As new brand ambassador for CBD product, Jimmie Johnson branches out with branding

Jimmie Johnson CBD
Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

While he built a squeaky-clean corporate image as one of motorsports’ smoothest spokesman, a CBD deal once might have seemed unfathomable for Jimmie Johnson.

But Friday’s announcement of Johnson as a strategic brand ambassador conversant in hemp varietals for cbdMD reveals how Johnson’s pristine brand and the emerging CBD market, which has become a multibillion-dollar industry, both have evolved.

Though he became comfortable as an active user of the product over the past few months, Johnson still checked with his sponsor lineup before agreeing to the multiyear deal with cbdMD, a publicly traded company based in Charlotte.

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“As I’ve educated myself, I’ve become much more comfortable, and as I walk down this road with all of my partners, they’ve all approved and are very comfortable with the relationship,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “If anyone raised their hand and said no, I probably would be more concerned, but I just feel like where CBD has evolved to and the education that has taken place, the benefits that are out there, I think we are dealing with a more educated society, and they understand it.”

Joining golfer Bubba Watson and MMA fighter Daniel Cormier as a cbdMD spokesman, Johnson will be part of the company’s approach to take its brand mainstream by having athletes tell their stories.

“Knowing the partnership has formed because they truly believe in me and like who I am and want to be a part of my brand, there is a deeper level of satisfaction,” said Johnson, who has become more involved with aggressively recruiting sponsors such as Carvana while moving into racing full time in IndyCar this season (in the “2.0 phase” of his career continues post-NASCAR).

TopSpeed Management president Brian Marks, a consultant for cbdMD who set up the company’s initial meeting with Johnson at the Petit Le Mans last year, said the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion was its sole choice for its expansion into big-league racing.

“He lends a lot of credibility,” Marks told NBC Sports. “It’s instant starpower for sure. Especially in motorsport, he carries a lot of weight from a brand standpoint We are looking to give street credibility to the brand in a quick fashion. Doing something with Jimmie really allows us to ratchet that up with warp speed.”

The NTT IndyCar Series recently approved cbdMD for 2022 sponsorship after the company, which positions itself as a health and wellness brand that has requested to remove its drug exclusion with the FDA. There were two major requirements to earn IndyCar’s favor: That cbdMD’s products were 100 percent hemp and avoided using cannabis imagery in marketing.

The perception connecting the CBD industry with marijuana has been a major hurdle in receiving brand approval for auto racing sponsorships.

Johnson has used all of cbdMD’s products, ranging from topical oils to soft gels and gummies, and been “very impressed” with their impact on his muscle recovery from workouts and improved sleep quality, but he also wanted assurances while competing in a sport that has random drug testing and a zero-tolerance policy for even trace amounts of THC. He uses a QR code on cbdMD packaging to ensure each batch has no THC.

“In the past, I’ve been very nervous of taking the ingestibles, because there’s a chance of the THC level being too high and causing a problem,” Johnson said. “They’ve gone to great lengths to ensure the security that I would need as an athlete, especially for a sport that still screens for THC.

“I feel like a lot of people are comfortable with CBD on the topical side. When you get to the ingestibles is where the concern takes place. Hopefully, over time people will understand it and be more comfortable with it.”

That’s the goal of having Johnson, who kicked off the deal with a video unveiling a new helmet Friday morning. He also will be featured in a national advertising campaign on print, digital and cable TV (there are restrictions for network TV advertising). “They have huge plans and plan to blow it out and steer toward a peak at the Indy 500,” Johnson said.

Though starting as a personal services deal, Johnson said cbdMD eventually could grow into a larger sponsorship for his No. 48 Dallara-Honda as cbdMD wants to work with other sponsors such as Carvana and the American Legion (the company is active in military charities).

“They have taken a strong position trying to help with their image, and that aligns well with my brand,” Johnson said. “They look forward to educating people, and they feel like I can help be a huge advocate and voice for that. Instead of being concerned and nervous about image, they’re like, ‘Oh no. This is what we do.’

“Where we sit now, we hope to have a long runway with various opportunities. I certainly could see it evolve into a deeper relationship with the car. I could see myself being helpful with them in acquiring shelf space or getting involved in retailers at a different level. The agreement with them is such where we have this flexibility, and I’m certainly on board with it because I’m a believer in the product. And there’s nothing better for a brand than to have one of their endorsers believe in it and have the opportunity to grow with the company.”

AJ Foyt Racing promotes Benjamin Pedersen from Indy Lights to IndyCar for 2023 season

Benjamin Pedersen AJ Foyt
AJ Foyt Racing

Benjamin Pedersen is the first driver to land a promotion from Indy Lights into IndyCar for next season as AJ Foyt Racing confirmed Wednesday he’ll be part of its 2023 lineup.

Pedersen, a 23-year-old dual citizen of Denmark and the United States, spent last season running the full Indy Lights schedule for HMD Motorsports. Linus Lundqvist, his teammate, won the Lights title, and Pedersen finished fifth in the final standings. Pedersen earned his only win earlier this month when he led every lap from the pole at Portland.

Pedersen also ran four races for HMD in 2021 with back-to-back runner-up finishes in his debut. Pedersen landed on AJ Foyt Racing team president Larry Foyt’s radar through a “trusted colleague” and Pedersen spent most of last season shadowing the IndyCar team.

His promotion to IndyCar comes ahead of all four drivers who finished ahead of him in the Indy Lights standings, including champion Lundqvist.

“We are really looking forward to having Benjamin as part of the team,” Larry Foyt said. “His enthusiasm is infectious, and he is 100 percent committed to IndyCar, AJ Foyt Racing, and doing the best he can to win races.

“It’s been great to have him embedded with the team this past season, and everyone is excited to hit the ground running when testing begins. It is also great to have a multi-year program in place, which will help him and the team grow together.”

Foyt did not announce a car number for Pedersen. Kyle Kirkwood spent his rookie season driving AJ Foyt’s flagship No. 14 but Kirkwood is moving to Andretti Autosport. The team has not yet announced if Dalton Kellett will return for a fourth season, and a third car for Tatiana Calderon was pulled from competition after seven races because of sponsorship non-payment. Shutting down Calderon’s team removed the only semi-regular female driver from the IndyCar field.

Pedersen, however, was signed to an agreement Foyt said “spans multiple seasons as the team plans to develop the young rookie and is aligned to a longer-term plan for AJ Foyt Racing.”

Pedersen was born in Copenhagen but raised in Seattle and currently lives in Indianapolis. He said his time shadowing the IndyCar team has given him a jump on his rookie preparations.

“I’ve spent a lot of time this season with AJ Foyt Racing learning the ins and outs of making the jump to IndyCar and it’s been really nice to do that in conjunction with my Indy Lights season,” Pedersen said. “IndyCar has been my target goal since I started open wheel racing in 2016. The racing, atmosphere, fans, events, tracks, etc. are all awesome.”