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NASCAR Legend Jimmie Johnson on Staying Fit, Focused—and Alive

The Daytona 500 champion tells MF about his passion for driving and competing in triathlons.
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On an overcast day at Watkins Glen International speedway in New York, two cars barrel down the straight at top speed toward turn No. 1. They’re neck and neck. As the sharp right turn approaches, the vehicle on the outside begins to slow down. The No. 92 Alltel Chevrolet on the inside track does not. Anyone can tell that something is wrong. “Oh, my God!” the TV commentator gasps—but it’s too late. The vehicle leaves the track, catches enough air to clear the gravel trap entirely, and smashes head-on into the wall at breakneck speed without even the slightest hint of deceleration, pulverizing the dense foam blocks and hammering an impression of the front of the car into the Armco barrier. Silence.

There’s some movement inside the car. A few seconds later, Jimmie Johnson emerges from the driver-side window and climbs onto the car’s roof. Visibly dazed, he stands up tall and raises his arms in the air. He’s OK.

More than 12 years have passed since Johnson’s harrowing brush with death, but it’s not the kind of experience a man forgets. “Brakes go to the floor, and I’m at top speed,” he recalls. “Find the video and you’ll understand the ‘Oh, sh—t’ moment.”

Professional motorsport is not for the faint of heart. Florida’s Daytona International Speedway, where Johnson earlier this year won his second Daytona 500 title, is among the top - 10 deadliest tracks in the world, with 26 recorded competitor fatalities. Pole position on that list goes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana, home to the Indy 500, with 68 deaths. In fact, American race-tracks are accountable for more motorsport fatalities than any other nation in the world.

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Grim statistics, of course, have not deterred Johnson, 37, from becoming arguably the country’s most successful athlete behind a steering wheel. And he’s racked up a few statistics of his own along the way. After winning the Daytona 500 in 2006, the El Cajon, CA, native went on to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship later that year. He did it again in 2007. Then again in 2008. And again in 2009, the same year he was named Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year—the first racing driver in history to receive the honor. The following year brought another first for Johnson, when he took home his fifth Sprint Cup Series title to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win the championship for five consecutive years. He’s won the Driver of the Year award four times, he’s managed to box out superstar athletes like LeBron James and Tim Tebow for the No. 1 spot on forbes.com’s Most Influential Athletes list for the past two years in a row, and, earlier this year, Johnson crossed the finish line at the Daytona 500 in his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS to win the iconic race for a second time. And he’s got a Harlem Shake video on YouTube to prove it.

They say that up to 60% of the human body is water. That number might be slightly different for Jimmie Johnson. Gasoline runs in his blood. His grandparents owned a motorcycle shop, his mother was a school bus driver, and his dad volunteered at the local racetrack. “It was really the focus of my family,” he says. “Some families are football families, some families are baseball families—I was born into a racing family.”

Despite a childhood and adolescence spent racing mud-spattered motorcycles, dirt buggies, and finally stock cars, Johnson didn’t pose a serious threat on the track until 2002, when he joined forces with Hendrick Motorsports and crew chief Chad Knaus, a dream-team alliance that still endures today. The result was explosive. “It was the perfect storm,” Johnson says.

The final stage of Johnson’s metamorphosis into a truly elite athlete was one that many will find surprising. Succeeding in racing at the highest level has become about more than just the car, or even the driver’s skill behind the wheel. While it’s not immediately obvious to the casual observer, physical fitness has become a make-or-break factor in NASCAR over the past decade, and being among the first to realize this has put Johnson at a significant advantage. “Before, the car would break down before the driver’s fitness level would give up,” he told Men’s Fitness in a 2009 interview. “Now, the cars are so superior that the weak link is the driver in a lot of the cases.” To ensure that his body wouldn’t malfunction before his ride did, Johnson, who swam and played water polo in high school, took to training like an athlete in the truest sense in order to gain an edge over his competition. “There’s a lot of jump rope between weight sets; sprints; running; and stuff where we’re elevating my heart rate and trying to teach my body to recover,” he said. “The mindset being that I’ll have more energy and perform better at my job.” He also started paying more attention to the foods he put into his body, and even began spending time in a hyperbaric chamber to help cleanse his lungs of the carbon monoxide that he’s exposed to in the car.

Fast-forward four years to today, where fitness has become such an integral part of Johnson’s life that it’s no longer just about helping him succeed on the track. In his quest to transform his body into just as much of a performance machine as the Chevy he whips around the oval, Johnson inadvertently led himself to the front door of a lost aspiration.

“I always had this fantasy about triathlons,” he says. “I remember tuning in as a kid, viewing the Wide World of Sports and watching [Ironman] Kona, and just thinking, ‘Wow, this is the ultimate.’ ”

The motivation to train for a triathlon struck out of nowhere. “I just wanted to get back in the pool,” Johnson says. “I went to a local Y in Charlotte and started swimming again. After I was in the pool for a few weeks I got to know a couple of the other guys and they were telling me about the events they were getting ready for and really just encouraged me to try a sprint tri.” So he did, and in July of last year Johnson competed in his first sprint-distance triathlon. He didn’t have any formal training. He didn’t even have enough sleep. “The biggest problem I have is I work on the weekends,” Johnson says. “I did it after our Daytona race. I raced all night, then flew to Charleston, got four hours of sleep, and then did the triathlon the next morning.” Johnson completed the race, but he wasn’t satisfied. He knew he could do better if he just trained properly. He was hooked.

