CONCORD, N.C. – Jimmie Johnson’s throwback paint scheme for the Southern 500 this year means a great deal to him.
It replicates the design of his 1995 Chevy Thunder Trophy Truck, the vehicle he said “shaped my driving style the most and made me the racer I am today.”
But along with the throwback No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, he’s got a firesuit that matches the look of his threads from 1995. And there’s one particular feature on the suit that holds just as special a place in his heart.
“Getting started racing on dirt bikes, way back when, my grandmother firmly believed in having a guardian angel with you,” the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion explained.
With that in mind, his mom and grandmother found him some angel pins to place on his firesuit when he hit the track, but those created some issues over time.
“I could really never find a good location to put them for the seatbelts, and I ended up with a few puncture wounds over the years from those things,” Johnson laughed.
So, the decision was made to have an angel patch made and sewed onto the driver’s firesuit.
That patch, featuring a tiny, blonde-haired angel draped in blue, made it onto the suit he wore when he climbed behind the wheel of his Chevy Thunder Trophy Truck that he piloted in 1995.
“That was on my suits forever and ever,” he said.
And now that Johnson is set to don a firesuit that harkens back to those days, it features a new version of the angel patch.
Seeing it on the chest of his suit, memories came flooding back of his early days in racing and just how involved his family was as he took the first steps in what would become his career.
“I just had this interaction with my grandparents and was always over at their home and around, and then my parents were so responsible for my racing, taking me to the track, part of it all,” he recalled. “I look back now at how tough it is to stay that connected and I miss those times.”
He laughed that when he transitioned from racing motorcycles to getting behind the wheel of cars, it was almost a “big sigh of relief” for his family that he finally had a roll cage around him for safety.
He remembered his grandparents at times perhaps not being thrilled that his parents let him participate in such a dangerous sport with a risk of injury.
“There was always this concern of me getting injured, and then unfortunately I was very injury-prone – I got injured a lot – so, it didn’t make it any easier on my mom with her parents,” he smiled.
“(My grandmother) just always wanted us to be safe,” he continued. “She did not care what the results were. Her prayers, her intention of that guardian angel was to keep me safe. I can always remember her just grabbing my face, ‘Promise me you’re going to be safe!’ It was just her love and concern for my safety.”
Having a replica of the angel patch on his new No. 48 Ally firesuit for the upcoming Southern 500 has made the throwback weekend that much more special for the 43-year-old driver.
“I think that patch is just such an example of how much of a family sport racing is,” Johnson said, “and how close we all were in those days of getting started racing.”
The fact that Ally allowed him the freedom to add it to his firesuit – and race a retro ride that pays homage to his 1995 truck – only added to his pride to work with such a supportive partner.
“It’s been amazing – since day one in working with them, they’ve been very in tune with my past, Hendrick Motorsports’ past, the history of the 48, and have really let us be ourselves and honor that,” he said of Ally. “I’m very thankful. Ally is just so supportive of things that are important to me. In the end, they’ve given me this great opportunity to honor my upbringing.”
Now, he’s ready to take that No. 48 Ally Throwback Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 – and the angel patch – to Victory Lane at Darlington Raceway. “With our dry spell and the history of off-road racing for me, this unique opportunity to throw back, if that all came together for a victory,” Johnson said, “that would be top-three special moments of my career.”