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The thousands of customers beating a path in and out of the Galax Wal-Mart last Wednesday through Saturday probably had no idea they were just a few feet away from Jimmy Johnson and his race car.
No, it wasn’t that Jimmie Johnson. And no, it wasn’t that race car. But the lucky folks who stopped to investigate may have discovered a portal to NASCAR’s glory days, back when men we modern race fans think of as legends were just trying to win races and earn a living, back when they’d yank the glass from a showroom-stock automobile, race the wheels off of it and light up a Winston in victory lane.
This was back when the drivers had to be successful in order to feed their families and keep their homes. Back when on-track rubbin’ often led to some off-track knucklin’. The competition was fiercer, the off-track conflicts were more heated, and the personalities more colorful than today’s driver-slash-corporate spokesman.
Although the name may cause some confusion, there is no mistaking the objective of Jimmy Johnson, a former racer who was on hand to promote Racers Reunion, an effort to bring recognition and assistance to the men who laid the groundwork for what NASCAR is today.
Racersreunion.com is a Web site devoted to racing’s golden era, a place where fans of the past, and the drivers themselves, can share photos, videos and memories with others like them. It also serves the purpose of providing help to those who didn’t have the corporate millions heaped upon today’s drivers. Back in the days when NASCAR’s top circuit was know as the Grand National series, a championship check could pay in the thousands, not the millions that today’s Sprint Cup champions pocket.
“These guys need to be recognized,” said Johnson. “They’re the ones who started it. And I don’t think it would be what it is today without the old guys.”
Racers Reunion holds fundraisers for those ‘old guys,’ including a recent benefit for Jake Elder, one of the sports all-time great crew chiefs. More than 40 former and current NASCAR personalities were on hand.
“We raised a bunch of money for Jake,” said Johnson. “Medical bills don’t stop, and NASCAR doesn’t have a relief fund for old guys. That’s what we’re all about. We’ll take a few families during the course of the year who need help, and we’ll give donations and have outings in their honor to help them out financially.”
Though the recipients of the aid are guys in the 60s and 70s and 80s, Johnson said he sees the most fan interest in the 35 to 45 age group.
“They’re interested in the history, and how NASCAR got started,” he said, “and not so much on what’s going on today because it’s all repetition today. We feel like we’re really on to something.”
With Johnson last week wasn’t a blue No. 48 but rather a red No. 54, a fully-operational 1955 Chevy stock car once driven by Bob Pressley. It was on loan from Memory Lane Motorsports Museum in Mooresville, N.C. The museum and founder Alec Beam allow Johnson -- who travels in a motorhome -- to take various cars out on the road with him. Beam recently donated a portion of his museum for a planned Racers Reunion-Memory Lane Hall of Fame in an effort to recognize the sport’s first stars.
Then there’s the name -- a familiar one with NASCAR fans. Johnson admitted that it can cause some confusion at times.
“I spell my name J-I-M-M-Y, not J-I-M-M-I-E,” he said. “When I was a young person, if you spelled a name with an I-E it was female. I had a situation at a Sam’s Club in Hendersonville, N.C. one time where the local media did an article on us prior to us getting there, saying Jimmy Johnson will be there with, I don’t know, an Alan Kulwicki car, at the Sam’s Club, certain hours. They didn’t say it was the old Jimmy Johnson, they just said it was Jimmy Johnson. And the fans were lined up, and I told them that at least they got to see the old Jimmy Johnson.”
Johnson is just hoping that the sport’s followers will want to see a lot more old racers than himself.