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When Jimmie Johnson takes on his first Indy 500 race on Sunday, he'll be sporting a brand new good luck charm.
The NASCAR champion-turned-IndyCar-driver, 46, teamed up with his friend, country music star Blake Shelton, 45, to design his helmet for the race, which has been deemed the "Helmet of Heroes" and is meant to honor the duo's family members who served in the military.
To bring their vision to life, Johnson and Shelton called on Troy Lee Designs of Corona, California, to paint the helmet. After the race on Sunday, the helmet will be signed by Johnson and Shelton and put on display at the American Legion's mobile unit for the rest of the racing season.
For a chance to win the helmet, fans can donate to the American Legion (a nonprofit organization of U.S. war veterans that sponsors Johnson). Every $48 donation equals one entry into the drawing, and a winner will be announced on Sept. 13.
"It's not common for me to give up one of these prize possessions," says Johnson, as he turns to Shelton. "Helmets are like your guitar you've played for decades. So, very special to me, but it's all for a great cause."
CoForce Jimmie Johnson and Blake Shelton
Recently, Johnson and Shelton sat down with PEOPLE at the Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angeles to discuss the special meaning behind their collaboration.
How did this collaboration come together?
Johnson: I'm racing in my first Indy 500 this year, and it's been a childhood dream of mine to race in this event. I'm super excited to be there, and one of my sponsors for the race is the American Legion. The race is on Memorial Day weekend, supporting the American Legion, and I have grandfathers that served. Blake has family members that have served. I needed a special helmet painted for this particular race, and here we are. Blake is going to actually design the helmet that I'm going to wear in the Indy 500.
Shelton: I'm going to help. I want it to look good! So I'm not going to totally do it by myself.
Johnson: At one point, he said, "If you want stick figures on your helmet, I'm your guy."
Shelton: Most things that I draw are inappropriate. So we won't want that on his helmet.
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) May 20, 2022
Can you talk a bit more about your family members who served?
Johnson: Both my grandfathers served. My mother's father was a safety captain on an aircraft carrier in the Korean War. And then my dad's father was in a tank in World War II. I also have a brother-in-law that served as well. So it's been what I was born and raised around.
Shelton: Yeah, me too. My dad was, just after the Korean War, in the honor guard and he served in Korea. Then my brother was in the Army. So I was raised at points thinking, "I guess I'm also going in at some point." But there wasn't any call for a guitar player in our military, so...
When did you two first meet each other?
Shelton: I first met Jimmie at the CMT [Awards], and back then it was called the Flameworthy Awards. It was the first time there was this big afterparty after the awards show, and it was kind of crowded or whatever, and you're bumping into people. All of a sudden, we turn around, and it's like, "Oh my God, Jimmie Johnson. What the hell?" I had the mullet back then.
Johnson: That glorious, glorious mullet. My wife [Chandra Janway] is from Oklahoma. So you guys had a connection and that secret handshake...
Shelton: Not to make you jealous, but we did have a little connection there for a minute. But we ran into each other over and over and over through the years, just because I've done work with NASCAR and have friends in NASCAR. Jimmie's been a friend for a long time. I'm trying to think of what year that was though. Honestly, was it 2003 or 2004? You were pretty new on the scene at that point. We didn't realize that I had met the guy who was going to end up being the all-time greatest NASCAR driver in the history of the sport. It's pretty cool to be able to say that, and it not even be arguable, like no, he is. He actually, factually, is the greatest of all time.
— Blake Shelton (@blakeshelton) May 20, 2022
Jimmie, when you announced your retirement from NASCAR in 2020, Blake tweeted asking you to do one more season. Blake, are you happy that he made the transition to IndyCar?
Shelton: Well, I'm just happy that he's driving, that he's racing and that he's happy as he can be right now. We were just talking before we started doing this, he's having a blast. I mean, any NASCAR fan is bummed out and missing him in the sport. Especially because the year that he retired was the year that no fans could come out to the races [because of COVID-19 restrictions]. I know that fans would've loved to have had a chance to take in his last season. But, at the same time, he's got his goals and dreams, and he got to go do it.
Jimmie, how is the prep going for the Indy 500?
