DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When his Audi R18 slammed a guardrail at 185 mph and ricocheted across the track into another barrier in pitch-black darkness at the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans, Mike Rockenfeller never expected Jimmie Johnson to check on his well-being.
An ace European driver who had won Le Mans a year earlier, Rockenfeller certainly knew of Johnson – who in the racing world wouldn’t know the seven-time NASCAR Cup champion? – but he didn’t know him. They never had met, talked or had any form of contact.
Until an email from Jimmie Johnson landed in the German driver’s inbox immediately after Rockenfeller miraculously emerged unscathed from the horrifying wreck in France. It was “was so unexpected” because it was among the most sincere messages he ever received from another driver.
“To get that email from a legend like he is, it really meant a lot,” Rockenfeller, 37, told NBC Sports. “When I got it, I was so surprised. To me, that showed the mentality of America. The racing spirit they have here. Watching other categories, having the respect for each other. Obviously, it showed what kind of guy Jimmie is.
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“I replied instantly, and he replied back, saying, ‘Oh, I’m watching this. I love Le Mans, it’s so cool what you guys are doing.’ ”
Mike Rockenfeller (right) talks with Simon Pagenaud behind Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief for seven championships (Brian Cleary/bcpix.com).
The story will have another unbelievable twist at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona with the teaming of Johnson and Rockenfeller (who goes by “Rocky” in the paddock) on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac with Simon Pagenaud and Kamui Kobayashi.
This will be Johnson’s eighth start in the Rolex but his first in 10 years, and he said it was the kinship he discovered in sports cars that inspired the email to Rockenfeller.
“My time around endurance racing in the U.S. just showed me the community that exists here and really reminded me a lot of the way I grew up racing motocross,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “And I didn’t know Mike prior to sending that email, but when I saw the crash, it just struck me.
“I just could not believe that he survived that. And then knowing we had mutual friends, I was able to track down his address and send him an email just checking on him and saying hello and introducing myself.
“So to have this all now come full circle and share a car in the Rolex 24 is really cool for me for many reasons.”
Johnson is a little fuzzy on how he was able to obtain Rockenfeller’s contact information, but he believes it was through a Chevrolet connection. Though he occasionally does Twitter shoutouts to strangers, Johnson rarely sends emails sight unseen.
“Especially back then, that was pre-social media for me,” he said. “Racers admire from afar but rarely engage. We’re all kind of weird like that. So it was a little out of character for me to do that, but I’m very thankful that I did.”
When asked last Thursday at 2021 Rolex 24 Media Day, Rockenfeller still didn’t know 10 years later how Johnson had gotten in touch.
“Exactly, that was the first surprise,” said Rockenfeller, who idolized countryman Michael Schumacher growing up but later began following Johnson. “How did he get my email? He managed to do it, and again, that shows the effort to text somebody or ask somebody to get the email and immediately write me.
“It meant a lot really to see that. In a way, it made me proud that a guy like him I’m looking up to in all my career takes the time with all the schedule he had back then, because he was flat-out racing in NASCAR all those years, but he took the time and said, ‘Man, I’ll write him an email,’ and that really changed my mood.
“Schumacher in my early days is probably what Jimmie is for a lot of kids and guys in America in NASCAR. So to be with him on the car, it’s a great opportunity, and I’m so looking forward to it.”
Johnson and Rockenfeller connected face to face for the first time since the Le Mans email on Dec. 9, 2020 when their Action Express Racing team tested at Daytona International Speedway.
“Super nice guy,” Rockenfeller said. “Great driver, obviously, but also a nice person. Which is always important in endurance racing. What’s good in our lineup, each driver had a good career, but there’s no ego. It’s not like we need to prove something. We want to enjoy what we’re doing and do our very best, and the big goal is obviously to get a new watch.”
Action Express Racing team manager Gary Nelson said he also learned of Johnson’s email for the first time when Rockenfeller shared it at the Daytona test.
“Rocky told the story, and I thought that was pretty amazing,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “Jimmie sees race car drivers as a big fraternity who look after each other. Rocky was quite impressed by that. He had one hell of a crash there in Le Mans.”
In another “small world” story on the No. 48 team, Johnson also already was good friends with Pagenaud, whose wife, Hailey, grew up in El Cajon, California, and is tight with Johnson’s younger brother Jessie. Jimmie Johnson and Pagenaud were in Jessie Johnson’s wedding together a year ago.
“It’s really cool; a great personal story for me to join the legend,” said Pagenaud, the 2016 IndyCar champion and 2019 Indy 500 winner.
“I feel like with Simon and Rocky there’s a very similar, passionate desire that we all have, and the way that we carry ourselves,” Jimmie Johnson said.
“I’ve really enjoyed getting to know them, and hopefully this is just the start of things for us at this race, and maybe we can do some more racing with one another down the road.”