NASCAR Media Conference
Topics: NASCAR, Top Gear
April 24, 2012
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to this special NASCAR teleconference. Today's teleconference features BBC America's Top Gear host Richard Hammond who joins us today from the UK, and five‑time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson, one of the drivers showcased in the upcoming Top Gear episode featuring NASCAR along with Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya.
In the episode, Hammond explores the history of NASCAR, and tells the story of how the sport evolved into what it is today. After explaining its roots, Hammond visits Texas Motor Speedway on race weekend to dive into the different elements and intricacies of a NASCAR race car. The episode airs for the first time on BBC America next Monday April 30th at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
Richard, talk about your experience at Texas Motor Speedway during the shoot, and was it all you expected for Top Gear when you focused on NASCAR for an episode?
RICHARD HAMMOND: Straight up, no it wasn't. Because NASCAR, well, we're familiar with it on Top Gear, of course, if you're a car guy, you have to be. We weren't familiar with the intricacies of it, we just knew about it. When we arrived at the speedway I thought well, I'm going to feel out of place. I'm not going to know what's going on.
But I couldn't have been more wrong. The moment when I stepped out of the car arriving, I was made so welcome. That's largely because at the very essence of the sport, in the very center of it, there is an awareness on the part of the drivers and the teams, all of them, all they want to do is drive. That's all they're there to do. They realized long, long ago, to facilitate that, they need to put on a good show so people can come and watch it because it costs millions of pounds a year to do this.
Boy do they. That absolutely informed everything they did. We were made so welcome, and before I knew it, I ended up being filmed in the pits with cars coming in during the race. You couldn't be made any more welcome than that.
I don't think there is any more Motorsport in the world at that level where you'll see spectators wandering around the pit lanes where the drivers sleep at the track the night before the race. It was absolutely unique, and I had a wonderful time. I loved it. I want to come back and do it again.
THE MODERATOR: Jimmie, talk about your experience working with Richard and the rest of the Top Gear crew last fall in Texas?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It was great to see them out. I'm a fan of the show, and I was very happy to see the film crew, and to know how in depth Top Gear is with their program and the fact that they were going to take our sport and showcase it to the level that they do was exciting to me. I was excited to be a part of it. It was a pleasure to meet everyone, and I certainly hope to cross paths again with everybody.
THE MODERATOR: One last thing, and I'm sure you're aware. But what is your reaction to topping Forbes list of America's Most Influential Athletes for the second year in a row?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's just a huge honor. Not only is it very good for me and my career and what I do in the race car and my brand, I think it's very good for NASCAR as well. So among all athletes in America, to be ranked the most influential athlete out there, I'm very proud of the award and very happy to receive it.
Q. Richard, what was something about doing this piece that surprised you about NASCAR? Was there something that you didn't know before that you learned?
RICHARD HAMMOND: I think the whole spirit of the event, for one. As I said in the introduction, there is nowhere elsewhere you'll find Motorsport at this level of professionalism and speed and ability where people are so welcoming. That to a European guy who is used to seeing F1, and the great Motorsport we have over here, but it's very remote, very distant. You're kept at arm's length. And these guys were so welcoming.
The biggest surprise was the drivers of the likes of Jimmie, just who wandered around the crowds and talked to people. That is unheard of in other Motorsports and really revealing of an attitude that says come along and watch. And they know they need to put on that show.
Q. Jimmie, I wanted to ask you that question. We know what Richard learned by getting to do this. But what was your most memorable moment in being part of this piece?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: We were trying to shoot our piece while the teams were warming the cars, and with the audio required, we had a hell of a time just trying to find a quiet spot to get it done to show him around my race car.
RICHARD HAMMOND: You can't win. It's loud, man. It's incredibly loud.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: They are loud.
RICHARD HAMMOND: I would say there are no hard feelings in that I was almost in contention for the most influential sports athlete of the year.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I know, I saw you were close by.
