RACER@25: Issue No. 124, August 2002 - Who is Jimmie Johnson?

RACER@25: Issue No. 124, August 2002 - Who is Jimmie Johnson?

RACER@25

RACER@25: Issue No. 124, August 2002 - Who is Jimmie Johnson?

This is the 15th installment in RACER’s ongoing 25th anniversary celebration during which we share the 25 most important issues from our first quarter century.

The start of RACER‘s second decade of existence coincided with several shifts in the racing landscape. In NASCAR, a 26-year-old motocross racer-turned-rookie won the pole in his debut race and quickly followed with his first win at Fontana. El Cajon, California native Jimmie Johnson was just “riding the wave, trying to experience stuff” as he absorbed a life where racing sometimes drowned in the sea of publicity and the criticisms for a young man being given the enviable resources of Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports.

It seems crazy now, but 15 years ago RACER wanted to know: “Who is Jimmie Johnson?” In “Sudden Superstar,” Ben Blake examined the rookie who acted like a veteran, thrown in during the Year of the Young Guns – namely Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, who was still finding his footing after he was thrown “straight into the boiling fat” by Richard Childress after Dale Earnhardt’s death. Blake captured a young man set to disprove the notion that he was handed the farm. “My dad [Gary] would kick my butt if I changed any,” he said. “And I’ve got a lot of friends and family along the way who would stomp me into the ground if I let this get to me.”

An interesting footnote to the Jimmie Johnson story came in January 1993, when RACER founder Paul Pfanner was introduced to Johnson by NoFear apparel’s marketing guru, Jim Hancock, while the future NASCAR superstar was racing at Anaheim Stadium in the Superlites class of the Mickey Thompson stadium off-road series. Within a few months Johnson and Pfanner were having a blast battling wheel-to-wheel in karts along with a host of top IndyCar, NASCAR, IMSA, off road and SCCA racers as well as Supercross stars and assorted racing luminaries on a fun racetrack laid out on No Fear’s employee parking lot. These wild evening races occurred regularly over the spring and summer of ’93 and Johnson stood apart in his smooth, fast and clean driving style. Jimmie was something special and Pfanner and others who raced against Johnson at NoFear soon began to sing his praises. Supercross and off-road legend Ricky Johnson (no relation) soon pointed young Jimmie out to GM’s powerful and very astute motorsports director, Herb Fishel, and the rest is history.

At 16th and Georgetown, meanwhile, another powerhouse – Team Penske, who had recently defected from CART – sent shock waves through open-wheel racing in the month of May after Helio Castroneves’ contested and still controversial win over Paul Tracy in the 86th running of the Indy 500. Much more was at stake; in the Championship Auto Racing Teams/Indy Racing League war it was an IRL win over the CART behemoth Team Green, adding to Tony George’s success in nabbing Honda to join Toyota in IRL competition in 2003. Was this the day that the momentum permanently shifted in the catastrophic seven-year-old American open-wheel split?

Robin Miller looked at the state of the open-wheel battle in “Caution On and Off Track,” in which many CART stalwarts, including owner Derrick Walker, knew that the current climate was survival of the fittest. Losing Honda and Toyota – which had propped up Walker Racing the past two seasons – could be end of the road- and street-based series’ lifelines. Opinions varied on what that meant, from Roger Penske – “I don’t think you’re going to see a merger” – to Team KOOL Green driver Michael Andretti, who admitted “we talk about the IRL all the time,” as Miller observed the aging veteran was thinking about ownership of his own team …

Battle lines were also being drawn at Ferarri, as for the first time since moving to the team in 1996, Michael Schumacher fell behind his No. 2 teammate Rubens Barichello. Maurice Hamilton’s “Slow Burn” picks up the story after the Brazilian was ordered to give up a dominant win in Austria in favor of his teammate. Three years into his life as Schumacher’s teammate, Barichello was learning that “not burning energy” when things didn’t go his way helped him to cut through “so much bulls***.” And it didn’t hurt that the 2002 Ferrari was, in his words, “a brilliant car.”

The IRL’s new junior series challenger, the Infiniti Pro Series, was the subject of RACER In Focus. As CART’s Dayton Indy Lights Series crumbled, Tony George and constructor Dallara saw an opportunity to create a series where drivers could gain experience racing on the same oval tracks on the same weekends as the IRL. Roger Bailey, the man responsible for Indy Lights, came on board, as did an entry sponsored by John Menard for George’s stepson, a USAC Silver Crown driver named Ed Carpenter, who would become one of many open-wheel prospects to take the first step on an eventual multi-tiered ladder to a unified open-wheel world.

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