an integral role in the No. 48 Chevrolet team, spotting for Jimmie during practice sessions and working behind the pit road wall during races. His son is a big star now, but a father's instinct to provide never fades.
"I feel more part of it that way, spotting on Friday and Saturday and catching tires on Sunday," Gary said. "After all the years of working on his motorcycles and off-road cars for him, it definitely makes me feel more like I am part of it still. I like that."
Jimmie and fellow rookie Ryan Newman have taken NASCAR by storm with a combined four victories and eight poles. Jimmie's three wins match Tony Stewart's rookie record from 1999. A championship contender until two weeks ago, Jimmie was the first rookie to lead the standings. He trails third-place Kurt Busch by eight points going into Sunday's Ford 400.
"It's been incredible, more than we ever expected," Gary said. "We thought, "Qualify top 15, run top 15.' I knew he was a good driver, but we didn't plan on being so successful so early. It's been a dream season, to me."
Jimmie grew up racing motorcycles and off-road trucks, the entire family hitting the road on weekends -- Dad, Mom and younger brother Jarit. Jimmie moved to North Carolina to pursue stock cars, and when he landed a Busch Grand National ride, the Johnson family loaded up the van -- yes, the same van -- and moved to Charlotte. Gary drove the Herzog Motorsports transporter.
When Jimmie was hired to drive the No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, he asked his father to drive his motor coach. Gary jumped at the chance.
"I'm very surprised he wants to travel in that big thing down the road, but he doesn't want to see anybody take advantage of me," Jimmie said. "He treats that coach like it's his baby and looks out for me. He does it to be around me. He's not only here and supporting me in a fatherly role, but he has responsibilities that the team counts on, so he's happy in a lot of ways to be here."
Still, driving a motor coach is not the most glamorous job in NASCAR. To give Jimmie space, Gary sleeps at a nearby hotel. And while Jimmie flies home on a private plane hours after the race, Gary usually drives straight to the next track. This summer, Gary was home with his wife and 13-year-old son, Jessie, for just five days. Next year, he might fly to some of the races, or take a few weekends off.
But that's hard, too.
"I did it last weekend," said Gary, who did not make the cross-country trip to Phoenix. "I hated it. I haven't had any weekends off, so it was nice to stay home, but Saturday I wished I was there. You're watching on television, and they never show who you want to watch."
As for the old van, Gary said it could use a fresh coat of paint before it disintegrates from all the rust. Yes, all those years and engines later, Gary still has the van.
"It's not worth nothin', but it's got so many memories in it I hate to get rid of it," he said. "I remember we broke down one time outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, and towed it to a junk yard. We fixed it in the junkyard parking lot and kept going."
Down the highway.