Should you happen to hear what sounds like a car doing burnouts in the distance, there’s a good chance Jimmie Johnson is in town. Ask anyone who attended last summer’s Fourth of July parade in Aspen what made the crowd cheer the loudest, and they will say it was when seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson did a few burnouts in his No. 48 Chevy SS down Cooper Street.
Having chosen this mountain town as his family’s second home, Aspen has embraced Johnson as much as Johnson has embraced Aspen.
I caught up with Jimmie before a critical race weekend, but you would never know it. His nerves appeared as calm as they come, and his demeanor was incredibly lighthearted. We talked race-car driving, his career, family, and of course Aspen. All I can say is Aspen is damn lucky to have such a genuine family guy to call our own.
Risa Feldman: I don’t know a hell of a lot about NASCAR, but what was it about stock-car racing that hooked you, rather than GT or Indy racing?
Jimmie Johnson: Well, I grew up in southern California and IndyCar was really on my radar. It’s what I kind of aspired to do. I dreamt of racing in the Indy 500. I had a lot of different off-road racing heroes. I was in the off-road industry and kind of cutting my teeth there. I watched guys like Rick Mears, Roger Mears, Robby Gordon, all progress into IndyCar, so it seemed like a very natural progression for me. As my time came and my involvement with Chevrolet, they were pulling out of IndyCar racing and supporting the program there. They said, “If you want a future in motorsports, you need to move to North Carolina and look at NASCAR.” A week later I had a one-way ticket to North Carolina!
RF: So do you like road racing as much as NASCAR?
JJ: I do. Road racing is kind of where I started with my off-road stadium racing and also the off-road desert racing I did. On the asphalt, I’m pretty limited with road racing experience. I got into NASCAR really early and have been going in circles more than I have on roads. I enjoy the challenge, really, I really do, but I just have more experience going in circles than anything else right now.
RF: Do you recall the first time in your career you thought to yourself, “Wow, I made it”?
JJ: There were a couple different moments along the way where I do. Let’s see, in May of ’95, I was very convinced that if I joined a certain team, I could make a career out of racing, and I was still racing off-road trucks back then. I just felt like if I could join the Herzog’s [team]—which was the team that drew me within off-road truck racing, and then helped me bridge the gap to asphalt stock car, and then actually had me in their vehicles when I was spotted by Hendrick Motorsports. So I had probably a six- to seven-year stint with them, but I knew their vision and where they wanted to go. I knew if I could drive for them, I would have a career in racing. Then once I actually won, I think my second championship, many years later, that’s when I finally took a deep breath and relaxed and was like, “Okay, I made it.” Once I had two championships, I really calmed down and was much more comfortable in my own shoes, to be quite honest.
RF: There’s a lot of skilled drivers out there; what do you think it is that you have that has made you so successful?
JJ: I would have to say my journey was much different than a lot of guys. I didn’t get my start at the highest level until I was twenty-five and then turned twenty-six that year. When you look around how young a lot of these guys are coming in, I don’t even know if some the guys I’m racing with on Sundays are even in their twenties yet! For me, it was a long journey and there were a lot of difficult forks in the road. I was slow to progress compared to people that I was racing against. Through that journey, I learned a lot about myself and why I was racing. Then, when the right opportunity came along for me, I think I was just much more mature and certainly older and ready for the challenges of the driving. I also feel that inside the car itself, my upbringing on the dirt, you really have to make a lot of compromises on the asphalt. When I started, guys were really hyper-specific about a certain way their car had to drive. I felt like with all the different tracks we race on and the variables that are thrown at us, ability to compromise and just deal with things, well, it all came from my dirt racing—that really played a big role in my success.
RF: Do you have any pre-race-day or race-day superstitions or rituals?
JJ: I’ve been racing since I was five and believe me, I have had many superstitions along the way, and none of them have been consistent or have done a damn thing.
RF: Have to ask, what do you where under the jumpsuit? Did that just sound like I was asking boxers or briefs?
