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Editor's Notebook
June 4, 2020

7/24/2012 8:21:00 AM
NASCAR's NV connection
Jimmie Johnson’s career got kick start after visit here 9 years ago
Jimmie Johnson, center, is greeted by Scott Hines, left, then manager of Lowe’s Regional Distribution Center, and John Hall, then North Vernon mayor, when the NASCAR driver came to North Vernon nine years ago.
Jimmie Johnson, center, is greeted by Scott Hines, left, then manager of Lowe’s Regional Distribution Center, and John Hall, then North Vernon mayor, when the NASCAR driver came to North Vernon nine years ago.
Nine years ago, Jim­mie Johnson came to North Vernon to make a public appearance.

Today he is arguably the king of NASCAR, that sport of stock car racing that grips the interest of so many in Jennings County and throughout the nation.

Statistics don't lie. Johnson won the Sprint Cup, the season points title, five straight years from 2006 though 2010, the only driver in NASCAR history to have done so.

Did Johnson getting on the fast track, pun intended, have anything to do with his visit to North Vernon in 2003 when he was only in his second year at NASCAR? Of course it did. I can't prove it, but I'm convinced he had to pick up some karma here that helped elevate his racing career.

On July 31, 2003, Johnson was whisked by helicopter from Indianapo­lis to the Lowe's Regional Distribution Center here. Lowe's remains one of Johnson's primary racing sponsors.

On that hot, sunny day in North Vernon, Johnson spoke and pressed the flesh with Lowe's employees and others who came to see this promising race car driver who had not yet set the motorsports world afire.

One of Johnson's NASCAR race cars was on display and people had their picture taken with it. T-shirts and other racing souvenirs were sold from trailers brought in for the event. Call them motorheads or gearheads, but local race fans were in heaven that afternoon.

That Lowe's event occurred three days before the Brickyard 400 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. NASCAR may be a Johnny-come-lately to the home of the India­napolis 500 where open-wheel cars race every May, but the Brickyard 400 has become one of the most popular events on the NASCAR circuit. Some Hoosiers even have the gall to suggest that the Brickyard is bigger than the season-opening Day­tona 500.

They will be racing at the Brickyard again on Sunday, July 29, and John­son, who has won that race three times, will most likely be near the top, if not at the very top. A crowd of a couple of hundred thousand will be there, including more than a few from Jennings County, with millions more watching on television.

I'm not really much of a NASCAR fan, as I have written about before, especially compared to other people in the area. Who hasn't noticed the large number of license plates and decals on their cars and pickup trucks proclaiming their favorite drivers?

I have, however, learned to enjoy it more. A little wagering pool with friends has helped in that regard.

I used to be amazed at the fanaticism exhibited by NASCAR fans. What is so appealing about a bunch of redneck, mostly Southern men racing souped-up muscle cars? I know, these racing vehicles are highly complex machines, but they look like street cars - though not as much as they used to in the 1970s and earlier. There is, however, changes coming that will make these cars appear to be more like the ones you and I drive every day.

Growing up in Jennings County, I have always noticed a lot of wannabe NASCAR drivers and mechanics around here.

My first real exposure to car racing came when I was in elementary school when I went occasionally with my neighbors to stock car racing at the Jennings County Fairgrounds. The neighbors' father and uncle had their own stock car. My friends and I cheered for their family's car, of course, but we also admired one that had no number but rather was marked "The Ace of Spades." Why? Because it was a cool looking car with a snazzy paint job and it was always at or near the lead.

When I was in high school, it seemed like the "grease monkey" kids were from places like Hayden and Butlerville, but there were plenty from North Vernon, too. The hot cars then were the Ford Mus­tang, Chevrolet Chev­elle, Dodge Charger, Plymouth Barracuda and, my favorite, the Plymouth Roadrunner.

The Charger is back with a popular revised model, which is also used as a police cruiser by city, county and state police here, but they don't even make any Plymouths anymore.

Back in the day, some of my high school classmates would occasionally drag race their cars. My experience was limited, but I'll never forget one time when I was riding with a fellow student who was driving his family's station wagon - a Chevrolet with a large V8 engine, a 327-cubic inch power plant as I remember. At the old Park-N-Eat on North State Street, a bonafide gear head challenged him to a race. We went to a somewhat isolated stretch of straight, level highway nearby and started to drag race. Nearly as soon as we started, the challenger slowed to a stop. Smoke was coming from his car.

"He just blew an engine," laughed my buddy as we drove back into town.

I didn't know what a blown engine was, I was so naive. Or a thrown rod. Or the difference between a camshaft and a drive shaft, or a carburetor and a fuel injector.

I didn't care that much for muscle cars or auto mechanics then. It was later in life that I gained some sort of appreciation when, out of financial necessity, I did some work on my own cars. I had a few minor successes at making my own engine repairs, and it was very rewarding - especially realizing how much money I saved.

This Sunday, Johnson will be battling the likes of Tony Stewart, the Columbus driver who is a bonafide superstar, too, and 42 other drivers at Indianapolis. I will be rooting for two in particular - Kyle Bush and Carl Edwards. Why? Because those are the two I have in our pool.

But if Johnson wins at the Brickyard again, which he well might, I won't be too disappointed. That's because, in my opinion, that would mean that the North Vernon karma is still working for him.

Reader Comments

Posted: Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Article comment by: Brian

I see little ol' North Vernon is trying to be bigger than it is. It never ceases to amaze me just how much something can be stretched to connect something big to North Vernon.

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