Lefty's dream: Jimmie Johnson's bond with young designer creates special No. 48 for final Texas ride

Design student Noah Sweet’s connection to his racing hero Jimmie Johnson runs deep, and his vision for No. 48 Chevrolet will hit the track Sunday at Texas.

Noah Sweet’s journey to here started like most do — a love of Matchbox cars, visions of becoming a race car driver, connecting with your favorite driver on the track. Very few journeys reach this stage, though, with one dream fully realized at just 19 years old. 

Sweet still has his first-grade notebook, which is filled with cherished early drawings of the car he was attached to the most — the metallic finishes, the yellow on blue that reminded him of the University of Michigan in his home state. His primitive but colorful images were predominantly of the No. 48 car of his favorite driver, Jimmie Johnson, who at the time, was in the midst of his streak of five consecutive championships.

Sweet, now a sophomore design student, has kept at making those images — from sketches to video game paint to ultra-realistic sims. Now one of his designs will make its real-world debut on the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Ally Chevrolet for Sunday’s Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM) at Texas Motor Speedway. His first on-track paint scheme will coincide with the third-to-last race in Johnson’s final full Cup Series season.

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“Seven-time Cup champion, no pressure,” says Sweet, who said he went through at least 10 concepts before settling on his final design. “This has been my dream. It was just a stressful process, but a fun one. I can confidently say it was fun.”

As with most story arcs, Sweet’s journey wasn’t a direct path to a design on the Cup Series grid. It meant finding his voice and dealing with the darker side of social media and mental health, finding support within NASCAR’s community of young designers and eventually from one of the sport’s most decorated champions.

“I kind of took the art aspect and I merged it into my passion for NASCAR and how much I enjoyed it,” Sweet said, “and it kind of came together to make this great huge atom bomb of two of my most passionate hobbies, and it turned into what is now. It’s really evolved since then, but like I’ve said time and time again, I never would’ve thought it would have gotten to this point.”

Painting a picture

Stock-car racing and art have always been outlets for Sweet, who has used the handle “Lefty” on his designs — even though he’s right-handed. He co-opted the nickname from an artist who goes by Left Boy, offering a nod to NASCAR’s tendency toward left turns.

Being a racing fan was an outlet for entertainment. Art was, too, but it also helped him communicate.

“It’s how I emotionally coped with things,” Sweet says. “Like as a kid, I was a very emotional kid and it came from a lot of my mental health issues. But I would generally draw and paint stuff to cope. Like if I was upset, I couldn’t really use my words.”

Growing up, when Sweet could not verbalize that he was upset, he would visualize it, sliding pictures of himself and his mood under his mother’s door in the night to convey his emotions.

So when a wave of social change swept the country during the spring and summer, Sweet expressed himself in the way that he knew — by drawing. The national reckoning coincided with a personal one, as one of Sweet’s relatives grappled with making their sexual orientation public. It also coincided with a NASCAR statement that emphasized the sport’s inclusivity. When all those factors came together, he educated himself, then he drew.

What emerged in June was the concept of a No. 48 Chevrolet adorned with rainbow colors to raise awareness for the LBGTQ community, a paint scheme created for iRacing that began to make the social media rounds. Sweet says he knew there would be backlash once the Pride scheme became more widely circulated, but wasn’t prepared for the full extent of bullying or harassment that he’d face.

It reached a head when his personal information was compromised and the rumors became more antagonizing. Instead of drawing, he left to distance himself from it, setting off alarms with a social media post that had his friends, followers and family fearing the worst. “I just felt like I had to remove myself because I felt like I got to a point that was affecting people around me,” Sweet says, noting he silenced his social-media accounts while in a seven-day program of inpatient care. “I definitely went AWOL, as they say, and it scared a lot of people. I never would have thought that I’d be that person that people were trying to find.”

His mother later tweeted a note to indicate her son was OK, but after the initial concern, another social-media hashtag was beginning to trend in support of Sweet. Use of the hashtag #WeLoveLefty grew. As Sweet slowly began to return to the public eye, Johnson chimed in with his own post of encouragement.

“At the end of the day, I wish social media was a nicer place to be and exist, and it’s a place where people should be able to express themselves through all ways and be treated right and respectfully,” Johnson said. “You don’t need everybody singing your praises and lying to you, but there’s just some moral lines that have been crossed in how people behave and act on social media because they can hide behind their phone or a keyboard. As a father of kids that are going to enter that space to somebody that’s existing in the space and trying to provide content for fans that generally care of all ages, there’s just a way to behave — morally and ethically, in general. 

