"When you see that green flag drop -- you're so nervous when you're out of the car (before a race) -- and when you get settled in and I see that green flag drop and I'm starting to go racing everything just goes away. I'm in my heaven," said Long, the 22nd Woman of pressdog®. "I don't think about anything else. I just worry about my car and the fun begins. That's just the part of racing I always like, it's crazy ... how you can just love it. I love it. When I'm in it, like I said, I'm in my heaven."
The part of racing that happens outside the car -- especially things like media, interacting with fans and the like -- comes more difficultly for Long, who is in her first 21-race season of NASCAR Nationwide.
"I'm a shy person. I'm really shy when it comes to that stuff," said Long, who credits lots of effort and media training for developing her interview skills. "I remember when I was 13 years old racing I would run away from the commentator (track announcer). I was going to run away from him because I didn't want to speak on the microphone. So I've definitely come a long way. It's starting to become pretty fun for me. I like visiting kids and giving autographs to people. It's still a bit of unreality, but it's starting to become more natural."
Ducking the track announcer must have been an issue given how often Long was in the winner's circle coming up through racing's minor leagues. The 20-year-old native of Pensacola, Florida, started going P1 from her first days as a karter at age 8. At age 13, Long moved up to Legends cars and raced in Mobile, Alabama. She was in late models at age 14, where she briefly competed with her father, Donald Long.
Donald Long was a late-model racer when Johanna was growing up, which she credits for putting the love of racing into her blood stream.
"I was five and he was traveling a lot (on the weekends)," she said. "I really wanted to get heavily involved and I wanted to start racing. He kind of put it off because he was always out of town and really didn't have time to start me racing. Finally, when I was eight, he said 'all right, if you want to race, I'll slow down. I'll stay home weekends and I'll let you race.' Ever since age 8 we've been going heavy into go-kart racing."
So why racing? Why not soccer, softball, golf, basketball? "I just loved going fast when I was a young age," said Long. "I just wanted to push the gas. I just loved going to the race track. I love being at the track and the environment. And I love the competition side of it too. It's just so fun to compete with all those guys and race hard with them."
Father and daughter careers briefly intersected in late models, where Long called it a draw. "The first race we ran together I actually out-qualified him and then he beat me in the race. The second race, he out-qualified me and I beat him in the race. So we both had our share."
As the elder Long headed for retirement, the younger ascended. At age 15 Long became the youngest pro late model track champion ever at Five Flags Speedway in her hometown of Pensacola. By age 16, the hardware was piling up. In 38 starts, Long won five times, had 18 top-fives and 27 top-tens all across the southeast. She also made two ARCA starts.
In 2010 at age 17, Long won the Snowball Derby at Five Flags, which many consider the Super Bowl of short-track late model races. Kyle Busch won in 2009 and Chase Elliot in 2011. Long also ran some NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Races in 2010.
In 2011 Long ran more races NASCAR Camping World Truck Series before moving up to a 21-race partial schedule in NASCAR Nationwide in 2012. Current plans call for Long to run a similar partial season in Nationwide next year.
"I feel like we're doing pretty decent (so far in Nationwide)," Long said Friday. "It's definitely a work in progress. We're a new team (ML Mototorsports), I'm in a new car and I'm learning what I want in a car, but I feel like I'm gaining experience every time I get to a race track."
Long said her biggest learning area has been bigger tracks of 1.5 miles or more. Ironically the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway was the site of Long's best finish in Nationwide, a 12th place on July 6. She feels progress on the big tracks, but the short tracks are still her first love.
"I always go back to my short tracks," Long said. "I feel so much at home when I go to a short track. It's just so much fun to race side-by-side with someone and be side-by-side with them for 15 laps. That's what racing is all about. It's so much fun."
Long said as a rookie she felt the need to prove herself worthy of racing in NASCAR's AAA league.
"I feel like I am gaining a lot of experience and a lot of people are recognizing me, that I belong out there and I am gaining respect from all the drivers," she said. "I just need to keep doing that and the other stuff will come. I don't pay attention to people who don't think I belong out there because in my heart I know that I do. It's just all about getting seat time and learning these tracks and doing the best I can and working well with the crew and we will start getting those better finishes."
Long's coaches and mentors describe her as "hungry" and even "relentless."
"I've not met a driver at this age and at this part of their career as hungry as she is," Long's driver coach and former series champion David Green told NASCAR.com. "Johanna's committed. I've never seen the commitment that Johanna has, not only to her job at hand but her career as a driver."
Part of Long's maturing process in Nationwide is learning to tamp down her own expectations a bit.
"I have high expectations," she said. "There are some times I have to lower them a little bit, but I always shoot for high expectations. I'm very hard on myself because I know this is what I want to do for a career, and I know what I am capable of. If I don't reach that I don't feel like I did my job, of course I am going to be down on myself.
"I've been doing this for a long time and I grew up around the sport and I want to do good. I want to do well for this team, an I want to do well for my family too. They have sacrificed a lot to get me where I am right now, and it's just a lot of fun. I just want to give them what they deserve."