Column: NASCAR’s Johnson leaves lasting charitable mark

NASCAR’s nicest guy will run his final race this weekend and close a remarkable career that ranks among the best in history. The mark Jimmie Johnson has made off the track deserves equal celebration.

Johnson is widely recognized for his record-tying seven Cup Series titles and 83 victories. That on-track success gave him a platform to make an immeasurable impact on communities dear to his family.

The Jimmie Johnson Foundation to date has donated more than $12 million through a variety of programs and grants, many aimed toward K-12 public education. The generosity of Johnson and his wife, Chandra, has purchased technology, built playgrounds and outdoor learning centers, created wellness programs and much more.

A $52,000 grant given to Jay M. Robinson High School in Concord in 2017 was used to purchase 3D printers. When the pandemic began, the students used the printers to make 400 PPE face shields and mask extenders for healthcare workers. The school later received an order from Atrium Health for 2,000 more.

Loch Lomond Elementary School in Virginia in late 2019 won a $48,000 grant from Johnson for increased STEM activities. Among the items purchased were iPads and Chromebooks, technology it was able to loan to 150 students who could not access virtual learning during the pandemic.

Johnson has partnered with Habitat for Humanity, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and created the Jimmie Johnson Foundation Fit Fest, a community event designed to encourage outdoor activities for children via trail runs, mountain biking and a Spartan Kids Race.

“We knew in the beginning that children would be our focus but we wanted to keep it broad enough to help communities in need, as well,” Johnson told The Associated Press. “Chani has a love of the arts and has always had a watchful eye on arts-related programs. I have a watchful eye on the physical fitness projects. There are things that we look for, but we really try to give help where it is most needed.”

It started as a small gesture to help schools in California and Oklahoma, where Johnson and his wife grew up, and in North Carolina, their current home. It has evolved into a multi-layered program that has awarded 134 grants, aided 131 different charities and completed nine technology makeovers.

Lori Kiesser of Inside the Outdoors, a science education field trip program, said an award her group received in 2016 transformed the program’s social media presence and created a partnership with the Fontana (California) Unified School District.

Kiesser noted her grandson, Brennan, attends a Title I school in Southern California where children struggle to envision future opportunities. The award from Johnson has made it so her grandson “has no trouble imagining himself as part of NASCAR, whether it is working for a team or being part of the next generation of fans.

“We saw the (award) and the partnership with the Jimmie Johnson Foundation as a pathway to ensuring that the young people Inside the Outdoors serves – no matter where they were from – could imagine any future that they dared to dream,” Kiesser said. “Education is essential and the fact that Jimmie, his family, and his foundation, invest in it speaks to the measure of the person that Jimmie is.”

Johnson, the father of two young daughters, is committed to setting a good example and has been encouraging his children to find their own volunteering causes. But his commitment to kindness goes far beyond monetary donations.

When fellow driver Ty Dillon’s wife went into labor shortly before last week’s rain-delayed race at Texas resumed Wednesday night, Johnson gave Dillon a ride on his plane to make it to North Carolina in time for the delivery.

It was Johnson who started the driver initiative to support Bubba Wallace when a noose was found in Wallace’s garage at Talladega Superspeedway in June. The initial conversations led to an unprecedented moment of unity when the entire industry pushed Wallace’s car to the front of the grid.

As he heads to his final race Sunday as a full-time NASCAR driver, the 45-year-old Johnson is still raising funds for his causes. Fans can currently win Johnson’s 2021 Chevy Camaro through a raffle, and Jimmie Johnson Foundation visors several drivers wore last month at Kansas will be auctioned off this week.

Johnson set new standards on the race track but ultimately deserves equal recognition for the person he was outside of his No. 48 Chevrolet. His motto, he said, is being himself and letting the chips fall where they may.

“The way you treat people and handle things not only impacts your life specifically, but it also attracts like-minded people to be around you and the teams that you drive for and the sponsors that you have,” Johnsons said. “When I look at the big picture, you see all these other variables where like-minded people have assembled together and we’re able to do what we do.

“Competition is fierce and you have to be cutthroat at times, but I think I’m one of quite a few examples that if you just be yourself, and do your thing, you can be respectful and kind to others and still succeed in a competitive sport.”