With NASCAR among the few sports currently competing, seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson said drivers and series officials are discussing ways they can show unified support against social injustice and racism.
NASCAR races this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The Truck and Xfinity Series race there Saturday, and the Cup Series races there Sunday. The track, located in Hampton, Georgia, is less than 30 miles from downtown Atlanta. That area has been the site of protests since George Floyd’s death on Memorial Day after a since-fired Minneapolis police officer pinned Floyd to the ground with a knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Atlanta is under an 8 p.m. ET curfew through Sunday night.
Johnson said he has spent much time this week listening to understand what more he can do.
“I’m trying to learn and educate myself and really listen during these times,” he said Friday during a Zoom call with media. “I find the more I listen, the more I learn.”
But he also knows there are questions about what more the sport and all its participants can do.
“I think for those of us that ask ourselves ‘Is there more that we can do?’ that’s the start of it,” he said. “I think that’s, ultimately, what a lot of the protestors far and wide want to ignite in people. Do you think you can do more? And when that really hits inside of you, will you act on it?
“I do think there’s time to do stuff this weekend. There’s a lot of discussion going on behind the scenes with many drivers with our sport, the leaders of sport.”
Bubba Wallace, the only black Cup driver, has discussed this week his feelings and experiences with police on the Dale Jr. Download and “Lunch Talk Live” on NBCSN and an Instagram video chat with Ty Dillon.
Dillon and Johnson are among drivers who have also expressed their feelings this week about the Floyd’s and protests.
Johnson said he reached out to Wallace earlier this week to talk.
“Bubba has been a great friend of mine,” Johnson said. “I’ve been in conversation with him with some of the depression issues that he’s battled over the years that he’s been able to share publicly. Things that drivers talk about and the challenges we have in our teams, our jobs, relationships, life and things like that – he and I have always had an open line of communication and talk on a deep level.
“To start, I just called to check in with him. I just wanted to know how he was doing. In that phone call, I learned a lot about him, his family and the things that they’ve been through. His cousin was killed while he was young, to learn that story, I just had no idea. I had no idea the challenges he’s been faced with. It’s part of that listening.”
Wallace told the story on the Dale Jr. Download about the 2003 death of a cousin in a police shooting in Tennessee.
“We were at my sister’s basketball tournament, I can’t remember where,” Wallace said. “I was running around the gym with all the brothers and sisters there and all of a sudden I hear a scream like the worst scream that you want to hear, not like somebody scared you straight, like something bad had just happened. I look over and I see my mom running out the door and we had just found out that my cousin was shot and killed by a police officer.”
A judge later cleared the officer in the shooting. The family filed a civil suit and lost in court on appeal.
As Johnson looks ahead to what more he can do, his foundation can play a key role.
Johnson’s foundation is dedicated to helping children and supports K-12 public and charter schools in select districts in California, Oklahoma and North Carolina.
“(Wife) Chandra and I both grew up in public school systems,” Johnson said. “We understand the diversity in the public school systems, we understand the challenges in the public school systems. And to us, we’ve always felt that starting with kids is the most important part of the equation.
“The earlier you start, the more hope you have for change in education and knowledge, and ultimately, better citizens in the country, citizens of the world, understanding culture abroad.
“Education has been very important to us and I think, in general, should be a point of focus. It has been for us. As I look into the future at what I do when I’m not a full-time racer, it’s a little unclear right now where I take the Jimmie Johnson Foundation. But our focus has been on children for a reason and we really feel like we can make change and really effect individuals’ lives if we start young enough.”