CONCORD, N.C.—There’s two sides to Jimmie Johnson, the three-time defending champion often perceived to be a stiff, corporate spokesman who has sucked the drama out of NASCAR.
But he plays hard away from the track, where those who know him well insist he’s a laid-back California guy who loves a good party.
The public will get to judge for themselves next year when Johnson, who is trying for a NASCAR record fourth consecutive title this season, opens his life for HBO Sports’ award-winning “24/7” program. The four-episode series will air beginning in January and focus on Johnson’s preparation for the 2010 season-opening Daytona 500.
“I’m confident that my personality will come out, and for those who may think I’m boring, they’ll see a different side of me,” Johnson said Thursday from his office at Hendrick Motorsports.
The show will mark HBO’s first in-depth venture into NASCAR, and it will be the first time its “24/7” franchise will stray from boxing.
Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports, didn’t have any hesitation about choosing Johnson for the first non-boxing documentary.
“You know, they also said Oscar De La Hoya was boring,” Greenburg said.
“This gentleman has won three Cups in a row, is regarded as most by the greatest driver in the world. We look for personality, and when I came to visit him, it was a nonstop stop chatter box who has a lot to talk about. I think he’s ready.”
The project was brought to HBO by Creative Artists Agency on behalf of Johnson, who signed on with its sports division in 2008 for a marketing, licensing and endorsement deal. CAA asked Johnson for a list of projects he’d like to do and “24/7” was at the top.
He and his wife, Chandra, had become hooked on the series during the Ricky Hatton and Floyd Mayweather edition, and Johnson wanted a chance to do a similar project.
“I think it would be awesome to show what goes on in my life, the team, NASCAR, and truthfully to hit new fans,” Johnson said.
Johnson is also hoping he can parlay the show into another gig at HBO—a guest spot on “Eastbound and Down.”
“That would be awesome,” he said. “I carry that show around in my bag, and I’d love it if we could figure out a way to get me on there.”
But one thing at a time, Greenburg laughed, and first up will be at least 1,000 hours of filming to create the four 30-minute episodes. Cameras have already filmed a bit with Johnson and his wife, and the project will pick up steam as they head into the offseason and then to Daytona next year.
Although Johnson said his wife isn’t comfortable around cameras, he’s confident they’ll adapt. And he’s trusting the experience will be much different from what good friend Nick Lachey experienced doing “Newlyweds” for MTV with his now-ex, Jessica Simpson.
“I feel that this is much different than a reality show,” he said. “It’s certainly our real life but it’s more of a documentary than a reality show. That’s a big difference. And Nick would kill me, too.”
The show will have total access to Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, and the No. 48 race team in its preparation for NASCAR’s biggest race of the year. Greenburg expects an adventure or two with the notoriously intense crew chief Chad Knaus, who has little time for media when the pressure is on. Knaus can also be super secretive when it comes to strategies and planning, and the exposure could potentially unnerve him.
“We laugh about it, but it’s going to be interesting,” Greenburg said. “If Chad has trouble with it, that will be part of the story, too: Chad can’t handle this.
“He may bite Jimmie’s head off at times, and tell Jimmie to get these cameras out of here. Hopefully, we’re rolling when that happens.”
But Greenburg is most excited to expose NASCAR to a new audience.
“There’s so much to this sport that people don’t see,” he said. “That happened in boxing (with “24/7”) and that happened in pro football (with “Hard Knocks”), and we want to just bring it all out in NASCAR. Jimmie doesn’t have to be Floyd Mayweather and start throwing money around and making it rain, but we are going to show a different side of Jimmie Johnson to America and I think that people will maybe change their tune.”