For the second year in a row five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson has been ranked by Forbes magazine as America’s most influential athlete.
Forbes polled more than 1100 adults aiming to measure the likability and marketing influence of the USA’s top athletes, and Johnson came out on top ahead of NFL quarterbacks Tim Tebow and brothers Peyton and Eli Manning.
This is a remarkable and valuable piece of recognition for any racing driver because by all measures America’s long-established major sports – NFL football, Major League Baseball and NBA basketball – draw much bigger TV ratings, crowds and overall media coverage than NASCAR. For sure, NASCAR is by far the most visible and successful form of motor sport in the United States, but it’s no match for the presence or major roles played in popular American culture by the traditional stick and ball sports.
So again, Forbes’ survey says a lot about Johnson who is often booed by a small portion of people during driver introductions that take place prior to every NASCAR race. Among NASCAR fans he trails well behind Hendrick Motorsports’ teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the popularity stakes and is often criticised for being too bland or metronomic. Born and raised in southern California, Johnson is a world-wise fellow and a very calm, cool character who speaks without any hint of Southern drawl. He thus lacks much of Earnhardt Jr’s appeal to NASCAR’s hardcore fan base but has apparently done a much better job of appealing to the broader market. In fact, Earnhardt fell from third on Forbes’ most influential list last year to seventh this year.
Johnson has also extended his persona into the wider media market by appearing in a series of TV ads in recent years for his sponsors Lowe’s and Kobalt Tools. The ads are low-key and humorous, much like Johnson in fact, and usually include his crew chief Chad Knaus.
For my part, I’ve never found Johnson to be anything other than an extremely courteous gentleman. He’s always been generous with his time and loves to talk about all forms of motor sport. Johnson is inquisitive about new things or changes going on elsewhere in racing and is simply a good-natured, open-minded man.
He’s also a superb race car driver who can handle a loose car with the best of them and is nothing short of tremendous at getting the best out of his car and tyres. Johnson is also much better than most, if not all, of his competitors at being able to adapt his car and driving to the changing track conditions that are an essential and extremely challenging element to NASCAR’s long races.
So I’m delighted to see Johnson earn Forbes’ most influential athlete rating for the second consecutive year. He thoroughly deserves it and there’s no better a contemporary American racer to represent motor racing in the USA’s churning sea of pop culture.