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The Life

November 1, 2002
Riding Shotgun
ESPN The Magazine

After posing for photographs at an Orlando convention center for three hours, Jimmie Johnson's smile is starting to slump. And when his cell phone rings, his shoulders slump too. "Uh-oh," he says, watching Jeff Gordon's name flash across the phone's green display. "It's the boss." Gordon is calling from the driveway of Johnson's lakefront home back in Charlotte. He's straddling a gassed-up Harley and wants to know where his wingman is. On most Monday mornings, Gordon stops by unannounced to go wheel-to-wheel with Johnson, to wherever I-85 takes them. With their tinted visors down, Jeff and Jimmie are just another couple of bikers, rumbling past billboards with Gordon's face staring down at them.

Jimmie Johnson
The days of anonymity for Jimmie Johnson are pretty much over.
Anonymity is nothing new for Johnson. Until Gordon plucked him from obscurity to pilot the most anticipated new ride of the season, he couldn't turn heads at a Talladega truck stop. Gordon, on the other hand, hasn't been able to pump his own gas without causing a riot since 1995, when he became the youngest Winston Cup champion. This year, dealing with a nasty divorce and a frustrating season, traveling incognito matters more than ever. So does the chance to kick back with a true friend.

"Jeff has always wondered about why people wanted to get close to him," says Johnson, 27. "Now that he's not married, he has more time on his hands. He's looking for new interests. I think that's where I come in."

It's difficult to imagine Gordon, 31, finding a better sidekick. Like the boss, Johnson finds himself suddenly single, having recently broken up with his girlfriend of seven years. And just like Gordon, Johnson's meet-the-parents politeness and clean-cut looks (People magazine named him one of "the sexiest men in the fast lane") play as well when he's pitching sponsors as when he's working the model crowd. "I've had great teammates before," says Gordon, "but never ones I could relate to like this."

But as Johnson's star rises -- he was third in the Winston Cup standings behind Tony Stewart and Mark Martin with three races to go -- he has less time to spend with the man who got him here. This particular Monday, Johnson can't roll out his Harley because he's with sponsors in Orlando. But when Gordon suggests a barbecue later that night, Johnson hurriedly agrees. Then he finishes signing autographs and heads back to the airport.

As if to illustrate his rookie-season rocket ride, a low rumble and burst of fire illuminates the clouds. It's the space shuttle Atlantis, which is lifting off at that very moment, some 35 miles away. Pressing his long chin to the window, Johnson lets out a whistle, imagining the G-forces that must be tearing at the astronauts as the shuttle soars. "Now that's a job," he says. Racing? Well, that is too. But he's flown around enough race tracks to keep things in perspective.

Five years ago, Johnson was a struggling racer on an $18,000 salary. Now, as he reaches the airport and settles into a plush corporate jet for the ride back to Charlotte, he's less concerned with counting the $2.5 million he's won this year than with counting the tickets he has to take his young crew to see Kid Rock. Just when he runs through the numbers and figures he'll be fine, he retrieves his last cell phone message. "Uh-oh, I'm one short," he says. "My dad wants to go too."

Gary Johnson will tell you, straight up and proud, that "we never had a nice fancy home because we spent all our money on toys to go racing." And when he adds, "I wanted my kids to experience having fun," you start to understand there's a difference between Jeff and Jimmie.

Gordon was raised upper middle class in Vallejo, Calif., eight hours up the coast from the Johnsons in San Diego. He was also raised to see his future. While he was still in first grade, his stepfather, John Bickford, took him to auto shows dressed in a crisp racing uniform. Life lessons, like the importance of keeping a clean closet, were couched in career terms. ("Sponsors don't like sloppy drivers, Jeff.") His family picked up stakes and moved near Indianapolis when Jeff was 14 simply to help him raise his racing profile.

Although Johnson's early years were filled with hard racing (he was the only kid at Crest Elementary School to get reconstructive knee surgery as an eighth-birthday present), his career evolved more casually. On weekends, Gary would load an old van with dirt bikes and take his three sons into the hills. As his boys got better, he entered them in races in Cali, Nevada and even Mexico. Sometimes he'd be on the road so long he'd lose his job as a heavy-machine operator.

Bickford had his stepson's career humming in high gear when Gordon entered adolescence. But Gary Johnson put the brakes on his oldest son when Jimmie's motocross friends started showing up in emergency rooms with head injuries. "I couldn't take it anymore," he says. "I told the boys, 'The next thing you're racing is going to have a roll cage.'" Jimmie tried not to show that he was secretly relieved. "I was 12 and burned out," he says. "I mean, I'd never woken up on a Saturday and watched cartoons."

While Jimmie recharged his childhood with weekend sleepovers and Little League, Gary got involved with the real cowboys of racing: off-roaders. He'd go deep, deep in the desert as a volunteer to man their makeshift pits. When Jimmie hit 16, Gary took him along, parking him in the middle of nowhere. Watching the trucks kick up clouds of amber dust, Jimmie started to see his future.