“I don’t know why the world of social media, all of a sudden, it changes. You can say all the awful things that people say and affect somebody’s life. So to hear about the effect it had on Noah, a very creative young man that’s had some wonderful renderings that could go on our race car — or any race car, for that matter — to have him be attacked like he was, and then to have it affect him like it did, it just hit me. I mentioned all those other things before, you’re just trying to balance all that stuff and then you hear a story where it deeply hurts someone to the level that they consider not being here any longer, you’re like wow, that’s in my world. That’s about my race car, our paint scheme, our sponsorship. It hits close to home.”

Weeks later, the connection led to what Ally Racing representatives have called their best Zoom call of the year — a face-to-face meeting with Sweet and his driving hero.

“Hoo-boy,” Sweet says, recalling the emotions of counting down to the teleconference. “I was shaking the entire time, just so nervous.”

The initial jitters wore off, and Sweet came to realize that he shared a similar childhood memory with Johnson. Sweet attended several races at Charlotte Motor Speedway growing up, during a time where Lowe’s was a primary sponsor of both Johnson and the track. Between those tie-ins, the speedway’s banners that featured Johnson and a No. 48 show car parked out front, “I just thought we were going to Jimmie’s house,” Sweet recalled.

Similarly, Johnson shared that when his family stopped to eat at Hardee’s during his childhood, he figured that Cale Yarborough’s race shops were based there, a nod to the former Cup Series champ whose distinctive orange-and-white cars of the 1980s carried the restaurant’s sponsorship.

Besides that connection, Johnson’s message of strength resonated, but the meeting also came with the promise of a collaboration that would place a Sweet-designed No. 48 on the track for one of Johnson’s final Cup Series races. The encouragement, it turns out, was mutual.

“There was some positivity to come out of it, and I think that that opportunity does exist in social,” Johnson says. “It seems like it’s a little harder to get the positive things out there to have them gain traction. But in this instance, there was some positive traction and I feel like with where his head is and how he seemed on that Zoom call and meeting his parents and his family and understanding his support group, I think he’s moving in a great direction. Then the support that I believe Ally plans to show him here in the future will hopefully squash any negativity that was out there and that he experienced in the past.” 

Says Sweet, simply: “I’m going to remember it for the rest of my life. I am.”

2020 Oct20 Jimmie Johnson 48 2 Main Image

Hitting the track

Pursuing a career in motorsports design? Sweet said it came with a warning. But instead of finding a dog-eat-dog business, Sweet said NASCAR’s talented community of young designers has been a welcoming place. 

“I know a lot of people say that this industry is so cutthroat, you know, that you’ve gotta stay on your toes,” he said. “But in all true reality, that all goes away when you make these friendly connections.”

Sweet cites the influence of the late Sam Bass, NASCAR’s first official artist, in his work, noting that one of his first big breaks came with a design for another stock-car racing legend — Hall of Famer Bobby Allison. But he’s also learned from the guiding advice of other designers, who have both shared their experiences and rallied behind his cause.

He says that’s led to designing T-shirts for Xfinity Series driver Tommy Joe Martins and creating the pit-board sign for part-time driver Ryan Vargas among other projects.

“You get all these connections and then you get a reputation, and I’ve already been told, you’ve pretty much got two feet in the door already, ” Sweet says. “You just have to get that piece of paper that says, ‘hey, I was in college for four years. Here’s my portfolio,’ and then you slap everything on the desk. This is what matters right here.”

As Sweet progresses toward receiving his degree, Ally Racing has stepped in to contribute to his education to assist with making that next step. As for his portfolio, he’s adding to it this weekend with a real-life No. 48 Chevrolet that Johnson will pilot in one of his final races.

It’s a long trip from his original portfolio — that dog-eared notebook from his grade-school years — and a journey that Sweet hasn’t quite wrapped his head around yet.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Sweet says, laughing but also flirting with the idea of his No. 48 ending up in Victory Lane. “I’m not sure how I’ll react. We’ll see. Of course, I’ve sat there and imagined what it’ll be like, but I don’t know yet. I’m going to be baffled the moment I see the car.”