GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Jimmy Johnson was forced to sneak quick bites of ice cream between answering questions and telling tales about racing’s golden days at the Clay County Agriculture …
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Jimmy Johnson was forced to sneak quick bites of ice cream between answering questions and telling tales about racing’s golden days at the Clay County Agriculture Fair.
After spending most of his life in stock-car racing, Johnson now must navigate his time through busy traffic and the smells of hot cinnamon-glazed pecans and homemade fudge of a county fair. Fans, young and old, pour through his memorabilia. Others take a spin in a simulator. And Johnson is happy to provide a story with every visit.
Johnson is committed to raising money for Racers Reunion, a group that is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the drivers, crews, fans and cars of racing’s colorful history, and to provide a living, growing historical document to educate young fans and to give older fans a walk down memory lane, according to the nonprofit’s website.
Some fans are surprised when Johnson says his name and his background. When they hear his name, they expect to see seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Jimmy Johnson, however, is quick end the confusion.
“I’m the first Jimmy Johnson,” he said with a giggle.
There are stacks of signed photos and boxes filled with diecast cars. The walls are covered with posters and pictures. Many are signed; others are not. It’s a treasure trove of nostalgia. And each one comes with one of Johnson’s stories.
Hidden among his prized collection is a photo of legendary car owner Junie Dunleavy and driver Bobby Hillin Jr., Jeff Gordon photos in his Baby Ruth car during his early days in the Busch Series, a diecast of Joe Nemechek’s No. 42 Bellsouth car and signed photographs of Reed Sorenson and Greg Sacks.
“We organized this 21 years ago,” Johnson said. “In the beginning, it was started to help out old guys from Tennessee who raced back in the day like [Bob] Brownie King.”
Fairgoers can buy laps inside his simulator, a converted ARCA Racing Series car. U.S. Congressman Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) was the first to climb aboard the old Chevrolet Monte Carlo. She yelled and laughed as she tried to work through traffic on a video version of the Daytona International Speedway.
“That was a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s not as easy as it looks.”
Johnson said the driver with the top score during the 11-day fair will earn two tickets to any Cup Series race.
Johnson, who used to work with several ARCA teams, now travels the fair and festival circuits. He also attends special events.
“All of our memorabilia is donated,” he said. “We couldn’t afford to travel and buy things. A lot of our stuff comes from families who are going through old things after someone dies or they’re just going through stuff in storage. We’re always happy to get it.”
Fans often spend more than a half hour looking for trinkets of their favorite drivers. Last Sunday, one man bought a No. 48 Jimmie Johnson belt buckle. Another bought the 20-lap simulator package. Another man was so atoned to adding to his collection of diecast cars, he didn’t notice his wife eventually wandered away to check out other exhibits.
The Clay County Fair was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic 21 days before its scheduled opening a year ago. Patrons clearly were eager to be back outside and having a good time again. Organizers said they expect a record attendance.
Johnson said he’s impressed by the traffic that visits his booth inside the first exhibition hall.
“The is the best I’ve ever seen at a fair and I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he said. “I didn’t expect to be so busy. It’s not easy to keep up with it all. We were hoping to make a certain amount of money, but we’ve easily beaten that every day.”
Which explains why he only has time to sneak quick bites instead of finishing a meal.