He must have been a very good boy.
That said, Santa probably won’t top Johnson’s fifth Christmas, when he ran into the Johnson family room to find magic under the tree.
“I remember vaguely coming out and seeing a motorcycle under the Christmas tree,” Johnson remembered. “Looking back, that probably is my most meaningful gift.”
It started Johnson on a path that led from motorcycle racing to off-road racing to stadium truck racing to NASCAR to the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year to riches beyond imagining.
Johnson’s face lights up, though, when he talks about a much-less-practical gift that arrived during his childhood.
“When I was 7 or 8 my parents found an old arcade-style video game, and we came out Christmas morning and saw that thing sitting there,” he said. “I think it was Asteroids. We never left the house. We sat there for days playing that game.”
Christmas for the Johnson family wasn’t typical. It was about sand, not snow. The family lived in El Cajon, CA and escaped to the desert to ride motorbikes and dune buggies between Christmas and New Year’s.
“On Christmas Day we’d open gifts and take everything off the Christmas tree,” he said. “Our trailers were already packed with our buggies and bikes, and we’d throw the tree on the trailer as the last thing and drive down to the desert and stay through New Year’s Day.
“All the families we knew would come, and they’d all bring their trees. On New Year’s night we’d tie all the trees together and have one heck of a fire.”
Twenty-five years later, Johnson will be celebrating his first Christmas as a parent. He says he and his wife, Chandra, and their baby daughter, Genevieve, probably will spent much of the holiday relaxing at home.
She’s not quite ready for the sand dunes.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.