Since President Woodrow Wilson signed it into being in 1919, our nation has set aside the 11th day of November as a time to honor American military veterans.
It seemed particularly fitting this year that Veterans Day – originally known as Armistice Day – fell on 11/11/11. The number 1, after all, represents the highest level of service and achievement, and the men and women of our Armed Forces are unquestionably worth of that place of honor. To be Number One is to be the best; they literally are our heroes.
Heroes of a different sort will hit the racetrack for the final time in 2011 on November 20, for the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. At the end of that day, after a hard-fought battle spanning 10 months and the length and breadth of an entire country, a single warrior will remain to carry the NASCAR champion’s standard for the next year. For the first time in recent memory, his name will most likely not be Jimmie Johnson.
What defines a hero? They are a rare and unusual breed. Heroism is more than simply performing an act of bravery or courage under duress; heroes cross boundary lines and are present in, and on, every field imaginable. They are soldiers and scientists, innovators and athletes. Sometimes flamboyant and at other times relatively unknown, they are living examples that hard work and dedication pays off, that success is possible, and that dreams can come true.
Jimmie Johnson, a truly deserving and highly-respected racing hero, celebrated the first of his five consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships in 2006. Although he was just 31 years old at the time, he admits that he was already beginning to feel his window of opportunity might be closing.
"I had the weight of the world on my shoulders in 2006. We were so close to winning in ’04 and ’05 and came up short," he said in an interview with SPEED after the November 6 race at Texas Motor Speedway. "I was really in this space of thinking, ‘I’ve just missed two good opportunities; I can’t let this third one slip by. And if I do, I don’t know if I’ll ever have the opportunity again to win a championship.’"
Johnson achieved a level of success perhaps even beyond his own wildest dreams, but it was not served up to him on the proverbial silver spoon. The son of a heavy machine operator and a school bus driver, his childhood lifestyle was comfortable, but not lavish. "People have this perception that I was raised in a wealthy family and had all this stuff handed to me, but it’s just the opposite," he said.
Johnson may not have been blessed with an unlimited bank account to fund his efforts, but he had something perhaps even more valuable to back them up. He had the attributes of a champion.
Champions want to win and refuse to settle for anything less. They are hungry, and no matter how much is piled onto their plate, they never seem to be satisfied. The actor Burt Lancaster is quoted as once saying, "Take the feeling of hunger out of your gut, and you’re no longer a champion."
Jimmie Johnson agrees. "I will absolutely be disappointed if we don’t win it this year. I’m still in the middle of my career, and it’s tough to reflect on the past. I’m still competing and focused on winning … I don’t want to see the streak come to an end," he said.
Champions set goals, focus on those goals, and do not quit until they have reached them. "My heart and soul has been in racing since I was 5 years old and racing dirt bikes. I made decisions to not go to school, to pursue this career path and not others. I packed up and left San Diego, my family, my friends, everything that I was familiar with, to pursue this dream at a young age," Johnson said.
"There were some moments when I wanted to be a kid and wondered about what I was missing, but it felt so good to go off and pursue something I cared so much about, and it’s still there today. That fire’s still there today."
When the going gets tough, champions don’t point fingers. They take responsibility. "I feel that the progress we made from the start of the season on the racetrack and on pit road to get ready for the Chase (for the NASCAR Sprint Cup) is to be commended. We made a ton of progress. But in the final races we haven’t finished like we needed to in order to contend for a championship," Johnson said. "It’s easy to place blame in different directions – and I’m pointing the finger at myself – but we’re a team and we’re going to win and lose as a team, regardless of what happens."
His No. 48 Chevrolet doesn’t sport the paint scheme of the U.S. Army or the National Guard. But it seems appropriate, as our military heroes dominate our thoughts this week and stock car racing prepares to crown a new Number One in a matter of days, to take a moment to celebrate the contributions of a five-time championship veteran who has served his sport and its fans honorably and well.
This year, Jimmie Johnson may not be the winner, but in every way that counts, he will always be a champion.