Johnson's Special Car
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on August 7, 2014 | 9:36 A.M. EST
Jimmie Johnson has a Busch Series car he raced stored in his warehouse even though it didn't win a race with it. Instead, it did so much more. (Photo: Getty Images)
The car never won a race. Never came close. Based on its performance, there’s no reason why it should reside in Jimmie Johnson’s warehouse. Yet, there’s the car, mingling among champion steeds and other vehicles he drove to glory.
The car is stored in Johnson’s personal memory lane because it introduced him to NASCAR fans in a spectacular way.
It’s been 14 years since the baby-faced racer turned into a wide-eyed stunt driver and crashed into a foam barrier, stack of tires and a guardrail at missile-like speed during a Busch Series race at Watkins Glen International. Brake failure led to Mr. Johnson’s wild ride.
Suddenly, people knew who Johnson, a rookie at the time, was. He was the guy who survived that scary four-second ride. When the opportunity arose years later, Johnson got that car and had his brother Jarit restore it.
“My 2000 year wasn't all that stellar,’’ Johnson said. “The real highlight in the year, the point in time I was recognized, was in that car stuffed into the foam. I guess there's a little something to that, why I wanted the car.’’
It took Johnson’s brother about a year to restore the car. With a detective’s intensity, Jarit combed second-hand parts shops and studied photographs of that navy blue-and-white car with the tomato-colored No. 92 on the side to make sure every detail was correct as he returned the rusted car to its former glory.
It sits in Johnson’s warehouse ready to race. The has the same tires Johnson drove that day and the same setup.
A hair-raising ride
Until that day at Watkins Glen, Jimmie Johnson was just another Southern California driver who had crossed the country and slept on the couch in Ron Hornaday’s home trying to find his way in NASCAR. Johnson’s team wasn’t among the elites and his performance had not been noteworthy. Entering that Busch race at Watkins Glen in 2000, Johnson had two top-10 finishes in the season’s first 16 races.
Then, that car took him for a ride captured by ESPN’s cameras and forever saved on YouTube.
“Oh my God!’’ ESPN announcer Marty Reid said upon seeing Johnson’s car hit after it darted off course in Turn 1, skimmed over the grass, bounced side to side and shot across the track before it launched through the gravel trap. The car briefly disappeared in the foam, tires and guardrail and the contact launched large pieces of foam over a catchfence
Moments later, Johnson climbed from the car, stood on the roof and raised both fists as if he won a championship heavyweight bout.
For a driver without a victory at that point in NASCAR, it was a defining moment.
For the car, that was a different story.
Johnson was driving for Herzog Motorsports at the time. He would score his first Nationwide win the next season before heading to Hendrick Motorsports. The wrecked car had a new front clip installed and then sat in the Herzog shop. It remained there after the team closed its doors.
Johnson later found out through Tony Liberati, his Busch crew chief, that the team still had the car. It was to be destroyed, compacted into a cube. Johnson saved the car from that fate.
Then the work began for Jarit, who has a fabrication business. Some things were easy. Liberati had his notes, including the set-up sheet for that race. The most challenging task was finding the proper hood and nose since the car had been updated.
Just as difficult was finding the proper decals, particularly the contingency sponsors affixed behind the front wheel. One day, Jarit walked into a decal store and asked about older decals. He was given a box to dig through and found what he needed.
He matched photos from his parents, Ron Malec, a mechanic who has been with Jimmie Johnson much of his career, and others. That helped Jarit ensure even the gauges and switches on the dashboard were the same as the day his brother wrecked.
While the car looks pristine and ready to race, there are reminders of what it went through.
Johnson has the twisted and mangled oil pan from the crash. He also has the steering wheel.
A year after the accident, he saw someone selling what they said where pieces of foam from Johnson’s crash. Johnson stopped.
“I gave him 10 bucks, took two pieces of foam and went on my way,’’ he said.
The car wasn’t the first one Jarit restored for his brother or his last. Jarit has restored an ASA car Johnson drove and the IROC car Johnson won with in 2003 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, among other vehicles. He’s working on an off-road truck Johnson drove.
There’s one vehicle Jarit would like to restore for his brother. It’s a Meyers Manx dune buggy he and Johnson learned to drive with while in desert.
“Dad would let us go ... play,’’ Jarit said.
Maybe Jarit will get to that project and some day it will share a place with Johnson’s victorious cars and the one he wrecked at Watkins Glen.