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Johnson smiles each time someone says it, as if it's brand new. Three years ago, only a few days after he won his first Cup championship, he was horsing around at a celebrity golf tournament. He decided (and he readily admits that his decision-making skills might have been slightly impaired by an adult beverage or two) that it would be fun to surf on top of a moving golf cart. This led to him falling off, busting his lip and breaking his wrist. This led to him feeling foolish. This led to him telling people that he was inside the cart when he fell. And that led to his spokesperson, Kristine Curley, phoning him and saying, "Jimmie, the Associated Press called. Were you actually on top of the cart when you fell off?"
He copped to the crime. Word went out. Jimmie Johnson had a few moments as America's sporting goofball.
"I was embarrassed when it happened," he says, "because I thought I had to be perfect. It took me a while to realize, Hey, I can't be perfect. I'm really not embarrassed by it now. It was stupid. I do a lot of stupid stuff. I really don't mind people talking about it. The thing that amazes me is how many people still talk about it."
Maybe people still talk about it because it's the one funny thing they know about him, the one bit of humanity and imperfection they cling to in Jimmie Johnson's windstorm of sponsor-speak ("Lowe's has just treated me so well") and team ("Chad and the guys are amazing") and wife ("I couldn't do any of this without Chani").
"I'm just not good at telling stories," Jimmie says, "and I'm terrible at telling jokes." Only then he tells some stories and a couple of jokes. And, of course, he's as good at that as he is at wearing suits and speaking in front of crowds. Did you know Jimmie Johnson gets carsick when he's not driving? He has suffered from chronic motion sickness his whole life. He gets sick on boats and on merry-go-rounds, and there have been many times when he was being driven somewhere and had to ask the driver to pull over so he could throw up out the window.
That's funny: The world's greatest stock car driver gets carsick. "Really?" Johnson asks. He tells about the time in Charlotte (where he and Chani live year-round) when he ran out of gas on the way to the airport, and people angrily honked their horns and glared as he stood helplessly on the side of the highway, and not one person recognized him and shouted out the window, "Hey, it's harder without a pit crew, isn't it?" He talks about the safari he went on in South Africa, and the crazy diet he just finished (he had to wake up every three hours to take a protein shake), and how he really wants to jump out of a plane but Chani has told him, "You go ahead, but I won't be here when you hit the ground."
He talks about his more fanciful dreams. He wants to start his own ice cream brand. He already has the name of the first flavor—Jimmie Johnson's Nuts & Bolts. ("The only problem," he says, "is I don't really like nuts in my ice cream.") He wants to create a new kind of racing video game. ("I have a lot of really cool ideas," he says.) He and Chani want to own their own vineyard. ("I wouldn't want to just buy the grapes to make wine. What's the point of that?") He thinks about writing a book, but it would have to be a series of short stories because he reads in bursts. It's no wonder that people who know Jimmie Johnson cannot understand the public persona, and the public knows nothing about this Jimmie Johnson.
"You have to understand something about racing," says Ivan (Ironman) Stewart, one of the legends of off-road racing and another hero of Jimmie Johnson's. "Racing people can talk to other racing people. We know what it's like out there. We know the feeling of being in a race, the way it looks, the way it sounds, the way it smells. Jimmie is a racing guy."
A racing guy. People can't help but wonder, What's left for him to conquer? Once you've won your fourth straight championship, is it that important to win a fifth? A sixth? At some point does it all lose its thrill?
"Jimmie just likes to go fast," Rick Johnson says. "That's what drives him. That will never get boring for him."