Jimmie Johnson has been chasing a record eighth NASCAR championship for a few years. Now, thanks in large part to Aspen Olympian Alex Ferreira, he can pretty much call it a career.
Johnson, a part-time Aspen resident who is without question one of the greatest drivers of all time, got the biggest win of his amateur skiing career Monday when his team, the “West Side Hillbillies,” won the 10th annual Audi Ajax Cup on Aspen Mountain. Ferreira, the team’s pro, won the Gorsuch Cup on the final race of the afternoon.
“I did not expect to win anything this morning and we ended up winning the Ajax Cup and it’s really awesome,” Ferreira said. “To partner with Jimmie was absolutely fantastic. He is a wonderful human being and he is very much a part of this community by doing this event. He just wants to give back, and so do I, so I think just that energy, maybe that was the missing piece to the puzzle for us to win it?”
The Ajax Cup is the largest fundraiser for the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club. The event raised $800,000 for the club a year ago and there was hope of pushing for $1 million this winter. The money helps support the roughly 2,400 athletes who take part in AVSC programming.
Ferreira himself grew up in the club, and Johnson’s own daughters have spent time on snow with AVSC, as well. In fact, Johnson’s oldest daughter, 9-year-old Evie, was part of the Ajax Cup team again this season and had to win a couple of races in finals to get the team to victory lane. Johnson’s West Side Hillbillies had twice been the Ajax Cup runner-up, but had never won before Monday.
“She did great. Every year it gets a little better, but something happened three or four days ago where she really found her edges and she’s been flying ever since,” Johnson said of Evie. “But then to see Alex, it was all on his shoulders at the end. For Alex to pull it off, and for the AVSC, it’s so cool.”
The Ajax Cup began with 16 teams of six skiers, each with a professional of which most were randomly assigned, competing in a dual giant slalom format set of races. Ferreira, who is a halfpipe skier by trade and has essentially no background in ski racing, was taking part in the Ajax Cup for only the second time. He was randomly paired with Johnson’s group during the team draw Saturday night.
Racing began early Monday morning, the field being whittled down to just two teams for the finals: the West Side Hillbillies and Alpine Bank, led by pro skier Nolan Kasper. The champion is simply which team wins more head-to-head races, and it all came down to the final race, Kasper against Ferreira in a winner-take-all situation.
“I’ll be honest, I was just as nervous as dropping into a pipe comp. I heard the announcers in the background,” Ferreira said. “It was super tight. I could feel him breathing down my neck, I swear. But I don’t know. Blinders on and gave it my all.”
Because of the Ajax Cup’s handicapping system designed to level the playing field, Ferreira was given a slight head start and simply had to hold off Kasper down the Little Nell run at the base of Aspen Mountain.
Johnson was the first to greet and hug Ferreira after he crossed the finish line in victory.
“He can do it all. What a nice and humble, down-to-earth guy,” Johnson said of Ferreira. “Was really cool getting to know him today. I’ve known the name, but to get to know him a little bit more today was special and I look forward to spending more time with him.”
Johnson recently announced the upcoming NASCAR season would be his final as a full-time racer, and his last chance to win that record eighth championship. His seven current titles are tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most ever. Should he not get to eight, finally winning the Ajax Cup is a decent consolation.
“Resume builder,” he joked. “It feels great winning and to have this experience with my daughter and with Adam Lewis, who is on our team and his two sons, to watch our kids work through the challenges of the day, dealing with nervousness, is so special.”
Ferreira, who is in the prime of his career, can put the Ajax Cup next to his Olympic silver medal and his X Games gold medal. Ferreira will look to defend that gold medal a month from now at Buttermilk during X Games Aspen 2020.
“It’s right up there. It’s right in the trifecta of things,” Ferreira said of winning the Ajax Cup. “I am super grateful to be on a great team and be giving back to the club. That’s what it’s all about.”