RICHARD HAMMOND: Maybe I'll get it next year.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Right (laughing).
Q. Jimmie, this is a different topic, but I know you posted some comments on Twitter yesterday or so in regards to the issue about some fans wanting cautions to bunch the field up for competition. I wanted to ask you is that notion insulting to you as a competitor? Do you see someone's point that putting you guys back side by side for a restart is better potentially for the entertainment purposes of the event?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, truthfully I was having some fun yesterday just trying to see what the opinions were. There are a lot of comments about how few cautions we've had over the last couple weeks on the mile and a half. So I sent out a conversation stimulating thought.
And I was pleasantly surprised the majority weren't after the wreck. They just wanted things bunched up at the side by side racing. Still it's a slippery slope and tough to understand, because we go to some tracks that were known for crashes, like Bristol, and we run side by side, lap after lap, and that doesn't win the fan appeal as well.
So it's a complicated topic. And there is been a lot of discussion about it, and I was reading a lot of different things about it, and I just wanted to engage and get the pulse of the fans myself.
Q. Did you learn anything to further your knowledge, and is it something that if not now, NASCAR might need to take a look at?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: There are certainly things to look at, but I don't know how we address much. We completely changed the type of vehicle we race in to have parity in the sport. Now we're virtually running the same speed. You look at the quality times and how tight things are, when you run the same speed, it's tough to pass.
But we need that in order to have parity, and not let teams skid away and separate themselves so we have the action on the racetrack.
In my opinion, it's starting to focus on the tracks that we race on. There are some tracks that are more racing than other racetracks, and that's the direction I'm looking in these days. As we start resurfacing tracks, let's take some extra steps to make sure it's not a single group racetrack the first time we go up.
Then from there, we know what progressive banking can do and we're well aware of short tracks and the action they provide. Maybe we reconfigure some of these tracks and get rid of the mile and a halves. I mean, there are plenty of them. Let's get more mile and unders on the circuit. Those are ideas easy from my point, because they don't cost me any money. But I think that's the direction things are heading.
The competition is equal. And by design, it needs to be that way. So I think that is the area to focus in.
Q. I want to shift gears a little bit. I want to ask you about Travis Pastrana. I don't know if you've been following him at all. Is he coming back in the stock cars at Richmond? I know he's a friend of yours. And I want to know, first, have you talked to him at all? And how do you think he'll do on Friday night?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think he'll do well. And I you'll see I gave him a pretty cool haircut, there is more to follow in the next couple days. But he has a rocking mullet that I was able to carve out of his head with some metal cutting sheers.
So he is all committed, fully in. On a more serious note, it's his time. The guy knows how to race and ride and drive and whatever the heck it is. It's just car time. It's like Carmichael or Juan Pablo, like staying on four wheels, it just takes time to find that last point 2.
Travis is coming in pretty green. Sew has to find the big steps. Then once he gets through the big steps, it's down to the last point 2. Some people take a couple years, others take longer than that. So it's just a time thing.
But I'm really happy to have him in the sport. He's an amazing guy with a huge fan base, and it's going to be good for NASCAR.
Q. How did this haircut take place?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, that's the part I can't reveal yet. But I think tomorrow the rest of the story will unfold. But there are some photos floating around in the social space right now. But it's a pretty nice mullet.
Q. When Travis made the announcement a month ago about doing more rallies this year, there was a lot of discussion about how committed to stock cars is he? Is he really full‑time on NASCAR? Is the sense you get that he's doing the rally just to stay in the car, and that NASCAR Sprint Cup is his ultimate goal that he's still fully committed to being a stock car driver?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I'm not sure. I don't know if Travis knows, and people that know Travis realize that. He does what he likes to do. I mean, he lets his heart kind of lead him and his interests lead him. I think this year, he's going to get his feet wet in stock cars and see where it goes. At the same time, he's done so well in the Rally America stuff, it doesn't matter who you are, you want to win races and championships.
