Jimmie Johnson has been an avid mountain biker for years now, but Memorial Day weekend will put the NASCAR Cup champion’s love of being on two wheels to a major test.
That Sunday night, May 28, it could be close to 10 o’clock when he finishes the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. About 10 hours later, he will be in Fort Mill, S.C., at the start line of a four-hour mountain bike race that’s part of the new Jimmie Johnson Foundation Fit Fest.
The Fit Fest also offers 5K, 8K and half marathon trail running races (as well as a Spartan Kids Race for ages 5-12), and an option to split the mountain bike race into halves with a partner. But Johnson signed up for the latter by himself.
“I’m gonna regret it, I’m sure, after a 600-mile race the night before. But oh well,” he says. “I don’t get a chance to race in my hobbies often because my weekends are always busy with car races. So I’m gonna take advantage of this. Even though it’s gonna hurt, I’m gonna do it.”
From 2014-16, Johnson’s foundation hosted a “Wellness Challenge” that included three separate events per year (last year, for instance, there was a 5K in May and sprint triathlons in July and September).
For 2017, the one-day Fit Fest has risen up in its place, and Johnson hopes that consolidating a wide array of race options – along with creating “a festival atmosphere” with live music and food trucks – will broaden the appeal to whole families; his ultimate goal, of course, is to generate more money for his foundation’s cause: K-12 public education.
Here are nine more things we learned during our recent chat with Johnson about the Fit Fest, and other fitness-related topics.
▪ Again, the focus at Fit Fest is on family. “We’re asking people to come out and spend half a day with us, or whatever it might be, and many – including myself – have kids to worry about. We’ve always had a big kids area, but I think the Spartan Kids Race is gonna take it next level.” (Daniel Goldstein with the Spartan Race organization says he hopes 1,500-2,000 kids will participate.) And although they usually aren’t around for these events, Johnson’s wife, Chandra, and their two young daughters will join him on Memorial Day.
▪ Why there’s no triathlon at Fit Fest, even though everyone knows Johnson loves triathlons: “We really ran into some roadblocks (trying to find) that much acreage with a lake or a pond to have that swimming component. Anne Springs Close Greenway really turned out to be the right venue for a lot of reasons, but there’s no water. So we’re like: OK, well, we’ll change it up a bit.”
▪ While he’s easily been the most famous participant in past events, his celebrity pal Lance Armstrong could steal a little bit of the spotlight at next month’s mountain bike race.
▪ In addition, fellow driver Matt Kenseth and Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott, are planning to do the mountain-bike race. Johnson also said he’s trying to recruit Elliot, Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray, since they all have experience on two wheels on trails.
▪ Then there’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., who recently took up running and biking: “He’s coming along quick. He’s working with my triathlon coach, Jamey Yon; he’s running, lifting, riding, has lost a few pounds, changed his body composition pretty dramatically, and is really just building his foundation right now. ... He’s pretty new to two wheels, and hasn’t been on a mountain bike yet, but I’ve been talking to him about doing the trail run.”
▪ There’s a reason (or three) you’re seeing more drivers taking up cycling, Johnson says. “Over the winter, many of the race teams started with fitness requirements. ... Fitness is top of mind for virtually every organization right now.” Plus, there are “so many parallels with aero(dynamics) and cool gadgets, cool parts and pieces.” And: “We’ve been sitting in these motor homes on Saturday afternoons with nothing to do for a lot of years, and we travel to some really beautiful areas of the country. To get outside of that damn motor home and clear your head, it’s been powerful.”
▪ Yes, Johnson understands the risks associated with whizzing along public roads on a bike. If he got hurt, he knows, “it wouldn’t be great. My fans and the sponsors and team would be bummed. But we can’t just sit in a padded room. I mean, we’re race-car drivers. We have a zest for adrenaline.”
▪ So he keeps seeking ways to challenge himself on the bike. For example, this spring he is tentatively planning to return for the second straight year to the 102.7-mile Assault on Mt. Mitchell, a self-paced bike ride along the Blue Ridge Parkway on May 15 that features 10,000 feet of vertical ascent.
▪ As for the “R” word... “I can’t say that I’ve spent much time with it, to be honest. My competitive fire is more intense than it’s ever been. I feel like I’m doing my best work ever in the car. I think the grind at some point will catch up with me, but even when I stop racing NASCAR full-time, I’m not done racing. I’m gonna be doing Ironmans and mountain bike events. I’m still gonna race; I can’t turn that off. But we’re in the middle of negotiating a contract extension with Lowes and Hendrick Motorsports, and there’s no discussion of an endpoint as of now.”
Jimmie Johnson Foundation Fit Fest
When: 8 a.m. Monday, May 29 (Memorial Day).
Where: Anne Springs Close Greenway, 104 Adventure Road, Fort Mill, S.C.
What: Included in the day-long event will be 5K, 8K and half-marathon trail running races; the MTB Challenge, a four-hour endurance mountain bike event with individual and two-person relay divisions; and Spartan Kids Race, an obstacle race for children ages 5 to 12. There’ll be food trucks, DJs and live music throughout the day.
A word about the Spartan Kids Race: “It’s a footrace with obstacles in your path,” says Daniel Goldstein, director of the Spartan Foundation and Spartan Kids. “It’s intended to get kids out from their technologies or their screens and engaged with other children, and doing something that’s for me reminiscent of when I was a kid – which is being outside and playing. Sure, sometimes you get a little knee scrape, but the truth is, you’re not worse for the wear when it’s all said and done.” There will also be a heat for the Special Spartans, children with intellectual or developmental disabilities, and those with cognitive learning or vocational delays.
For pricing and details: www.jjfitfest.org.