To take his training to the next level, Johnson enlisted the services of Jamey Yon, a triathlon coach and the founder of TRi-Yon Performance in North Carolina, where Johnson lives with his wife, Chandra, and their 2-year-old daughter. With Yon’s help, Johnson was able to complete an Olympic-distance triathlon just five months after his first foray into the sport, followed by a half-marathon two months later. Slowly but surely, Yon is transforming the NASCAR driver into just as much of a force off the racetrack as he is on it. “I started teaching him about the proper way to train and move,” Yon says. “To get better and faster and to move up in distance, too.”

Under Yon’s guidance, Johnson trains six days a week across all three disciplines while also incorporating strength training and flexibility work to maintain and build upon his already-solid base. The goal is to increase power and speed first and then add endurance after that.

“When most people get into triathlons, they think, ‘Oh, it’s an endurance sport, I’ve got to do all this mileage, all this distance,’ and what ends up happening is they can do the distance, but they don’t go very fast,” Yon explains. “With Jimmie, it’s about covering the distance as fast as possible. The first thing is power and speed, and that comes from anaerobic work, resistance training, and speed work. We’ve been running stairs a lot, which is one of the best ways to build power for running and cycling. If you want to com- pare it with NASCAR, we’re trying to build his engine as a V8 versus a little four cylinder that can go all day long.”

Just like a driver who transitions from one category of vehicle to another, Johnson has realized that his new lifestyle requires a different kind of fuel. “For a long time I was just focused on protein and very little carbs,” he says. “As I got into the endurance training I just didn’t have the energy to do all the work.” This is where Yon comes into the picture again, serving as Johnson’s nutritionist based on a wealth of personal experience that comprises more than 100 races, including 16 Ironmans and no fewer than 20 marathons.

“The nutrition agenda for Jimmie depends on the part of the season he’s in,” Yon says. “In the pre-triathlon season we do a little lower carb, a little more protein, and quality fats. And then, as triathlon season gets close, or if he has a key race, we switch out the percentages a little bit and add more carbs, lower the fat, and he’ll have a little less protein.”

Johnson is clearly placing a lot of trust in Yon to get things right. But, at the end of the day, this is just a side project. He already has a job. “I have a bad habit of taking things too seriously,” Johnson concedes. “But I’m really trying to have fun with this. I’m putting in the time to train right and try to put up a good time, but it’s really fun. I know it sounds crazy, but I’m having a good time doing it.”

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It’s worth mentioning that the relationship between Johnson and Yon is very different from what you’d expect between a famous athlete and his trainer. Sure, Johnson gets his own custom training and nutrition plans drawn up, and if he were to call Yon at four in the morning to inquire about the number of carbs in a Rice Krispie, the trainer would probably oblige. As far as the workouts are concerned, however, Johnson doesn’t like to get special treatment, preferring the camaraderie of a group training atmosphere instead.

“The cool thing about Jimmie is he’s just a normal guy,” Yon says. “I train 30 to 40 other athletes here in Charlotte, and we get together at 5:30 a.m. for different workouts. He fits right in, and no one treats him differently.”

The topic of Johnson’s humble nature is nothing new. Next to his skill on the track, it’s the quality he’s praised for most frequently by his fans and critics alike, and, of course, his teammates. “His demeanor is, I think, what appeals to me the most,” says Dale Earnhardt Jr., the AMP Energy driver and fellow Hendrick Motorsports athlete who finished second behind Johnson at this year’s Daytona 500. “He’s able to go out there and do a monumental thing, winning five championships in a row, but it hasn’t changed him as a person. He’d give you the shirt off his back.”

In fact, in a moment of sheer coincidence, when this editor flipped on the TV for a brief moment while writing this story, pro drag racer and NASCAR prospect Nicole Lyons, wrapping up an answer to a question posed by CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield, closed with, “I love Jimmie Johnson. I just think that he is so humble...and how he basically devours the track, politely, is pretty unique.”

That last part is important, though. Humble doesn’t win trophies. Skill, drive, persistence— those are what count on race day, and Johnson is a poster child for all three. His intrinsic competitive nature is the root of his success on the track. It’s in his DNA. “I love racing,” he says. “I’m not concerned about top speed or running a fast lap—I love racing people and overtaking other vehicles. That is like the purest enjoyment I get from motorsports, just passing people.”

 

Johnson just hopes he doesn’t pass it all too quickly—the experiences, that is. As the athlete gets older, he says he’d like to pay more attention to the details along the way, to spend a little more time enjoying the ride instead of charging toward the finish line. At least, that’s the intention.

Four days before winning his second Daytona 500 title earlier this year, Johnson told Men’s Fitness, “For the longest time I always felt like I needed to be somewhere, I needed to be doing something. Maybe I didn’t savor the moments winning races or championships like I needed to because I worried about the next weekend or the next cham- pionship, but I’m taking my time and really enjoying the experiences along the way versus how I did five years ago.”

After the race, we called him up to find out if he would be taking some time to celebrate the win. Stepping off a flight, he came clean: “I don’t have an opportunity to. I’m on the track Friday morning in Phoenix. I’m racing two races that weekend. Then, the next week- end we’re in Las Vegas, and then Bristol, and then off we go.”

Jimmie Johnson doesn’t need to slow down. Not now. Not when he’s at the top of his game. He knows where the brakes are, and one day he’ll use them. Just not yet.

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