So I have to imagine he's got a nice opportunity there to go out and compete and have a shot at the championship while getting some stock car experience.
Q. Jimmie, they're having a tire test at Pocono today. I heard they had to shovel snow off the track?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I heard that too.
Q. But I wonder what you expect from the track? It's the first time it's been repaved since the mid '90s. I hear you guys will have a half day to test up there race day or during race weekend. But what do you think it's going to be like?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: We're assuming it's going to be very smooth and very fast. The tire that we're to run on is always‑‑ with new tracks and high speeds, we usually end up on a sketch tire, one that's durable and hard, but it takes a lot of laps for it to come in. I'm anticipating that. I'm anticipating qualifying on that, one from speed, and a tire that's durable enough to handle the high speeds.
In the race, a similar thing and something that I'm thinking about is the brakes. We could run the brakes off the cars there with the old surface and lower speeds. I would imagine that brakes will be a pretty big concern with the elevated straightaway speed, although you'll have more grip to turns. But still, it's a pretty sharp turn there after some very long straightaways.
Q. You probably addressed this at Kansas. Dale Jr. feels he's the best racer out there and smartest and so forth. I'm just curious what your reaction was to that?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Not familiar with what he said, but I can tell you that every one of those drivers climbing in a race car every Sunday feels that they're the best otherwise they wouldn't be out there. So I'm not familiar with what he said, but I have to assume it is a natural line of thought.
Q. He was asked, do you think Jimmie Johnson is a better race car driver than you? And he said, hell no. No, he said Jimmie's a hell of a race car driver, but I feel like I'm the best. That's the way you have to feel. Pretty much what you just said.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, exactly. I'm not very good anyway, so (laughing).
Q. Richard, what in your opinion is the difference in approaches between the way American car makers make cars and the way European car builders build cars?
RICHARD HAMMOND: I think sometimes European makers, particularly the performance cars, get very much caught up in the idea that it's absolute dry performance as it were on the track that matters most, when very few owners are going to take whatever else over to Germany and pitch it with somebody with a new 99 Block. Whereas UK car makers are better at remembering, yeah, it's got to be fun.
So if you look at the Camaro and some of the hotter Mustangs, they remember that, yeah, all of that is fine. Very few people are going to take them on the track and do what Jimmie does. They're going to drive them in the real world.
There, it's not just about fuel economy and getting good gas mileage, it's also about does it make you feel good? That's why I like American cars, because they make life a bit happier, a bit more exciting. You couldn't ask for more from a car, could you?
Q. The quote in the Forbes article was about the fact that people are becoming more aware of the drivers this year and this year, six of the ten most influential athletes are NFL signal callers. Why do you think that you were able to get that accolade? What is the reasoning for it? Obviously everybody in NASCAR, the fans are proud of the fact that a driver is up at the top of the pack. Why do you think you got it?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I haven't read the article myself. I was in team meetings all day long, and started to get text messages and emails from everyone. I felt like I needed to respond really quick on Twitter to ride the wave.
I haven't read the article itself. I'm not sure of the criteria. But I'm happy with the outcome, bottom line. I'm happy to be the most influential athlete out there. I think it does speak to the reach of our sport. And for an outside group to analyze all sports in general and look at all the factors necessary to put myself, a NASCAR driver in that spot says a lot for all of us involved.
Q. Do you think it helps solidify that drivers are great athletes?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, without a doubt. It's a battle we're going to fight. I feel like we've been winning that battle over the last five years or so. And I think winning the AP Athlete of the Year award a few years back was very helpful, because there was really from our toughest critics. And for them to select me and choose me as that really got things over center.
And anybody I know that's an athlete that comes to a race or enjoys racing or I run across they know what it's about. So I believe that deal has gone away.
