CONCORD, N.C. -- Jimmie Johnson was honored with one of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity Awards Thursday for his philanthropic efforts on and off the track.
The seven-time Cup Series champion accepted the NASCAR National Series Driver Ignition Award for his work with the Jimmie Johnson Foundation, which he organized with his wife, Chandra. To date, the organization has raised over $12 million for public education. Johnson said public school funding not only is important for education but to set a strong baseline for children to be successful outside the classroom.
"The foundation has been amazing to give back to others," Johnson said. "My wife and I both spent a lot of time volunteering prior to starting up the foundation, and with some help from Kyle Petty and advice from him, he really showed us how we could bring in the NASCAR fan and even bring in our sponsors to help support a cause that was important to us. After that conversation, we formally started our foundation and have been able to give away a lot of money to a lot of very important causes."
While the Jimmie Johnson Foundation has been in place for over a decade, Johnson's character was highlighted again over the summer when NASCAR released a statement that a noose was found in fellow Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace's garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway. Before an investigation by both NASCAR and the FBI revealed the noose was a moved garage pull, Johnson said the incident moved him to find a way to support Wallace.
He asked Wallace if he could stand with him during the national anthem before the race, and the movement prompted drivers and teams at the track to rally around him.
"It really wasn’t a moment where I sat back and said, ‘I’m the senior driver here, I’m the seven-time champion, I should do this.’ It was something that I was compelled to do and felt in my heart," Johnson said. "The conversations that I was having in my own home with my wife and children, with my friends of all communities, and just the conversations taking place in the world – it was just me being me and trying to support my friend at the racetrack, (who) is Bubba Wallace and the different issues he was faced with at the time."
Johnson further explained how he felt he needed to support Wallace on "CBS This Morning" with Gayle King, who lauded Johnson on publicly supporting Wallace. Johnson said the plan to stand with Wallace came together within hours.
"That news came out Saturday evening prior to our race and I had already gone to sleep (then) woke up to the news. As soon as I read it, I texted Bubba that I wanted to stand next to him during the national anthem," Johnson said. "Just as a friend, I wanted to be there for him.
"I couldn’t believe what I was reading that morning, and then word traveled that I was intending to stand with him and other drivers asked if it was ok if they were involved. I’m like, ‘Of course. Absolutely.’ Within a few hours, team members, team managers, everybody wanted to figure out how to show their support, and other drivers came up with great ideas and that’s how we evolved from me standing with him during the national anthem to all the drivers pushing his car down pit road and the entire garage area following out behind Bubba to show support."
Johnson said a lot of these conversations start at home and that the past few months have opened the door for him to have honest talks with his young daughters, Genevieve and Lydia. He noted that talking at home and the education children receive can make a huge difference in how they treat others.
"This starts at a young age," Johnson said. "It starts at school and I’m so thankful that we have the Jimmie Johnson Foundation. Our focus is on public education and I think we can do more there and try to help these other school districts and communities that aren’t as affluent as the one I’m fortunate enough to have my kids go to school at. I think we can really help at the youngest of levels and teach love and our world will be heading in a better direction."