Whenever I venture onto public roads on my bike, I feel like I’m at the mercy of the cars whizzing past me. My life is in motorists’ hands, I imagine. Those hands are busy fumbling with cellphones, I fear.
So when I talked to Jimmie Johnson recently about his oft-publicized hobby – the sport of triathlon, at which he excels – and when I’m told he’s spending more time biking than swimming and running, I have to wonder: Doesn’t he get anxious about getting hurt?
The answer is yes, but he doesn’t worry about it in the way that you and I might. After all, his job as a stock-car driver comes with the almost-constant risk of some sort of catastrophe.
“I try to be as smart as I can,” said Johnson, a husband and father, who this week was featured in a short video to promote USA Triathlon’s national safety awareness campaign for both drivers and cyclists. “But I think I’m used to the concern of injury; it’s something that I’m comfortable with.
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“I certainly would be heartbroken if I got injured and wasn’t able to do my job and let my team down. But at the same time, you gotta live, and racers, we develop our skills and ability to live on the ragged edge through our experiences in life – you don’t just get those from the race track.
“Drivers that have been injured outside of their (Sprint) Cup job have taken a lot of criticism, but we aren’t people that sit around and play chess, and then all of a sudden hop in a race car.”
Johnson, who has two young girls, is in his sixth year as an amateur triathlete, and in his third year of offering to the Charlotte area’s endurance-sports community a Tuesday-night multi-sport race that also bears his name: the Jimmie Johnson Foundation Cane Creek Sprint Triathlon.
Indeed, if you want to see how you stack up against Jimmie Johnson in a high-octane race at a superspeedway in front of tens of thousands of fans, the odds of that happening are roughly the same as the odds of a suitcase full of $100 bills showing up on your doorstep this afternoon.
But if you want to go head-to-head against one of NASCAR’s biggest winners in a much more casual setting, all you need is a swimsuit, a bicycle, a pair of running shoes, an opening in your schedule on the evening of July 26, directions to Waxhaw and $70.
For the record, he doesn’t dominate triathlons with quite the same authority he has on the race track, but I’d certainly bet on him to beat the majority of the field at his race this month.
In the event’s inaugural year, Johnson finished ninth of 108 athletes; in 2015, he was 11th of 142.
“It’s not easy on a Tuesday night for everyone, and it’s a bit of a drive, but the venue is spectacular and we work really hard to create a great experience,” said Johnson, who hosts it on a weekday because, well, he usually works weekends. It’s important, he said, that he’s there and that he participates.
And what’s more impressive than his prowess as a triathlete is his ability to blend in at his foundation’s Wellness Challenge events, which benefit K-12 public education and include the JJF 5K during May, the Cane Creek race and the Lake Davidson Sprint Triathlon on Sept. 11.
Sure, he has a pretty killer bike (as would I, if I made the millions he does), but Johnson isn’t there to rub his celebrity in your face. There’s no media frenzy, he isn’t trailed by a team of assistants, he puts his running shoes on one at a time just like everyone else, and if you want to say hello, he’ll be happy to engage.
Rest assured, though: While Johnson, by his nature, wears an unassuming and kindly face, he’ll also have his game face on come Cane Creek Triathlon night.
“I have (triathlete) friends … that actually have better training sessions than races. I’m like, ‘You’re gonna light it up,’ and then the race and what goes into a race takes them off their game a little bit,” Johnson said. “But I’m so accustomed to that competitive mindset. I’m so used to racing that the pressure and stress that comes with it, I’m able to thrive in that moment.”
Jimmie Johnson Foundation Cane Creek Sprint Triathlon
When: 6 p.m. July 26.
Where: Cane Creek State Park, 5213 Harkey Road, Waxhaw.
Race distances: 500-yard swim, 13-mile bike, 5K run.
Cost: $70 through Sunday, $80 July 18-25, $90 on race day.
Beneficiaries: K-12 public schools in Jimmie Johnson and wife Chandra’s hometowns in California, North Carolina and Oklahoma.