JJ: Ha! Well, neither, at least not while racing. Under the jumpsuit, it’s a lot like your base layer for skiing or boarding, but it’s a fire-resistant under layer that you wear. In general, NASCAR specifies that you need two minutes worth of burn time, and so each layer of clothing has a thirty-second burn rating so the fire suit is three layers thick. Then, I have my Nomex underwear layer as well. That’s my vast little chunk of thirty seconds.
RF: Let’s talk Aspen. What made you choose Aspen over other mountain towns?
JJ: Well, my wife and I, when we first started dating, we skied a lot of areas in Colorado. I grew up skiing mainly in Utah. There are so many pieces to why Aspen, but I have to say that the friendships that I’ve built in town kept us coming back. We came for a lot of winters, and we heard so much about the summers, and then maybe eight or ten years ago we spent our first summer, and we’ve spent every summer there since.
RF: Everyone always asks which is favored, summer or winter? For you?
JJ: I would say from a consistency standpoint, the summer’s probably better, but if you catch the right week or two when it’s dumping, then … hard to make that call. I spent months here this winter, and I caught a lot of stretches with no one on the mountain. It just snowed day after day. Man, I’ve had dreams of being a ski bum and finally did it. I was so proud of myself.
RF: Good for you. So the ladies in your life—your wife, Chandra, and two girls, Lydia and Genevieve—boarders or skiers?
JJ: The girls have both been on skis since about seventeen months, in the Powder Pandas program at Buttermilk. They’re starting to ask questions about a board, but we’re like, let’s wait, for whatever reason, until they are ten. We’re at least using that to our benefit right now to wait until they’re ten. When I met my wife and we were dating, she was a boarder, and I grew up skiing, so I put on a board and learned with her and ended up proficient on the board. Once we had kids, we knew we needed to get back on skis and kind of ski with them and help them, so for probably seven years now I’ve been back on skis.
RF: Is there a favorite trail you have for hiking, biking, or skiing?
JJ: We hiked to Crested Butte this summer, for the first time, which was insane. I had such a great experience doing that. Mountain bike, I would say, for me, up Smuggler through Hunter Creek, up to Four Corners, and descending down from Four Corners. That’s my favorite area to ride my mountain bike in the summer. That whole side over there is pretty steep but such cool view. Ski wise, I’d have to say the [Highlands] Bowl. If you catch the Bowl right, obviously it’s an epic day. I had one day where I felt really adventurous last winter, and I started in the parking lot on my AT skis and went from the parking lot to the top of the Bowl, and my legs were definitely tired but it was a heck of an adventure.
RF: Dining in Aspen—favorite spots?
JJ: Oh boy, there are so many and I’m friends with them all, so I can’t really say. LOL.
RF: OK, I won’t make you say—they are all my friends too … we’ll leave that one alone. We’ll just say like ’em all.
JJ: Yes, there are so many good ones. Friends with Jodi, Dave, Jimmy, Raphael—who I ski with.
RF: Aspen does have a great dining scene, and if I had to choose, well, I’m all for Raphael’s French bistro [La Creperie du Village]. I just love the food and ambience—there, I said it. LOL.
JJ: OK, I agree, I’ll say it too. It’s such a quaint little spot. In the summer you can sit up there on a sidewalk table and chill. It’s awesome.
RF: OK, we should move on, I know you don’t have a lot of time. Your girls, which do they prefer: New York City, Charlotte, or Aspen, since you have [homes in] all three?
JJ: I think they are a lot like their parents and love all three places. I don’t know if it’s our opinion that swayed them or if they picked up this opinion on their own. Charlotte is an amazing place to raise a family, plus great friends and a great foundation for us to be most of the year. Plus my business is obviously there. We love Aspen for all the obvious reasons, and then New York … I met my wife in New York, and her heart has such a spot for that city, and it has such amazing cultural experiences. When we are in NYC, the girls have their full schedule lineup from zoos to museums. So the answer is they love all three.
RF: Not a bad trifecta of locations! Why choose one if you can have a couple?
