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Ironman Johns helps run RPM with own approach

August 31, 2012, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

Sammy Johns (right) takes charge the same whether he's talking to Aric Almirola or in his training as a triathlete. (Autostock)

Team's director of operations uses time away from track to have clearer outlook

You might be surprised where you are most likely to find Sammy Johns, director of operations for Richard Petty Motorsports, late many nights after a long day at the race track.

The top two places to look? The nearest pool that stays open for extended evening hours, or somewhere out on the open road, either jogging or riding his bicycle. Actually, he usually saves riding the bike for when he's home during the week. So on race weekends, he limits himself mostly to late-night running or swimming.

"When you're traveling, it can be a little dangerous to try to get out to bike on roads that you're unfamiliar with," Johns explained.

"The new era is all about results, problem-solving, sponsorship and keeping those sponsors happy. ... [Sammy] understands all that, but he also has enough old era in him to know we were brought up on performance in the race cars. "

--RICHARD PETTY

There was a time not long ago when Johns might have been more likely to attempt sneaking in a late-night meal or snack than any kind of training. Then again, there was a time when Richard Petty Motorsports looked like it might not survive another day.

Johns has used the hobby he began pursuing four years ago to help him make the kinds of clear-headed decisions that now have RPM, a two-car operation, making noise in the 2012 Sprint Cup season. With only this Sunday's race at Atlanta and the following Saturday's race at Richmond remaining before the Chase for the Sprint Cup cutoff, RPM driver Marcos Ambrose remains in the hunt for a wild-card spot -- and he gives much of the credit to Sammy Johns.

"Sammy's fantastic," said Ambrose, who heads into this Sunday's race with a win and a pair of fifth-place finishes in his last three races and with four consecutive top-10 finishes overall. "He's a really hard worker who knows the business just about better than anyone I know. He's great to work with -- tough, but fair. And as far as racers go, he's as good as it gets. His handprints are all over this organization."

Aric Almirola, the other RPM driver, added: "He's the glue that holds everything together. It all kind of channels through Sammy. Whether he likes it or not, everything on the competition side kind of funnels up to him; and everything on the management side kind of funnels down to him. So, he's in the middle of everything that goes on at Richard Petty Motorsports. He makes a lot of important decisions, and he's the right man for the job. He's very fair and treats everyone with respect."

As for Ambrose's contention that Johns also is tough when he needs to be, Almirola throws his head back and laughs.

"Anybody who can swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles -- and then get off their bike and run 26.2 miles all in the same day is pretty damn tough. So, I would say Sammy Johns is pretty tough," Almirola said.

Ironman is born

Yes, Johns is an Ironman. And that's not just because he puts in long hours trying to make RPM the best that it can be. Johns actually has completed the aforementioned trifecta recalled by Almirola, doing so shortly after last season down in Cozumel, Mexico.

He's proud not only of that fact, but of the fact that he did so without sacrificing anything on the work side.

"I'm not the fastest guy out there. But I can tell you I did an Ironman, and I did it in under 14 hours," Johns said. "There are not a lot of people in the world who can say that, and I'm also proud to say that I could work a 70-, 80- or 90-hour work week and still train enough to do it. There were just a lot of early mornings and a lot of late nights.

"There are many nights when we'll be at the track all day and you'll get to the hotel at 10 o'clock at night and then take off for a run or find a pool that's still open so you can swim. That's just what you have to do. You fit it into your schedule and you do it. It's something you just have to dedicate yourself to. It keeps me healthy and I enjoy doing it."

There was a time, not long ago, when Johns wasn't living such a healthy lifestyle.

"About four years ago, I was on a path to just getting really out of shape," Johns said. "I went to the doctor one week and they tried to put me on a bunch of cholesterol medicine and told me I had to lose weight. I also was a tobacco user for 20-some-odd years and I went to the dentist that week and they showed me pictures of my lip. I walked out of there saying, 'I don't need to take all these pills and be doing all this stuff.' I decided I needed to get in better shape, start eating better and stop using tobacco. I stopped using tobacco cold-turkey, that day. It wasn't easy, but I did it."

It wasn't an easy leap from there to completing an Ironman competition, either.

"I started out just running," Johns said. "I had never really gotten into bike-riding at any time in my life. I had always run, and I couldn't swim across the swimming pool. You could throw me in the water and I wouldn't drown, but I wasn't going to stay there long.

"The first swimming lesson I went to, the coach took one look at me and said, 'Oh, boy.' I couldn't make it from one end of the swimming pool to the other.

