News & Media

Caraviello: Johnson is big man on campus at elementary

April 13, 2012, David Caraviello,

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Kids' affinity for Johnson -- and vice versa -- clear as driver goes back to school

Jimmie Johnson is accustomed to noise. From the roar of 850-horsepower engines on the race track to the reaction of 100,000 spectators in the grandstands, his choice of profession rarely affords him quiet. Even so, Johnson had never heard anything quite like the clamor that greeted him Friday morning when he stopped by a school near Texas Motor Speedway.

From the moment he entered the front door of Clara Love Elementary, it was impossible to miss. The racket bounded from its source in the gymnasium, ricocheted down a long hallway, and slammed at nearly full force into the main office where Johnson was being checked in.

"Anything kid-related, I'm all over it. I remember being in school auditoriums and seeing people come in. I remember being their age and going to the track, and the way I viewed the world was amazing then."



"They're calling your name," an escort told Johnson as they were processed into the school. And indeed they were, roughly 600 kids emptying their lungs with the same refrain, over and over, for nearly a full minute until the five-time NASCAR champion entered the assembly where they were waiting for him. It was designed as a surprise visit to award the winners of a "Speeding to Read" initiative created by Texas Motor Speedway, but it turned into another reminder of how much kids like Jimmie Johnson, and how much Jimmie Johnson likes kids.

It's one thing to see kids at the race track in No. 48 gear, something that's about as common as tire changes or loose lug nuts. It's quite another to see it up close and in person, at an elementary school where students voted Johnson their favorite driver, and treated him like an arriving rock star -- or, perhaps as an arriving member of the iCarly cast. And this is a school that knows its racing, where the big speedway down the street is visible in the distance, where the walls are covered in checkered flags and NASCAR-themed decorations, and the hallways have names like Kevin Harvick Street and Tony Stewart Drive.

But there's only one JIM-MIE JOHN-SON! JIM-MIE JOHN-SON! JIM-MIE JOHN-SON!, and the kids at Clara Love let him know it. As part of an Election Day lesson in 2010, students at this K-through-5 school voted Johnson their favorite NASCAR driver, and he showed his thanks by throwing them an ice cream party. Now he's here in person, clutching two big trophies that will go to the classes that won each division of the year-long reading contest. In total the kids devoured more than 80,000 books, and each member of the two winning classes received a T-shirt and four tickets to the Sprint Cup race at the track on Saturday night.

But first things first. "I told you we'd have a special guest today," principal Julie Nerby told her students. "Remember when we had an election and we voted on our favorite driver? Remember his name?" Oh yes. JIM-MIE JOHN-SON! they cry, and soon the chant begins. And then Jimmie himself arrives, and the kids go crazy, and it all makes driver introductions before a race seem placid by comparison.

What is it about Jimmie Johnson and kids? Walk around a race track, and it's clearly there, all these tykes decked out in Lowe's gear. Perhaps, like adults who were raised in years of dominance by the New York Yankees or Pittsburgh Steelers, seeing one guy on television so often left an impression. Perhaps all these kids are going to grow up one day, and Johnson will emerge as the most popular driver on the circuit, his support base swollen by so many fans who took to him in their youth.

"I feel when I look back over my career, that trend has always been there," said Johnson, whose streak of five consecutive championships was snapped this past season by Tony Stewart. "It's been weird -- it's been kids or older couples. I've kind of missed that middle generation somehow. Certainly, I've met a lot of people, their kids are 5, 6, 7 years old, and I'm the only champion they've ever known. So I think there is some of that that plays in."

At Clara Love, you could see it in action. The kids had questions: How much do you hit the wall? Do you have puppies? How fast does a race car go? (Johnson's answer of 215 mph, the speed reached in a tire test at resurfaced Michigan last week, drew plenty of ooohs.) Why are you No. 48? (Answer: It's a combination of 4 and 8, two numbers Johnson said were good to him when he was a younger racer.) And most popular: When are you bringing more ice cream?

Johnson read the names of the two age division winners, Ms. Abrams' first-grade class and Ms. Baker's fifth-grade class, members of which got to hang around and spend more time with Johnson after the main assembly was dismissed. Johnson signed copies of the Texas Motor Speedway program for each of them, even one student in a Joey Logano shirt who demanded Johnson help him find the photo of his favorite driver. Johnson seemed perfectly at ease, not surprising given that he and his wife Chandra have a foundation that focuses on funding public education and has awarded 53 grants to schools in California, Oklahoma and North Carolina, the states where the Johnsons grew up and currently reside.

"Anything kid-related, I'm all over it," Johnson said. "I remember being in school auditoriums and seeing people come in. I remember being their age and going to the track, and the way I viewed the world was amazing then, and then the sport and what race car drivers did and how heroic they were. I still have some pretty strong, vivid memories of that period of time, and it created my desire to race and pursue my career. So anytime I can come back, if it's here, if it's through our foundation, other work that we do -- not long ago I was in a school not far from my home in Charlotte, just popped in to the auditorium one day to see the kids and surprise them. I take any chance that I can to do this."

Johnson was given a plaque and a school T-shirt, and at the end students saluted him with a very Texan "1-2-3 yee-haw!" that included the tip of an unseen cowboy hat. After being told the students had put away a combined 80,000 books, Johnson seemed as impressed with the kids as they were with him -- especially given that it's been a while since he's gotten through a book himself.

"Man," he said. "I think post-school I've read about three or four. I have a long way to go. I've read plenty of emails and other things, but to actually sit down and get through a book, it's been quite some time."

He might be able to get a little help with that. Kids, have at it.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.