JJ: Exactly! We moved to Aspen last winter and just planned to stay for the winter, and it ended up seven months. We’ve had this vision that we have to pick a place someday, especially when I’m done racing down the road. We have to call somewhere home and we learned … well, we love a lot of places, so … I don’t know, it was an interesting discovery for us that we do like to bounce around more than we gave ourselves credit for. So if we can make it work—all three.
RF: Hey, if you have the ability of doing that, and if the kids are comfortable with it, I think there’s no problem to call three different places home and rotate. It’s doable, even with schooling.
JJ: Totally. That’s what I’m thinking!
RF: So there is an 18-year age gap between you and the other drivers, which is kind of major. Do you see a difference in style or attitude from the new generation of drivers versus the past generations?
JJ: I definitely do. Our sport has also changed some with the stage racing and the way we crown a champion now. It puts a big premium on the shorter segments. The era that I grew up in, you started the race at 80 percent and built your way into that 100 percent mark, took care of your equipment, you raced people respectfully on track. There was kind of an unwritten code of working with each other. If you’re a little faster, you’d let ’em go by. Then when it’s your turn, they’ll let you go by until you get to that last window at the end of the race. Now, we have the young group of guys that are in here that have the bit between their teeth and just ready to go. There’s two extra flags now, and there’s points awarded, and it’s really broken a long race up into three small races. I think that it’s benefiting these younger guys coming in and it fits their style more as young aggressive guys. As a veteran, prior to this, when a young guy would come in, you know you’d start the race and go like crazy, but at the halfway point, you’d make some mistakes and you’d get it back. We don’t have that opportunity in the way the racing works today.
RF: Do you have a favorite NASCAR driver you look up to?
JJ: From the past, growing up I was a big fan of Davey Allison. There are few different races where he raced against his father, which is really cool. With my dad in racing, I always dreamt about that. Cale Yarborough is another name, and then Jeff Gordon. He was an age, not too far ahead of me, but had probably ten years of racing experience on me. It was somebody that I looked up to and idolized and also opened many doors for me and drivers like myself, coming from California, coming from a different background, and kind of opened up doors for us to move into NASCAR.
I don’t look at the speedometer as much as I should … If I’m getting passed, it kind of triggers something in me …
RF: Have you ever gotten pulled over for speeding; did you get out of the ticket?
JJ: Ummm … yup. I’ve definitely been cited. I luckily have also had things go my way when I’ve been recognized. Typically though, I’m not very aggressive on the streets. I get to fulfill that on the weekends at the race track.
RF: In Aspen, it must be brutal for you to drive so slow: 25 miles per hour.
JJ: I don’t look at the speedometer as much as I should. Although if I feel like I’m slowly progressing someone, I’m satisfied. If I’m getting passed, it kind of triggers something in me, and then …
RF: When your wife drives and you are the passenger, are you a backseat driver to her? Do you tell her to speed up or if she is driving bad?
JJ: OMG, she is the best rule follower. I mean the best. I usually irritate her because she’s like dead on the money with the speed limit or overly cautious at the stop sign. I’m like, “Go!” So yeah, I guess I definitely do that.
RF: Cocktail of choice?
JJ: I grew up in southern California and tequila was my thing, and I still absolutely enjoy tequila/margaritas, but the last few years I’ve been on this whiskey/bourbon kick. It fits really well in the mountains, especially in the winter time. I just found my way into this bourbon world.
RF: So what’s the Jimmie Johnson legacy? What do you want to leave behind once you do retire?
JJ: Legacy-wise, I mean, I’ve never been one really motivated by stats. I’ve been able to accomplish way more than I ever dreamed of. I’m very proud of that but what’s more important to me is the way I’ve gone about it. I like to have a good time. I like to have friendships and relationships and be a positive influence. Although, I honestly didn’t aspire to be a role model, but I do like to lead by example. I don’t know, I just try to be a good citizen. As a father of two, I try to raise my children right. That aspect of it is much more important to me than anything.
RF: Last question: If you had to pick a song title to describe this time of your life, what would it be and why? Oh, and just FYI, I plan to use it as the title of the article, so think about it.
JJ: Got it! “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, because I’m chasing my eighth championship.