Q. After getting repaved, how much do you think it impact the race in October?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It will be a lot different. Our set‑up and mindset for Kansas, too, has evolved since our first trip there. There are trends that we pick up on with the grip level. What affects need to be done to qualify for the race or race adjustments, and that's all going to change.
I would assume even the aggregate that they use for the asphalt will change and be more like the new stuff we see now, which has very little grip. It's tough to get those tracks to work in. I hope that's not the case. I know Pocono has tried to go back to the original aggregate they had to get side by side racing faster.
So we'll go back there with a lot of questions, and I'm sure there will be a practice session the day before to let us get a feel for things. But really we go back with a clean sheet of paper and start all over again.
Q. What track are you looking forward to race the most this year?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Dover's my favorite track. But we're getting into a stretch right now with a lot of great racetracks. There really aren't any that I don't like, to be honest with you. For a while, Bristol gave me a hard time, but it's been a lot of fun lately. I love Martinsville. I love racing at Darlington and look forward to that track working its way back to an old, slick, abusive track like it used to be.
We've got a lot of racing coming up in Charlotte in May, and it's always nice to be close to home.
Q. Richard, you and your fellow presenters have made fun of NASCAR in the past, and you already talked about how your perception of NASCAR has changed. But have you tried to convince that Jeremy guy and Captain Slow that NASCAR really is fun?
RICHARD HAMMOND: I'll try, I'll try. But they're also two guys that believe exercise makes you stupid, and they've stated that claim. So there is no explaining the state of them. But, no, I think all things American on the show at the moment.
But I think it's a British reserved thing. They're unwilling to embrace the fact that NASCAR is aware. Everybody wants a damn good show out of it. You were talking about it earlier on with Jimmie, and Jimmie the way you were discussing that professionally. You wouldn't expect to hear as kind of mature and professionally considerate a conversation about the spectacle, the show, the event, which it's got to be.
The racing is essential. But it's about the drivers and teams getting to do what they love as athletes and as teams. I understand. But at the same time, there is a kind of deal of going public. I want to see a good show. What I saw when I went was an amazing show from everybody involved.
Q. Speaking of American shows, the History Channel has the American version of Top Gear over here. Is there ever going to be some collaboration between the two shows like you did with the Aussie Top Gear show a few years ago where had you them come over and compete? Anything like that you'd like to do?
RICHARD HAMMOND: I'd love to see that. I've met the guys of the American show, of course we have. But give them time to settle down and make sure they get their share of shows. We've had ten years of doing ours, and they haven't yet. But I'd love to pop up on their show and get in the way, and get stuff wrong and break things, because that's what we do.
Q. A couple years ago you had not such a happy ending with the Jet dragster, and we all prayed for you and we're glad it turned out okay. But have you ever thought about going back to do that again? Like some kind of redemption of getting back on the horse?
RICHARD HAMMOND: Yeah, my wife might have a view about me getting on that particular horse again. We did a few things at Bonneville Salt Flats in a stock car, in fact, a new Challenger. But it's an unnerving moment. But, yeah, one day, but I'll have to buy my wife another horse before I can get on that one again.
Q. Richard, obviously your piece involved Juan Pablo Montoya. He has the perspective of Formula 1 and NASCAR. I wanted to see what kind of interesting stuff you got out of him?
RICHARD HAMMOND: Well here's the most revealing thing. Juan Pablo Montoya enjoys a reputation across Europe whenever he is interviewed post race for just saying nothing. And the guys in the office at Top Gear said, well, good luck. You'll get an interview with him, but you'll get one word out of him, if that. And the guy was just so effusive and enthusiastic. He sat me in the car and talked to me about how it works and how it feels. He was literally hopping up‑and‑down with enthusiasm, to the extent the guys in the office at Top Gear could not believe what he had given us.
I think that tells you everything about how the guy is. He was absolutely wedded to it. He loved it. He was a completely different man. Just as they are, in many ways, different sports. The driving is different, the attitude of the drivers and the sport, and the relationship that it enjoys with its fans is very different, and it was expressed fabulously well through Juan Pablo being so enthusiastic. He was like a little kid with his new toy, which was fantastic to see.
