This weekend, Jimmie Johnson will officially be awarded his fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship during the series banquet in Las Vegas. With that honor, he is clearly on top of the stock car racing world right now.
But the California native still fondly remembers his short track roots. After cutting his teeth in off road racing in the deserts of the Southwest, Johnson used his contacts at Chevrolet to branch out into the now-defunct ASA National Tour.
Despite having only a half-dozen stock car races of experience under his belt before getting into the #44 Herzog Motorsports ride, Johnson proved to be a quick learner. He won the 1998 ASA Rookie of the Year title. After two seasons in ASA, Johnson and the Herzog team moved up into what is now known as the NASCAR Nationwide Series and then Johnson moved into Cup racing with the #48 Hendrick Motorsports team that he has enjoyed so much subsequent success with.
There were a few key people who helped Johnson during his ASA days that he remembers today. One is his current car chief on the #48, Ron Malec, who was a crew member and roommate of Johnson's during their ASA involvement. Malec moved up with Johnson through the ranks and is still a part of his success today.
The other man is someone who sadly is not here to see Johnson's record fifth straight Cup championship. Howie Lettow was the crew chief of Johnson's ASA entry. Despite having offers to move up into the big three divisions of NASCAR, Lettow stayed in the short track ranks for his whole life and proved the tutor to a number of drivers who would go on to do great things in their careers. In addition to Johnson, a number of drivers were coached by Lettow through the years. Mark Martin, Ted Musgrave, David Stremme, Stephen Leicht and Kelly Bires were just a few drivers who made it into the top three tours of the NASCAR world after learning a thing or two from Lettow.
Lettow passed away earlier this season, but Johnson still has fond memories of the time that he and Malec all raced together as a team.
”I think back to riding in the transporter with Ron and Howie, all the fun we had when I was living up there in Wisconsin in ASA racing,” said Johnson after winning his latest championship. “Ron and I, a friend of ours put us together. We kind of knew each other from the racetrack, all the racing I was doing. But a friend put us together and thought we would be roommates essentially, because I needed somewhere to live, felt like he could be a big asset to our race team. He was right.
“We've come a long way. I mean, from my first time driving an ASA stock car to where we are today, we've been through a ton together. I deeply miss Howie and everything he taught me about stock cars and kind of being a man. Ron and I were pretty young guys trying to figure out life. Howie had a great way to keep us in check, keep us in line, did a lot for me on and off the racetrack.”
Although Lettow has passed on, his legacy still lives on with every victory and championship that is won by one of his students - including Jimmie Johnson.