If you like stories of successful people who start with next to nothing and achieve their goals through hard work, determination, drive, and persistence... then here's a story you'll love: Jimmie Johnson just won the 2016 Sprint Cup championship, which makes him a 7-time Cup winner and ties him for the most championships by a driver with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Yet he started his NASCAR career by buying a one-way ticket to Charlotte and sleeping on a friend's couch.
I talked with Jimmie a few days before Sunday night's race at Homestead, where he won both the race and the championship. Even after a long day of press obligations he was frank and open in discussing his early career, the power of networking, and how he scaled back on some of his commercial pursuits in order to better focus not just on his career... but more importantly, his family.
One thing I like to ask successful people is, "What got you here?" What did you do early on that really paid off?
When you look any successful businessperson or successful athlete, every one of them has work ethic. Work ethic is essential, but for me it was also the power of networking.
When I was starting out networking was the most powerful tool I had. My parents couldn't afford to take me racing. I had to meet other people, help other people believe in me, talk to people, know people, shake hands...the whole networking process is what got me my chance to drive. Then I had to worry about doing the job.
I was under the impression that talent would lead to opportunity, but really networking led to opportunity. Networking came first -- then I had to go to show that I could do it.
I've always told my wife that for the longest time it was who I knew and not what I knew. Once I had my shot I had to know my stuff, but who I knew was what really opened the door to show what I could do.
But I wasn't "selling" myself. I wasn't good at selling.
When I was 19 or 20 I was on a path to get into the IndyCar space and suddenly found out that if I wanted a future in motor sports I needed to move to North Carolina and consider NASCAR. So I bought a plane ticket to Charlotte and lived on someone's couch.
The first thing I did was buy business cards with my name and "Professional Race Car Driver" at the bottom. (Laughs.) I found out where some of the team guys would eat lunch and I'd show up at 11 and when people came in I would introduce myself, shake their hands, and gave them a business card. I asked if I could come to their shops, look around, learn about cars...it wasn't about selling, it was about learning: I'm a driver and I want to learn.
I went to every auto show. I went to every sponsor event I could find. I passed out my card, and every business card I received I sent a letter to that person saying how nice it was to meet them, I put them on my fax list... I had this whole system set up to try to keep my name in front of people. And eventually it paid off.
As time went on people started to say, 'That guy, you won't believe the road he's been down to get here...' All that work helped me then... but it also served me well later.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started at the Cup level?
Everybody along the way told me to be patient on all levels, from business to racing... and it would infuriate me. When I would ask people for advice, they would say be patient.
Sometimes I would ask a person and I would just know they were going to say something different... and they would say, 'Patience.' And I would say to myself, 'That's the last thing I want to hear.'
It really was what I needed to hear, though. I could have won earlier, I could have won more races, if I had been more patient.
And then patience actually served me very well on a larger spectrum because when I started in Cup I was twenty-five. A lot of these guys are eighteen, nineteen years old coming in. The fact that it took me longer to get here meant I showed up more mature and more ready to handle things. I fee like I instantly got into a rhythm and things went well.
Joey (Logano) is just now twenty-six years old, which is hard to believe -- that was my rookie year. So he's got a lot of good years ahead of himself, unfortunately for me.
Drivers have responsibilities that most athletes in other sports do not: being brand ambassadors, working with sponsors... how do you balance those two very different aspects of your profession?
I've taken various approaches. When I started my family I knew I didn't have space to manage multiple endorsement sponsors, plus team sponsors, and be the dad I wanted to be. Once I knew we were expecting I started winding things down and slowing it down.
Now I only have a couple of outside endorsement deals. We've entertained quite a few, but there's a balance that I need to maintain of sanity, and being home, and not being pulled in different directions. Through years of doing this I've reached the point where I know what I can handle and what I can do right.
I also saw... I had five or six endorsement programs at the same time and my calendar was full and I thought it was taking away from my main job. Yes, I was at the shop, and yes, when I needed to be there I was. I did my job.
But in any team environment the real magic comes from the hang time you have with people -- and I didn't have hang time. I didn't have the casual time around my team and my guys... and I was afraid I wouldn't have it around my family.
That stood out in my mind: everything was so structured, everything was so rigid, I used to just hang out and grab lunch or something... so I started winding things down and slowed way down.
Sure, I didn't make as much money, but my quality of life went up dramatically... and then I argue the point that because my quality of life was better and my success on the track was better that maybe I made the money back. I don't know. What I do know is that I have a schedule I can balance.
I'm not trying to retire you, but when you someday do retire, what will you miss most?
The relationships, mainly the relationships I have with the team.
There's just such a cool bond. I look back at photos, because team guys change through the years, but I can see a photo and it will take me back to that moment and I can hear voices and remember stories... those moments are what I will miss the most.