Through the open garage door of a nondescript tan building in Charlotte's NoDa area, Chandra Johnson sat on a chaise lounge and worked on her passion project.
Laptop open, Johnson busied herself by determining prices for an exhibition of photos from the new book On The Road, which focuses on her husband Jimmie's Chase run last year – and the Johnson family's life off the track.
Inside the 5,000-square foot Hart Witzen Gallery – which photographer Missy McLamb had discovered on craigslist – the walls were covered with 65 images selected from more than 15,000 taken during the course of 2011's playoff run.
Mrs. Johnson – known as Chani (pronounced "Shanny") to friends – was willing to do the self-published book and the week-long exhibition for three main reasons: To show how beautiful NASCAR could be, to document the quest for a sixth straight championship and to reveal the human element of a driver's life.
McLamb captured many of the images using a slower shutter speed, which gave the fast-paced sport a softer feel.
"I'm proud," Johnson said, conducting a private tour on Friday afternoon, a day before the official opening. "These photographs are so beautiful, they deserved an exhibition."
Almost all of the images will be for sale and come from a limited edition – meaning they won't be re-printed no matter what the demand. Collectors wandering through the gallery can buy any photograph except the ones of the family's personal life – like pictures of the Johnsons' young daughter, Evie.
Chani Johnson, looking as if she'd stepped out of one of the photographs, said she knew the gallery's exposed steel beams and warehouse feel was exactly what she wanted after seeing it for the first time. On the walls, each photo had a name – 59 of them picked by her husband, who often opted for simplicity.
For example: One picture, of teenage girls at a school rally for Johnson, is called "Girls." She laughed when talking about how Jimmie wanted to choose that name, even though she disagreed.
Another of the images, which depicts her husband frustrated after losing to Tony Stewart at Martinsville – with burnout smoke in the background – is called "Smoked." One, which shows Jimmie on his way to qualifying, is called "Walk The Line" – both because he was following a lined path to pit road and because he was reminding himself of the line on the racing surface.
As for Chani's favorite image? It changes every day, she said, but on Friday it was a peaceful twilight picture of the infield at Talladega Superspeedway – appropriately titled "Talladega Night."
It wasn't easy for the Johnsons to open themselves up, Chani said, but it was done so in the name of art.
"There's a fine balance," she said. "We've been very private in the past. What made the difference was the photographer was a friend of mine, and we had control. I'm not sure it would have been the same result otherwise."
Pointing to some of the photos, Johnson emphasized how "absolutely real" the depicted moments are. She and Jimmie agreed not to do anything different than usual during the whole process; if she wouldn't normally wear makeup while having morning coffee, she didn't while the photographer was around, either.
"To open up your private life like this, it makes you feel very vulnerable," she said.
The results, though, are impressive. The book and exhibition are one of the most authentic looks at a driver's life on and off the track that NASCAR has ever seen.
IF YOU GO
What: Jimmie Johnson's On The Road exhibition, featuring images from the new book by the same name.
Where: Hart Witzen Gallery, 136 East 36th Street, Charlotte.
When: Today through Oct. 20 (12-5 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday ... 12-8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday)
Book review: Jimmie Johnson: On The Road
(Below: Chandra Johnson gives a tour of the "On The Road" exhibition. Here, she points to her favorite photo – in the middle – called "Talladega Night.")