Q. Jimmie, obviously, they have a European perspective on things. I wanted to see if they might have asked you something that us American media failed to maybe get out of you guys?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Outside of the cool accent, I think that's about it.
RICHARD HAMMOND: Not what my daughter thinks, but there you go.
Q. My first question is for Richard. I guess, you know, can you kind of walk us through what you did at Texas Motor Speedway and some of the things that you enjoyed as you get to drive the cars what all went down and what are we going to see Monday?
RICHARD HAMMOND: Not just to get in the way and complain about the noise the car makes because it is really loud. Remember, we're introducing an audience to a new Motorsport. In Europe, there are a lot of guys follow it, but there are a lot who still don't.
So we were getting a history of it, its roots. It was fantastic. It goes a long way to explain what is still at the core of this multi‑million dollar Motorsport. There is this slight whiff of a kind of slightly outlawish, rebellious streak, and also Folksy in engaging people who watch it.
So we explored the history of it. They put me in the pits, and even put me near a car that was coming in. I had a job blowing the brakes dust off the wheels, and I was trying hard not to mix it up.
And I got to drive the car which was staggering. It took me to a whole new realm. I fly a helicopter at home, and when you roll that car into the bank‑‑ bearing in mind I'm a complete novice‑‑ even at the speeds I was rolling, to feel it settle down as you drive through another dimension, I felt more like I was in my helicopter than a car. It felt unlike anything else I'd ever driven. It was astonishing.
Q. And Jimmie, Richard was saying earlier when he got to the track he realized how friendly it was and how much access everybody has. When you bring someone to the track for the first time, whether it be someone from outside the sport, family member, whatever it may be, what do you find that their perceptions are versus what they see in reality?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I think it's very similar, the access that fans have at a NASCAR event is second to none. What makes it more apparent to me is when a football friend or baseball friend comes to the track. Especially the baseball guys, the starting pitcher you're not even allowed to talk to that guy prior to a game.
So just to see the interaction the driver has with the fans, how accessible the cars are, the crew members are, the fans around the work space, the hospitality events that take place prior to the race, the driver intros, every aspect of it is really an eye‑opening experience for anyone that I bring out there.
We have something special in our sport, and I think that's what has separated us over the years and why our sports are so highly attended.
Q. Jimmie, I wanted to get your take on how things are different at Daytona in July versus February? Obviously you're not there as long in July, the weather is different, the race is shorter, but can you talk about some of the different changes between the two, if you don't mind, Jimmie, thanks?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, you come back in July and your grip level is down 20, 30%, and we'd have to make different aero changes and handling changes to the car that we wouldn't even consider in February when the temps are a lot lower. So that was kind of the common trend.
I'm thinking back to Tony Stewart and how fast he would be in July, and we all wonder why he didn't have the same speed or dominance in February and it's really because it was two different racetracks at the time.
Now with the repaved grips it's much more abundant, and that delta is a lot closer together. So eventually will end up there, and it might be this year, but I don't think so. The track still has a lot of grip, very few bumps, if any at all, more like little ripples, that's about it.
So I think we'll still be on a full speed package from aero and mechanical grip, and not really need to compromise any of that and make the car handle right over the long haul.
Q. Does the overall mood tend to be more laid back in July than in February?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I guess so. I mean, we're down there so long in February that there are different high points that you get charged up for, especially on Sunday race day. It's different. It's just nice to be down there for a couple days and go on.
We have all the testing and different appearances we make for the speedway when we run the Rolex 24 and come back for the race. I feel like in January and February, so it's nice to come back and be in and out in two or three days.
