EL CAJON, Calif. — Ready to thrill a few hundred school kids, Jimmie Johnson hopped into a replica of his No. 48 car to fire up the engine.
The battery was dead.
He and some members of his group tried to bump start the car. That just bashed in the show car’s bumper, led to some odd grinding noises and the car started leaking oil.
Undaunted, the NASCAR star jogged through the parking lot to the grass plot where the kids were gathered, chanting his name.
It was an appropriate entrance, considering that Johnson was at Chase Avenue Elementary in his hometown to check out a jogging track that was built with a Jimmie Johnson Foundation/Lowe’s Toolbox for Education Champions Grant.
“I thought, ‘Well, since we’re running around the track, I’ll just run on in,”’ Johnson said.
Johnson, the Sprint Cup points leader, ran a lap with some of the kids and his young daughter, Evie.
The school received a grant in 2010 to build the jogging track and install a large grass plot that has baseball backstops on both ends.
Principal Sue Geller said the area had been a sloped dirt plot. “When the rains came, there were crevices that would be great for an archaeological dig but not for exercise,” she said.
“That was the reality for Chase for 60 years,” she said. “We never thought we’d get any grass. We just kind of accepted it.”
The school not only got a grant from Johnson’s foundation, but the school district added some funding, too.
Geller found out three months ago that Johnson wanted to visit the school in this blue-collar community on the eastern edge of San Diego’s suburban sprawl.
Johnson, who won five straight Sprint Cup championships from 2006-10, congratulated the kids for their accomplishments in the school’s running club.
“I’m so happy that all of you are running and focused on that because when you get old like us, it will make a difference, I promise,” said Johnson, who was one of four drivers who ran a half marathon before pole qualifying for the Daytona 500, which he won for the second time.
Johnson said his foundation gives about $1 million a year, mostly to schools, in El Cajon; Muskogee, Okla., where his wife, Chandra, grew up; and in Charlotte, where they live.
“It’s just always fit very well with us and I’m happy to be here in person today to see the track and run with the kids a little bit,” Johnson said.
Chase Avenue Elementary also received a grant from Johnson’s foundation in 2009 for a sound system.
In 2010, he visited nearby Emerald STEM Magnet Middle School to visit an automation and robotics lab that was built with a grant from his foundation.
“It’s so important, as we all know. As time goes on, physical education, the arts, these things start falling off the table due to budget constraints,” Johnson said. “I’m happy to see that a lot of the grant requests that come in to us are around the arts and around physical education and we’re trying to support those. There’s such a void in public schools right now and we’re just happy to make a difference. I love kids. It makes me smile from the inside out when I’m around kids, even at the race track or here at the school. They’re so innocent, so honest, and I’m still a big kid at heart, too, so I really enjoy my time around kids.”
Johnson had a modest upbringing in El Cajon and nearby Crest. His mother drove a school bus and his father operated heavy equipment. His dad worked in the racing community, which led to the son getting his start.
“It’s nice to come back. I’m awfully close to home. I can kind of see the hill I grew up on just off there in the distance so it’s really neat to come back,” he said.
Johnson, who has a car dealership in San Diego, said he was a good student at Granite Hills High in El Cajon.
“I didn’t get into a lot of trouble. The big carrot for me was racing. My parents were very smart, and my sponsors were, too, and I had to maintain a B average for school to have my outlet.”
While in the San Diego area, Johnson will host the big fundraiser for his foundation, a dinner and auction on Wednesday night and his seventh annual golf tournament on Thursday.