"I had a trainer come along who told me, 'You really ought to look into riding a bike.' I was like, 'Ah, I don't think I'm going to wear those funny pants.' Now I'm fully decked out in all the gear. I got going doing it, and, boy, I just fell in love with it. Then I was like, 'Wow, if I could just swim, I could do some triathlons.' My wife set up a couple swim lessons and from there, I just set a couple goals for myself. I said I wanted to do some sprint triathlons the first year, the second year I wanted to do Olympic distance [1,500-meter swim, 26-mile bike and a 10k], and by the third year, I wanted to do a half-Ironman."

He still wasn't thinking of attempting a full Ironman competition until yet another instructor told him he could train him for it if he dedicated only 10-12 hours per week to it.

"I didn't think I had the time to train for it," Johns said. "But when he said that and that we could build off what we already had done, I said, 'You know what? Let's go for it.' "

Determined background

Johns was born the son of Bobby Johns the grocer -- not Bobby Johns the racer, as many naturally assume. His father, who worked for the Publix grocery store chain, did have a passion for racing, however. He used to take young Sammy to every race he could at Daytona International Speedway, often pulling the youngster out of school.

"He dragged me to the Daytona 500 from when I was 3 years old," Johns said. "He would check me out of school on Thursday for the Twin 125s. I always knew when I got called to the office on the Thursday of the Twin 125s what was going on, and I was always excited about that.

"He was a huge, huge Richard Petty fan. I just became a huge fan of it myself and I decided when I was in my early 20s that that's what I wanted to do."

Working at the time for Publix, Johns made a critical life decision. He packed up everything he owned, threw it in his car, and drove to the race track in Darlington, S.C., where he lingered and asked about jobs that might be available in NASCAR until finally, then-driver Jimmy Spencer threw his arm around the kid and ushered him inside to the garage area.

There, Spencer introduced Johns to Nationwide Series team owner Mike Laughlin -- and from there, Johns began a slow but steady ascent in the sport from floor-sweeper at Laughlin's shop to running RPM. Along the way, he worked for Kirk Shelmerdine, Ken Schrader and Andy Petree, sometimes as a crew chief, before eventually rising to the role of competition director for Ray Evernham at Gillett Evernham Motorsports.

The same single-minded determination he showed earlier in his racing career has paid off with his Ironman hobby, and vice-versa.

"My wife will tell you I'm a pretty strong-willed person," Johns said. "When I set out to do something, I'm going to do it. It's no different with my racing career. When I left Lakeland, Fla., that afternoon, I was bound and determined to have a career in NASCAR. Nothing was going to hold me back and nothing was going to stop me. I worked very hard at that and was very successful.

"It's the same thing with the Ironman. I'm very proud that I was able to train for it around my work schedule. That's the part I'm most proud of. I was able to complete the Ironman, but did not take my hands off the wheel at work."

The King's prince

Richard Petty said that Johns is perfect for his current role at RPM because Johns bridges generational gaps.

"Sammy's from the old days but has enough good common sense to understand and navigate the new era," Petty said. "By that, I mean the new era is all about results, problem-solving, sponsorship and keeping those sponsors happy; then taking the money that's brought in and hiring the right people and moving them into the right positions so the money is spent wisely. He understands all that, but he also has enough old era in him to know we were brought up on performance in the race cars. You have to make sure you take care of that so the rest can sort of take care of itself."

Like at most race shops, and in fact probably more so than at most, the times are hectic and often tension-filled at RPM these days. Petty and Johns said they're still not certain if the organization will run Fords again next year, or switch to another manufacturer. Johns wants Almirola back in the No. 43 car, but Petty would like to see more consistency and improvement first. And just before last week's race at Bristol, Johns authorized the switching of some key pit-crew personnel in an effort to help improve Ambrose's chances of making the Chase in his No. 9 Ford.

"We've got a lot of things in the works right now. These next couple of weeks are very important," Johns said.

So, it's imperative that Johns thinks with a clear head. That's why when Petty goes looking for him in the Statesville shop sometimes, or perhaps tries to find him after everyone else has departed the track following a long day, the King is not upset to learn Johns isn't around.

"I'll ask, 'Where's Sammy?' And he'll be off bicycling somewhere, and no one can find him," said Petty, grinning. "But I think it's great -- because all of us need something outside racing or you can get ate up by it. Sometimes with all we've got going on in this sport, you can't see the forest through all the trees. Everyone needs to get away with something that clears their minds."

When told that Petty said that, and also that he thinks Johns' Ironman-obsession "is still a little crazy," Johns smiled in return.

"There was a period where we really got busy and I was missing my exercise," Johns said. "I really got stressed out and I really got mean. I had forgotten how much it does help me clear my mind to show up to work and make clear decisions. It plays a huge part in helping keep me sane.

"Completing an Ironman is painful. Heck, it's painful for a couple weeks afterward. But it's just a great sense of accomplishment. It is just a hobby, though. My dedication and passion is auto racing."

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