Q. We're talking about fans and being recognized. Obviously you have a very familiar face to a lot of fans. But you also travel to Europe. There are times when you get away that you're really not recognized. Could you talk about that and what that's like for you? Here you have a very famous face, and then maybe get Richard's take on what you say.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Okay. Traveling around, I'd certainly do fly under the radar. We used to take a trip in July and work our way through a lot of different areas. I see F1 stickers or watch F1 broadcasts, a little rally, a little Moto GP. But in most areas, NASCAR is not around.
When I've competed in the Race of Champions event, they know that NASCAR drivers are coming, and London especially when we raced there, there was a huge gathering of fans. I mean, they're flying 48 flags and they had die cast cars for me to sign.
So I think there are different pockets where NASCAR has worked its way into. But we still have a lot of ground over there to make up within the Motorsports community to showcase our races to.
RICHARD HAMMOND: I think that can only grow as W everything I've said about the sport providing a fantastic spectacle. That's not to undermine the sincerity of the races. Every time I mingled with Jimmie and the other guys, all they want to do is race. They're athletes and machines themselves. That's what they do, that's what they're designed to do.
But equally, there is a sense that permeates the sport that, yeah, we'll do this. We want to get out on the track and race, but to do that, we want to make it a spectacle and fantastic weekend.
To that end, to see Jimmie at the level you're doing it and have been just granted an award for most influential sports person, and yet standing there talking to people. You spoke in the previous question about people in your work space. And, yeah, that's absolutely unheard of across Europe and something that the more we see it, the more people will think I want to get some of that, because I want to get that close to my idols and the sport that I follow.
Q. Jimmie, if I could ask you about Charlotte and Daytona. Obviously, you couldn't hardly walk anywhere. Could you talk a little about that and what that's like to fans and sometimes you just want to get away, right?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, it's not bad. I mean, around race weekend there are certainly more people thinking of race car drivers and around them. There are more race fans in town. But it is what it is. I'm very, very happy to be in this position to have the success I have. The hardest part is at the race when I'm trying to do my job and we're having a bad practice session and I'm trying to get from the race car to the transporter, and there are fans there waiting for hours who want an autograph. And I'm in my work space, in my office, if you will, and I can't take the time.
Away from the track, I'm a lot more at ease with all of that than I ever am in my work space. It doesn't bother me. It's a great privilege to have. I still remember the days I was walking around with a pin, and not wearing a fire suit that had my name on it, and people were calling me the wrong name, and I was just excited to sign something for them. So it's not a bad thing at all.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you. Jimmie, Richard's been behind the wheel of all sorts of different cars on Top Gear. Is there a car that you've seen on the show that you really want to get behind the wheel and take a couple of laps in?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: One of my favorite episodes, I don't think Rich was driving, but I think it was the Lotus F1. They have a rich man's play day where you can come to a track. They set up the rigs and put you in a car and let you go out and run and have the full F1 experience. That looked really cool and one episode I always think of.
How amazing that would be to go out and experience. I think it's a cool car and all, but to go out and have a proper test and have some time in an F1 car would be cool.
RICHARD HAMMOND: You'd be worthy of it. I did drive an F1 Renault a few years back. And after three laps of the circuit I had to bring it back in because the tires reheated. It's really hard. It stalled eight times trying to get it out of the pits. So, yeah, it's pretty focused.
THE MODERATOR: You've driven so many different types of cars as we were talking about. What was it like getting behind the wheel of a 3,000 pound car running 800 horsepower with little traction control?
RICHARD HAMMOND: It was like climbing inside a dragon and shutting the door. I love cars built for purpose. I love cars that need a driver to do it. But things like the Noble M600. But in the case of a NASCAR, it's so focused. It has a job to do. As long as you're up to it, it will do the job.
Having the faith and confidence to know that it will hold at those speeds when your brain is telling you, get out now, fella, because you've already crashed. It was mind‑blowing.
So to have Jimmie and the rest of his racers do what they do, it's a different mindset. They go to a different place when they're out there for racing, and I salute them all for managing it.
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