I met seven-time Nascar champion Jimmie, and his wife Chandra, at the wedding of our mutual friend Lyle Owerko last summer. We hit it off, and a friendship developed from there — they just had an energy I wanted to be around. Jimmie is one of a handful of people I wanted to interview for my new #NoFilter podcast. Inspired by the late, great Anthony Bourdain, it will move between worlds, getting a raw and authentic perspective on each individual, whether it's a politician or a musician. In the first in the series, Jimmie discusses relationships, risk and how he's handled setbacks on his road to success.
By Danielle Snyder
Seven-time Nascar champion Jimmie Johnson. Photo by Lyle Owerko
On his childhood
"I was raised in a house with a ton of love. My parents spent every cent, I mean, our house wasn’t very nice, we were lower middle class, but we went and raced every single weekend somewhere.
"My grandparents owned a motorcycle shop, so my dad would represent the bike store at the local track and I always volunteered and built the tracks. And my mom ran the snack bar that was there, so my young years, for 10 or 12 years, that’s all we did. Saturday we’d go to the motorcycle track, parents would prep, get everything ready, we’d race on Sunday and drive back home.
"My first championship was [when I was] eight. I started racing at five — but it wasn’t like a real race, they have this cute little race where the kids come out and the parents all stand at the turns and pick them up when they fall over — and that was really my entry point, just riding at the local track."
Photo Credit Jimmie Johnson Racing
"I didn’t have great success at a young age. [I would be] at the top of my age bracket in the amateur ranks, have success in that final year, then move on [to the next age bracket] and start all over.
"When I became a professional and started racing cars, I moved quickly through divisions and was racing adult pros, but I didn’t finish that well, I wasn’t a standout – I did ok, and I did well enough to advance – but I feel like those tough times and trying to separate myself from the other young guys coming along, I learned a lot about myself and why I wanted to race and what I was about.
"I finally got my real shot in a top quality vehicle when I was 26. Now I look and see guys coming in at 18 and getting a shot. But I was much more mature and further along and when things came together for me at 26, and we lit that fuse, it took off. I won five championships in a row.
"2017 was a tough year for us, we didn’t win a few races, and so far 2018, it’s been a struggle as well. But I’ve learned more about myself during the tough times, I had a huge struggle getting to my opportunity, and then it’s been great. And people only remember me at that top level, when I’m winning all of those championships and having that success, but I’ve had a tough 18 months. And people want to say that I’m washed up — it’s crazy."
On being part of a team
"With all driver/crew chief relationships there’s a conflict there from the start, it’s a very interesting dynamic. But we’ve been together for 17 years now. We’re brothers – we fight like brothers, celebrate like brothers — but it’s been a wild journey, it really has.
"My crew chief is a lot like the head coach of a football team, they're there to push and extract everything they can out of the players. In our industry it’s very technical, but when the car is on track we cannot capture data, so I end up being the computer for the team. I have to tell them all these sensations and understand vertical load and lateral load and when I let off the gas and put on the brake, where does the load shift? What corner of the car does it go to when I turn the wheel? It’s a very interesting dynamic and that relationship takes a lot of work.
Photo Credit Jimmie Johnson Racing/Harold Hinson Photography
"I think any relationship that’s important takes time. It doesn’t matter if it’s with a spouse, a sibling, a parent, there are certain relationships — especially blood relationships — you have to work on them to make them important and meaningful."
"People only remember me at that top level, but I’ve learned more about myself during the tough times."
On Lance Armstrong
"When I first met Lance it was maybe 10 or 12 years ago at least. I didn’t want to believe [the doping scandal]. When I saw him sitting down with Oprah, I was like this can’t be true, I mean he was spilling the beans and I thought he was innocent. Through it all, he and I have had a friendship first, and that helps you see people differently.
"I’ve watched plenty of documentaries and seen so much negative press about how he treated people and what he did, and then to watch him in the last five years trying to mend those fences, or at least talk to those people, or people that he’s financially impacted negatively and write them a check... Granted, it may not have been what it cost them or their careers, but he has tried to right those wrongs.
"People change, and you know, the truth of the matter is that he was competing in an era when – and people don’t want to admit it, especially those people who govern it — but everybody was [doping]."
On married life
"[Chandra, Jimmie's wife of 14 years] hates how I drive. My comfort in proximity to other cars is way different than hers. She likes car lengths and I’m used to a few inches. But I drive all the time. You’ll find this crazy but I get motion sickness very easily if I’m not driving.
"You hope you're going to be with somebody that you're just going to continue to grow with. Through the years, having children and all that life throws at us, we just like having fun together. We joke that we annoy each other the least and that’s why it works. There’s a lot more to it than that, but when you dumb it down that’s really the secret sauce.
Jimmie with his wife of 14 years, Chandra
On being a dad
"It’s the coolest experience. I’ve always been drawn to children, even when I was a kid, they were just always interesting to me. I’m a child at heart, for sure. My youngest brother is 14 years younger than me — just watching him grow and the happiness I got being around him, I knew I would want [kids].
"I have to admit, there were a couple of fears. You meet this whole new level of love that’s just activated when you meet your child, just a whole new thing, so when we wanted to have our second, I was really concerned — can you love like that again? Is it possible? I even had to ask some of my friends that had multiple [kids]. But once Lydia was born, I just realized that your heart and your mind open up to another level.
Jimmie Johnson with daughters Genevieve and Lydia. Photo by Lyle Owerko
On taking risks
"I’ve watched people who have raced get injured, and even lost my closest friend — in 2001, he passed away at a race that I was competing at — and I have always made this conscious decision that if I was worried in the car or driving defensively, I’d stop. The offensive driver usually is just fine, it’s the defensive driver — even on public roads — the defensive driver usually has the worst injury, or the bigger part of the crash. So you have to be [aggressive], and if I stop being aggressive and see [my kids'] little faces in my head, I'll stop. Fortunately that has not happened.
On his mentor, Jeff Gordon
"Jeff Gordon is actually a partner in the car that I drive. Prior to that team starting, I had some complications with sponsorship on the team I was at, so I was looking at all these other offers but they involved leaving Chevrolet and they’d been a backer of mine since the very beginning. Jeff was in a very similar situation, he'd had to leave Ford to go to Chevrolet, and I thought man, if I get five minutes with him, he’ll have the answer. So I go to him, lay out my situation, he’s like, nah I don’t have the answer. But then he informed me that they were going to start another team and the only driver that they were speaking about was me. I didn’t even know he knew my name, let alone considering putting his own money behind the startup of my race team. He just retired two years ago, so for a long span, 15 years at least, [he's been] a friend and mentor along the way."
On meeting Obama
"Barack Obama was super cool. The first year we won the championship that took us to the White House, he had a lot of downtime, they didn’t have the schedule adjusted just right, I guess. The second year we only saw him for five minutes, he gave a speech and then he was gone, but the first year, I had 15 minutes with him. I mean, he was incredible, he just made people feel so comfortable. I just wanted to sit and have a beer with him."
Download the first episode of #NoFilter With Danielle Snyder here, and tell us what you think by rating and reviewing the podcast on iTunes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.