Johnson: I'm really excited. We had our first oval race this season around spring break time and had a great performance. It was very competitive and truly felt like I had a chance to win with my Carvana Honda. I ran a limited schedule last year, [because I was] a little concerned about the higher speeds on ovals, and the danger that comes with IndyCar racing. So I did my homework and got real comfortable with things. I'm really excited to get to the 500 and fulfill that childhood dream. Indy is the month of May. So we're at the Speedway for a long period of time, which for a new guy, a rookie like myself, I need every lap I can get to ensure I'm as competitive as possible come race day.
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images Jimmie Johnson
You have two young daughters, Genevieve, 12, and Lydia, 9. Do they or your wife ever get nervous watching you race?
Johnson: Yeah, I think it's more difficult watching. I have two younger brothers that have raced and my kids ride horses and such, and watching is tough. I can only imagine the stress I've put on my wife and my children over all these years — especially my wife. She thought that stressor was going to be gone [when I retired from NASCAR], and then I came and said, "Hey babe, guess what? I want to drive IndyCars now." So she's very tolerant and has been a huge supporter and let me chase my dreams. It's been great.
Blake, will you be cheering Jimmie on in person at the Indy500?
Shelton: Absolutely. I'm going to be there. I'm excited about it. I've seen races at Indy, but I've never seen the Indianapolis 500. So this will be a first for me to even be watching and to have a buddy out there. To have a thumbprint on his helmet is going to be really cool.
Blake Shelton and Jimmie Johnson
Will your wife, Gwen Stefani, and her sons [Kingston, 15, Zuma, 13, and Apollo, 8] be coming with you? I know you've watched NASCAR races with them before.
Shelton: Oh, they love it. I don't know for sure, as I sit here, if they're going to be able to come or not. I know that if they can, they're going to come because they're going to want to, so we'll see.
RELATED VIDEO: Blake Shelton Talks Family: 'Every Day I've Fallen in Love with the Boys as Much as I Do with Gwen'
I feel like a lot of your interests have rubbed off on them over the years, and I saw on social media that you're farming on your ranch in Oklahoma now. Are the boys involved?
Shelton: The kids don't really get into farming because they associate it with work.
Johnson: They're smart kids.
Shelton: That's right. But Gwen is absolutely into it. That's what we've been doing, as we sit here and do this interview, for the last three or four days in Oklahoma. It's flower planting time. And Gwen doesn't settle for these little areas around the sidewalk. We're talking about fields, acres of flowers. So I have my work cut out for me when it becomes spring.
Your one-year wedding anniversary with Gwen is coming up in July. How has this first year of marriage treated you?
Shelton: It's incredible. She's just, I wish everybody could have a chance to meet and talk to Gwen Stefani at some point in their life because you'll just be a better person for it, is the only way I know to say it. She's just a magical person to be around. She really is one of a kind and I ... That's another one of those things. How could you even dream that? You know? And it happened.
You've both had such incredible lives and careers. What do you like most about being at this place?
Shelton: Wow, that's a heavy one, isn't it? You know, I feel like we're both at a place — I'm speaking for you, but I have so far exceeded any expectations that I had for myself. Now, looking back, so many incredible things have happened and all these blessings, and I've been so lucky, however you want to slice it. Now I want to do things that I just want to do. You know, I'm not going to beat my head against the wall for the music industry anymore. I just want to enjoy making music. I want to have time to go to the Indy 500 and watch my buddy race, and not say, "Ah, man, I can't because I've got..." To be at this place in my life and do the things that I want to do is ... Who gets to do that? Not many people, and I don't want to miss out on it.
Johnson: I totally agree. That's how I've ended up where I am today. I am so thankful for my time in NASCAR. What that sport gave to me changed my life. The people I worked with, worked for, just every aspect of that. What I'm about to say doesn't come with any negativity, but that was really my working frame, the working years of my life. I thought I was retiring. I thought that was all behind me. Then, once I sat there for a minute, I realized how much I love to drive. What I'm doing now is because it makes me feel like I did when I was a teenage boy, driving a race car, riding my dirt bike. And that's the love I have for the sport. I'm so thankful to have the partner that I do to allow it to happen and the support from my family to do it. I'm doing what I want to, not what I need to. That feels great right now.