Johnson revs up for race by helping students release trout

October 21, 2011

By ASHLEY JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jimmie Johnson was out of his race car and in the classroom Thursday at Rich Acres Elementary School to learn about the Trout in the Classroom program.

Johnson sat in a small desk alongside students in JoAnna Griffith’s fifth-grade class as Dr. David Jones explained the program. Jones started Trout in the Classroom in Henry County and helped bring it into area school systems beginning in 2005.

Helping Jones was Brian Williams, program manager for the Dan River Basin Association. Williams explained that through the program, students raise trout from eggs to fingerlings, monitor water quality, engage in stream habitat studies, learn to appreciate water resources, begin to foster a conservation ethic and learn about ecosystems.

The students raise the fish in classroom tanks.

“It’s a fantastic program,” said Johnson, who will be in the area again in a week for the TUMS Fast Relief 500 on Oct. 30.

The Jimmie Johnson Foundation focuses on children, and Johnson has funded science labs in various schools. The labs “are expensive, but this is an affordable way to have a connection point with the kids,” he said. “I’m excited to meet with my (foundation) staff to see if we can incorporate a program like this into the areas where we give back.”

The Trout in the Classroom program seems to “keep kids involved and engaged in school,” he said.

“I was fortunate that my parents used motorsports to keep me engaged,” and if he didn’t make good grades, he didn’t race, Johnson said. “This program is a version of that.”

After learning about the program, Johnson helped the students release their trout into the Smith River in Bassett.

“Their excitement is contagious to be around,” he said. “It makes you feel young at heart again.”

Johnson, who enjoys being outdoors, said another important part of the program is that “it’s something to get them outside.”

Before heading to the river to release the trout, the students asked Johnson questions about his racing career.

He told them that he began racing motorcycles when he was 5 years old and started racing cars professionally at age 15.

“I hope all of you as students find something that’s important to you and that you believe in and follow it as a career path,” Johnson said to the class.

The students gasped when Johnson told them that he won 55 races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and has six wins at Martinsville Speedway, which is just a few miles from the school.

Johnson, a five-time Sprint Cup champion, is aiming for his sixth title in this year’s Chase for the Championship.

Tevin Penn, who is in Griffith’s class, said he was nervous Thursday morning at the thought of “meeting a professional race car driver,” but after his visit, “I think he’s a regular person like anybody else.”

Johnson could relate to Tevin. He said he grew up in a small town and remembers the thrill of someone coming to visit his school.

“Kids light me up,” and it made him feel good when the students presented him with a school T-shirt and when he saw that they placed a picture of his race car inside of the trout tank, Johnson said.

“I am very lucky” to be tied into the program, he said.

While he was at the school, Johnson also took a photo with students and a banner celebrating the school’s 2011 National Blue Ribbon Award. Rich Acres received the award earlier this year.

It is given to schools whose students achieve at high levels or have made significant progress and helped close achievement gaps.


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