The Mexican peninsula between Ensenada and La Paz is no place to be at 3 a.m., especially with the Baja 1000 under way. When the trophy trucks stir up the silt beds, their headlights lend the air an otherworldly orange glow. After 18 hours of nonstop racing in the 1995 Baja, with his partner already sleeping, 20-year-old Jimmie couldn't keep his eyes open any longer. The next thing he knew, he was hurtling off a cliff at 100 mph, tumbling end-over-end into a rocky ravine. Bruised but not broken, he kicked away the steering wheel and slithered out from under the bent roll bar, dragging his partner to safety. They waited for nearly a day before help arrived. After that, something as minor as spinning out on a race track wasn't going to faze him. "You know those sensors in your body that tell you where your momentum is going?" he asks. "Mine are really, really developed."

Those finely tuned sensors guided Johnson into NASCAR's Busch Series. He finished 10th as a rookie in 2000 and was eighth a year later, but in 72 Busch races Jimmie won just once. At a Busch test in Darlington, S.C., Gordon saw a car running a lightning line and asked who was behind the wheel. When he heard Johnson's name, he just shrugged. It was the summer of 2000. Jimmie Johnson meant nothing to him.

Jeff Gordon, on the other hand, meant everything to Johnson. When a GM official once asked him to make a five-year plan, he pointed to a picture of Gordon and said, "That's my plan." So, ignoring the butterflies in his stomach, he sidled up to Gordon at a drivers meeting a few weeks later to ask his advice on how to make the next leap. "I liked the fact that Jimmie wasn't intimidated," says Gordon, who invited the rookie to walk with him to his motor home.

Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon is more than a boss and mentor -- he's Johnson's best friend.
As the defending champion listened to the unknown racer, he remembered what it felt like to go winless in his first Busch season. He also saw that the newcomer had poise -- no doubt as a result of all those auto shows where he had to hustle for sponsors. But what struck Gordon most was how much of himself he saw in Johnson: This Californian was confident without seeming cocky, a knack Gordon had spent years picking up. When they reached his coach, Gordon didn't admit that he was thinking about owning a new Winston Cup team in a couple of years. All he said was, "Don't make a move until I get back to you."

Two years later, the 24 and 48 teams share a glass palace on the Hendrick Motorsports campus. Gordon built it last year as a kind of monument to his fourth title. What was remarkable about his 2001 title, as opposed to his others, was the way he earned it. He had to build two teams at once -- his own, which he recast from the ground up with a handpicked crew, and its cousin, the No. 48. Johnson talks with reverence about the day that Gordon finished a practice in Atlanta, drove to an office suite near the track, pitched a sponsor with a slide show and then (still in uniform!) drove back to the track, climbed into his DuPont car and won the pole. "Jeff Gordon is so much more than most people know," he says. What Gordon won't likely be this season is a repeat champ. It hasn't been easy for him to concentrate with wife Brooke's divorce lawyer calling him "arrogant and selfish" in a squabble over a fortune that includes a $9 million South Florida mansion. And he has never quite recovered from the jump start that he gave his protégé. Gordon, who boosted the 48 team by giving them his best cars, went through a winless drought that didn't end until late August. Because Gordon's own machines have been erratic, his 14th-place average finish is four places worse than last year. As of Oct. 26, he was in sixth place, a long four rungs below Johnson.

All year long, Johnson has taken graphs that show how he brakes and accelerates and laid them over graphs that show how Gordon does it. Whenever they differ, Johnson adjusts and drives like the boss. His three wins this year -- one in California and two at Dover -- tie him with Stewart for the most rookie wins in Winston Cup history. "It's easy to be in my position," he says, "because all I'm doing is asking for hand-outs," he says.

Even though Johnson will have a better seat than Gordon at the Winston Cup banquet in New York, it hasn't strained their friendship. On Oct. 20 in Martinsville, Gordon had one of the worst days of his year, getting knocked from the race after a lead-pack run-in with Jeff Burton. Gordon was tight-lipped as he told reporters, "We're not even going to talk about points for the rest of the season." Johnson, on the other hand, finished sixth, cutting further into Stewart's lead. But as he climbed into Gordon's jet for the ride home, Jimmie saw that as pleased as his boss was for him, he quickly steered the conversation away from racing. "So, what are we going to do for New Year's Eve?" Jeff asked.

Jimmie shrugged. But it's a good bet they'll be somewhere near Times Square. Jeff and Jimmie constantly crisscross the country together on business, but when drawing up their own itineraries, their favorite destination has been New York City. "We've been doing a lot of double-dating," Jimmie says. "I've met someone I've been spending a lot of time with, and Jeff has met friends he's hanging out with."

The Big Apple may be the perfect playground for Jeff and Jimmie -- a city that nods at celebrities without getting wiggy. And Gordon, who recently subbed for Regis on morning TV and filmed a cameo role as a lead-footed cabbie in a Looney Tunes movie, is bringing Johnson along for the ride. Celebrating Johnson's 27th birthday this fall at a SoHo bistro, Gordon politely waved to an admirer at the next table. Jimmie went pale when he looked over and saw Bruce Willis. "I might be big in a few bars in Charlotte," Johnson says. "But in New York I'm still a nobody."

Not for long. Especially if he keeps beating the boss.

This story appears in the November 11 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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