Today Jimmie Johnson is known as one of the most talented and most accomplished drivers in NASCAR, having won six of the last nine Cup titles. Back up two decades, though, and he was competing in a completely different arena, proving himself to be a powerhouse in stadium truck racing, and an emerging talent in desert racing, until a terrifying crash took him out of the desert permanently.
Like many of today’s biggest motorsports talents, Jimmie’s racing career started early, beginning with motorcycles at age 5. Jimmie’s dream was to race Indy Cars, following in the footsteps of his childhood hero and fellow Californian Rick Mears. Mears himself started in off road racing before becoming a multi-time Indy 500 winner and series champion, so when 15-year-old Jimmie got the chance to jump into a MTEG Superlite buggy in 1991 he saw it as the first step to his dream.
Jimmie took to the Superlites immediately, becoming an instant front runner in the class with a win in the ‘91 season finale and earning Rookie of the Year honors. The following year he improved upon that performance with four wins and the Superlite championship. At the same time Jimmie had begun competing in desert endurance races, driving a Class 10 buggy with Tom Schilling and winning the ‘93 SCORE Class 10 championship along the way. Herb Fischel, head of Chevy’s off road motorsports program took notice, and in 1994 the teenage talent had signed with the Bow Tie Brigrade and was in a Grand National Series stadium truck operated by off road superteam Nelson & Nelson.
With Johnson cleaning up in the stadium series Fischel and Nelson decided to put Johnson in a truck for the 1995 SCORE desert season as well, hoping to use the fresh-faced star to contend for the SCORE Class 8 title. Jimmie started strong with a class win at the Parker 400, but by mid-season he was out of the points thanks to a pair of retirements. Nelson & Nelson had just finished building a new Trophy Truck for their star driver Larry Ragland so, with the Class 8 title no longer a possibility, they decided to move Jimmie to the top tier of the sport, putting him in Ragland’s old Trophy Truck. This was the off road equivalent of being put in Ferrari’s second car alongside Schumacher. Jimmie successfully finished his first race in the truck, the Baja 500, but then wadded it up in Barstow.
November came and with it a special running of the Baja 1000, the longest Baja 1000 to date, starting in Tijuana instead of Ensenada, and running about 1,140 miles down to the bottom of the peninsula. Jimmie, just months into his twenties, was determined to show it was no fluke that he was driving one of the baddest trucks for one of the baddest teams in the sport. Despite starting thirteenth on the road he worked his way to the lead, sat out front most of the day, and continued his dominance into the night. He was uncatchable, and on his way to being one of the youngest drivers to ever win the Baja 1000.
Baja is, unquestionably, the most challenging nonstop endurance race in the world, surpassing even the legendary events like the 24 Hours of Nurburgring and Le Mans. Instead of laps made up of familiar corners that a driver revisits every few minutes, Baja is 1000 miles of unique corners, many of them blind and hiding cliffs. The course is littered with boulders (sometimes completely hidden in the silt), water crossings, washouts, large animals, and the ever infamous booby traps. The terrain is so rough it has resulted in cracked teeth, cracked bones, and days of pissing blood. When things do go wrong rescue can be an hour or more away. And, on top of all this, while FIA endurance race regulations restrict drivers from being in the car for more than 4 hours at a time, in Baja it’s a badge of honor to drive the entire race solo, a task that requires being at the wheel for 20-30 hours straight.
Jimmie was still leading as he exited Loreto, cresting the mountains and heading into the twisty, rocky wash on the way to Scorpion bay, nearly 900 miles into the race. It was 3 AM, Jimmie had now been at the wheel for about 20 hours, and he still had four hours ahead of him. Finally out of the seemingly-endless sequence of mountain switchbacks and on a straight section of road, Jimmie put his foot down, wanting nothing more in the world than to see the sun, to see the finish. Jimmie saw neither. At 90 miles an hour he fell asleep.
Jimmie was only out for a few seconds, a simple bob of the head, but it was enough. Jimmie woke to find a sharp right hander ahead of him, and just beyond it a massive rock, large enough to dwarf the infamous concrete “hinkelsteins” of Rally Deutschland. There was no time to react. The rock cleaved the right front wheel off and flipped the truck high up into the air. The truck landed on it’s side yards away, slamming down hard in a rocky wash. The impact crushed the left front corner of the roof, buckled the cage at the A pillar on Jimmie’s side, and sheared his horizontal sill bar just in front of the main hoop. The truck took another roll, finally stopping on its three wheels.
When the truck finally came to a stop Jimmie found his arm trapped by the deformed cage, his co-driver Tom Gveiss unconscious, and not even the slightest hint of light or life in any direction. It was just about the most terrifying situation a racer could imagine finding himself in. After a few minutes of struggling Jimmie was able to free himself from the mangled steel and climb out of the truck. Tom regained consciousness and managed to get out of the former truck as well. They were safe and largely unhurt, but the desert ordeal wasn’t over. Due to the remote location of the crash there was no way to get a radio signal out to the crew or to SCORE. Jimmie and Tom sat alone in the desert for another twelve hours before their team finally found them. It was more than a full day before they were back in civilization.
Jimmie calls those twelve hours a turning point in his racing career, the point that effectively made his career, saying it taught him that he needed to take fewer risks and become more of a “thinking man’s racer,” less brash driving and more strategy. It also, almost certainly, showed him the dangers of racing, and the importance of driving to reduce those dangers, not invite them.
Jimmie never ran another desert race after that crash. In 1996 Jimmie left Nelson & Nelson and joined Herzog Racing, another legendary off road team, racing a Class 8 in the SODA short course off road series. Herzog encouraged Jimmie to pursue stock cars instead of Indy Cars, fielding him in an ASA circle track car in 1998 and sticking with him all the way through to the NASCAR Busch Series (now the Xfinity Series) in 2001. In 2002 Jimmie moved on to the Cup Series with Hendrick and the rest is history. A history created by a single poor-timed nap.
Thanks to Ronald Schouten for the pictures.