iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Steve Parker

Steve Parker

Posted: November 24, 2010 09:40 AM

We have a big stage in this country, but the fame it offers is short-lived.

This peculiar "Here today, gone tomorrow" American phenomenon is nowhere more powerful than in the world of sports.

Now, after winning a fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title championship, it's time for racing phenomenon Jimmie Johnson to leave NASCAR. As they might say down South, JJ should "get out now while the gettin's good."

And he can't do it soon enough. He should announce it at the NASCAR Awards Banquet this week in Las Vegas.

Johnson has known for years his public praise from within the racing world in general has been muted, somewhat underplayed. Many fans who follow racing other than NASCAR have a tendency to look down on stock car racing, focusing on its "good ol' boy" aspect and perceived low technology of the race cars compared to that of other major racing series.

For all his amazing accomplishments, including the win this past Sunday, Johnson is rarely mentioned as a deserving member of this group: the world's greatest race car drivers.

Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Roger Penske and Carroll Shelby, Americans all, are considered among the world's greatest drivers (and all in this group also happen to be racing engineers) because they have excelled in more than one form of motorsport. The truth is that very few fans, journos, etc., would argue against any of those names being considered among "the best;" Johnson's name, on the other hand, has always engendered resistance.

Johnson is from Southern California and excelled in dirt bike motocross racing before entering the four-wheel world. Not the standard "Growing up in NASCAR" experience. Perhaps his west coast origins, lack of a telltale regional accent and his start as a two-wheel racer contribute to this negative feeling for Johnson from so many NASCAR fans (they say Jeff Gordon has been picked-on by NASCAR fans throughout his incredible career because he doesn't "speak Southern," Gordon being a product of Northern California and now a resident of Manhattan -- the one in New York, that is, not Kansas).

If Johnson expects to be admitted to the "all-time great" club, he either has to create a lasting legacy in NASCAR apart from his title-winning dominance, or he (and "his people") will have to be more creative in creating and building a public reputation for greatness, on and off the race track, which will outlast his on-track career. Or he needs to high-tail it out of Dodge and become a champion in another racing venue.

In other words, Johnson and Company need to "get out in front" of his existing and still-potential greatness (and earnings), and that future should absolutely not include NASCAR. Been there, destroyed that.

We know Johnson has been approached by other racing series (and competes in endurance events and has been investigating Formula 1). This is the perfect time for him to take on a new on-track challenge, full-time. He also has a young and growing family, often reason enough for a lot of racers to put the prefix "ex-" in front of their job descriptions.

And let's face it: NASCAR's growth and popularity has leveled off. Empty seats are so common at big races that talking about them has lost its significance.

NASCAR has not, and never will be, a truly national sport. In recent years, tracks proposed by the sanctioning body and other promoters (including Donald Trump) in the Northwest, Northeast and other major-venue areas near vast population centers have been roundly rejected by the local populace and politicians.

Another telling aspect of the true state of NASCAR's supposed national and worldwide popularity: the sport's major race, held this past Sunday, a grand finale which for the first time in years would actually decide the sport's champion, was broadcast not on FOX or ABC, but on smaller cousin ESPN. By the way, I did some food shopping today and noticed NASCAR is already promoting the Daytona 500 (in late February, 2011) on packages of Kraft cheese.

And NASCAR will never be respected nationally as long as the Confederate flag continues to be proudly flown at seemingly every track and prayer invocations before races purposely exclude all but Christians.

Including those impressive military aircraft fly-overs as the cars ready for the green flag at almost every Sprint Cup event and ongoing major financial Pentagon support for teams, drivers and the sport itself (including the TV networks which carry it), and you've even got a nice piece of change going into the sport from Washington.

Incidentally, I haven't heard too many complaints from Tea Party members about these particular aspects of NASCAR.

So Johnson has plenty of reasons to leave NASCAR, do it now, and hitch his wagon to more established, respected and rising stars. NASCAR is stalled in idle; Johnson should be pedal to the metal more than ever before and leave NASCAR behind.

Johnson has established a charitable foundation, and it is according to its website, "...dedicated to assisting children, families and communities in need."

The site also says, "We currently support Habitat for Humanity, Hendrick Marrow Program, Make-A-Wish Foundation, and Victory Junction through our partner programs."

Not to criticize, but all that is about as eye-catching and exciting as Johnson himself, which is to say, not very much.

Known as "The Iceman," Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus (who makes Ed Sullivan seem animated) might not even be noticed on NASCAR tracks if it weren't for the checkered flags and titles they keep collecting. "Low-key" doesn't even begin to describe how boring these guys come across to fans and media. They probably haven't drawn any new fans to the sport (and fans often leave sports where the winner seems all but pre-determined; especially after a period of five years).

Times have changed. Fatty Arbuckle's Hollywood is long gone. The truth is that sponsors, while they all have morals clauses in their celebrity contracts, don't go rushing to enforce them if the celeb winds up, say, as the lead story on Harvey Levin's TMZ television show. See: Charlie Sheen and CBS.

Vulgarity and nuttiness may not be trademarks for Knaus and Johnson, but a bit of it won't get either thrown off the Hendrick Motorsports team, either (the J.D. Gibbs Toyota team is another story, where cursing out loud is said to be enough for a suspension or fine from the highly-religious Coach Gibbs).

Will Johnson's future, non-racing efforts be aimed at, for instance, bringing minorities into NASCAR on all levels of the sport in meaningful ways?

Are there any health problems concerning Johnson's family or friends which he might want to address on a national or worldwide level through public speaking, donations and research?

Johnson and his foundation could easily go the way of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, ultimately contributing to developing sustainable fuel and food systems, clean water wells, malaria protections and other crucial projects already happening worldwide. Johnson hooking-up publicly with Buffett and Gates would move him onto an entirely new level of public greatness, respect and potential.

Not to minimize Johnson's efforts, or those of similar charities, but this is the 21st century and now that his racing legend is secure, JJ ahd his organization should have already come up with a charity concept so new, exciting, hip and different that wallets will be opening on their own.

And JJ trying-out LeMans, Rally Racing, F1 or even NHRA drag racing wouldn't hurt his chances for more future recognition. Imagine the obnoxiously clean-cut Johnson competing against John Force, the toughest, scruffiest, funniest and most-accomplished drag racer in that sport's history; the mind boggles!

No doubt Johnson will go on from this point and own some car dealerships (he may already, or at least have his name associated with some), have a public school or two named for him and lend his name to a few driving schools across the country. Probably also some sort of perpetual NASCAR award named for him is in the offing.

When all this excitement is over, and JJ has served as fill-in host on Regis and Kelly for the last time, Johnson can relax, retire and watch his name become part of the eternal racing firmament.

But with NASCAR? No way. Get out now, Jimmie. You don't need them anymore.

 

Follow Steve Parker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/autojourno