Johnson reaching out to youngest fans

12/21/2010 - NASCAR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Nicolette Grant stepped to the podium to introduce a special guest to the packed room of kids at Collinswood Language Academy in Chalotte, N.C., but before revealing the identity she offered a few hints.

"He demonstrates good citizenship by being actively involved in his community in his home state of California, in his wife Chandra's home state of Oklahoma and in his daughter Genevieve's home state of North Carolina," the principal said last week.

Two kids raised their hands.

"He is a five-time consecutive Sprint Cup Series champion," Grant added.

More than half the room raised their hands.

"Some of his fans and supporters nicknamed him 'Superman,'" Grant continued, "but you may know him as ..."

Everyone in the room raised their hands and shouted, "JIMMIE JOHNSON!"

Johnson may not be the most recognized driver in NASCAR, but among these kindergarten through sixth-grade kids he is the most recognizable driver on the planet -- and not because he donated $46,000 to build them a playground through the Jimmie Johnson Foundation/Lowe's Toolbox for Education Champions Grants.

For most in the room, Johnson is the only Sprint Cup champion they have known. Some weren't born in 2005 when Tony Stewart was the last non-Johnson champ. They don't know the legend of Dale Earnhardt or Richard Petty.

They are the future of NASCAR. In 10 years many will become a part of the 18-24 demographic the governing body so desperately wants to reach, judging by the time and energy spent trying to reach them.

Give Johnson and his support team credit for impacting them, whether it's through donations such as this one last Friday or the SpongeBob SquarePants car he drove in 2003 as part of a Nickelodeon promotion.

"There are a lot of things that we have made the effort to be a part of because it hits the youth," Johnson said. "I have always believed that you build a fan for life if you connect early. I know that from my own experiences from connecting to drivers and athletes at a young age. I followed their careers from there on."

Many of the traditionalists believe Johnson is killing the sport through his domination, but to these kids he is a king. They look at him like NBA fans looked at Michael Jordan when he was winning six titles during an eight-year stretch and the way golf fans looked at Tiger Woods when he dominated the PGA.

"They love him," Grant said of the kids. "He's a wonderful person and a wonderful role model."

NASCAR needs to connect more with these kids, so they'll grow up to buy tickets, diecasts and other paraphernalia. If that means making appearances on Sesame Street or Nickelodeon, so be it.

"I know I would jump at any of those opportunities," Johnson said. "When you talk to different drivers, we are typically looking to improve our weakness in our demographic lineup. And for me, that's been the 18-24 male. So a lot of what we do is geared that way, trying to reach and form impressions on them.

"But as we are talking I am wondering if at that point they have already decided who they are a fan of, and you are really not going to move the line or make a difference at that point. It is at a younger age when they are deciding who they are going to root for."

No doubt many of these kids will grow up to be Johnson fans. They seem to appreciate his greatness more than older fans because their memories aren't tarnished by the way things used to be.

"I have always had a soft spot for kids, and I love to connect with them," Johnson said.

Don't be surprised if Johnson pulls in some of the 18-24 demographic when his new video game, "Jimmie Johnson's Anything With An Engine," is released sometime in 2011. As was written in one review, the game in which you can race everything from lawnmowers to toilets is like "Mario Kart meets Jackass."

"I built something that I would want to play, something that my friends and I could drink a few beers and play," Johnson said. "When we started working on the concept of the game, it was kind of at the peak of guitar hero. It is called 'the party game,' and watching the craze of adults that play this game I figured that would be more up my alley rather than build a specific type game.

"So when we looked at the demographics and where there was a hole in the gaming industry, it was in that demographic."

Yes, Johnson's smarts go beyond the track. He's no more satisfied with his fan base than he is with five championships, and he's doing everything possible to grow both. He does that by looking ahead, which is what makes him already one of the greatest drivers the sport has seen.

At a recent team evaluation, Johnson challenged his crew to find more speed, understanding where he finished 2010 was "not going to cut it."

"We need to be better than that," Johnson said.

They probably will.

Johnson also is a jokester. He recently shaved his beard that drove crew chief Chad Knaus crazy during the season, knowing Knaus has spent the offseason growing one.

"I just felt it was a great opportunity to get under Chad's skin," Johnson said with a smile.

It worked.

"He just shook his head," Johnson said as he recalled Knaus' initial reaction. "He didn't say anything. Just shook his head and wandered off."

For the most part, Johnson is a kid at heart, which may explain why he resonated so well with the kids at Collinswood. He was the first to admit they're smarter than he is, after spending a few minutes on the "Smart Board" -- an interactive whiteboard he purchased through his foundation a year ago.

"Oh man, it gives me the shakes," Johnson said as he watched the kids work the board in a Spanish classroom. "I wasn't even sure what those geometry shapes on the screen were called."

What really gave Johnson the shakes was the reaction the students had when he was introduced. Few if any "holy cow" moments he's had have made such an impact on him since he overcame a 15-point deficit to Denny Hamlin in the final race.

"When [Grant] was introducing me and to hear five-time champion, I had goose bumps just standing up there and hearing what has been accomplished," Johnson said.

The goose bumps grew even bigger as Johnson saw just how popular -- and recognized -- he was with the kids.

"Yes, it's my upcoming crop of fans," Johnson said.

No, that's the future of NASCAR.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.