SPEEDWAY, Ind. — One of the biggest stories we will follow during the Month of May involves one driver.
Jimmie Johnson has won seven NASCAR titles. He dominated the Brickyard 400 four times. He retired from NASCAR, but the need for more speed came calling.
Johnson grew up in El Cajon, California. As a young boy, he watched the Indy 500 on television and dreamed of one day competing on the big track.
I went to Jimmie's hometown this spring to do a feature on his upbringing. We had a chance to do a long interview at the Long Beach Grand Prix.
I asked him what it was like growing up there. It's a misconception that he's from a fancy neighborhood. His family was working class.
"My dad was a heavy equipment operator and my mom was a school bus driver," Johnson said.
His childhood home was on the outskirts of town. Jimmie had endless trails to ride on his dirt bike where racing became his passion.
I asked him if his parents pushed him to race.
"They didn't push at all. I can vividly remember parents that were the pushers. I had this desire and self-discipline to just ride any moto that I could all around the country and worked hard to be nationally ranked. My younger brother...there were days he didn't want to find his bike and go to the starting gate. We would literally find him in the creek building mud pies, wearing his supercross gear," Johnson said. "So my parents did a great job to meet our desires or demands, if you will.”
That small town was the perfect backdrop for him to find his way, and people haven't forgotten about him. There are street signs in his honor. His favorite restaurant has a menu item named in his honor. We had to try the Jimmie Johnson burrito.
I also learned something new about him while visiting his high school. Johnson is in the Granite Hills High School hall of fame for water polo and diving.
"We'll be honest. It was not due to my success on the swim team or water polo team. It was due to the racing and being an Eagle," Johnson said.
Johnson's childhood racing desire never left him. After running road course races last year, he decided to ask his wife about racing in the Indy 500.
"She knew how badly I wanted to do it," Johnson said. "She was like, 'Yeah, let's go. We're in.' Now the 500 I had to work a little different angle. That was more the safety angle."
So here comes Jimmie Johnson, trying to add another title to his name: Indy 500 winner.
"Man, I hope to find my groove before race day, and literally from the start of the race, be on par and be in that competitive battle up front," Johnson said. "Strategy and the race unfold in so many different ways, it's hard to say where I want to finish, but I want to be in the race. I want to be racing for that win."
The feeling he'd get if he actually did win? It was hard for him to put into words
"I can't even think that big, it would be out of this world. Out of this world," Johnson said.
He finished sixth in his first-ever IndyCar oval race at Texas earlier this year. There's no reason he can't compete for the Indy 500 title.