THERE ARE NO LASTS IN AMERICAN FOLKLORE. NEW TIMES bring new heroes. And the Newest American Hero wears a khaki suit in a dark room under a bright spotlight. The smell of banquet steak lingers in the air. Jimmie Johnson hates wearing suits, of course. When this luncheon ends, he will not wait 10 minutes to tear the suit off. There's nothing interesting or strange about that. Jimmie Johnson drives race cars. Race car drivers do not like wearing suits that can catch fire.
What is interesting is that, uncomfortable or not, Jimmie Johnson looks just right in the suit. His tie does not dangle at an awkward angle. His shirt looks freshly pressed.
His 30-waist pants have creases that could cut through beer cans. He does not sweat under the lights. Every hair stays in place. The Newest American Hero looks like a young entrepreneur. He might be about to make an offer on your company.
"I feel lucky every day," Jimmie Johnson says. His clear voice fills the room; he has used a microphone before. His voice carries no detectable accent other than American. Later he will tell you that only sharks scare him more than talking in front of people, but there is no way the man talking is scared. He looks not merely confident; he looks and sounds as though he were born in a suit and spoke his first words at an awards banquet.
"I'm just so fortunate," he says, and then he casually mentions his sponsor (Lowe's, of course) and his racing team, led by crew chief Chad Knaus ("they are incredible"), and his wife, Chani ("my best friend"). There is applause, a short standing ovation.
That's when Junior Seau takes the stage. This is his fund-raiser—the Junior Seau Foundation Teammates Luncheon, in San Diego in early October—and the six-time All-Pro linebacker attacks it with the same ferocity with which he attacks running backs in the NFL. Junior bullies people in the crowd to raise their bids on auction items. Junior pokes fun at his mother for not exercising more and at his father for having droned on too long during the invocation. Nobody is out of his reach. Junior Seau is a runaway train, and now he looks over Jimmie Johnson, measures him.
"I don't get you, man," Junior shouts. "You're up here, and you're all humble and meek and stuff. And then you get on the racetrack, and you're the Man! You're out there racing and slamming into cars. You've won three Super Bowls, man. You are the best ever. The best ever! And then you're up here, man, and you're like quiet and nice. What's that all about?"
Jimmie Johnson looks at Junior Seau awkwardly and shrugs his shoulders.
"That's what I'm talking about," Junior Seau shouts even louder. "WHAT'S WITH YOU, MAN?"
THE VANILLA THING. THAT'S WHAT JIMMIE JOHNSON calls it. He has spent too many hours thinking about it. How could people see him as vanilla? He grew up in a trailer park. He jumped motorbikes and motorcycles, flipped off-road vehicles in the desert, drove trucks and hot rods and buggies. He tempted fate at every stage of his life. He worked his way up in the most American way, using his charm and talent and making friends. Now, at 34, he drives in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series—"200 miles per hour with 40 other maniacs," as motocross legend Rick Johnson describes it—and nobody in the series drives better. Jimmie Johnson has won four Sprint Cup championships in a row, something no one has ever done.