Why Johnson isn't daunted by starting from scratch in IndyCar

Jimmie Johnson is one of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time, yet has decided to take on a fresh challenge in IndyCar for 2021. He tells DAVID MALSHER-LOPEZ what has motivated the switch.

Why Johnson isn't daunted by starting from scratch in IndyCar

Approaching his IndyCar debut at 45 years old, Jimmie Johnson is an old rookie. But he’s not just any old rookie. In a NASCAR Cup career that spanned 20 years and 686 races, he won seven championships and scored 83 race wins. Now he’s about to embark on an IndyCar career of currently indeterminate length, with Chip Ganassi Racing.

The active Scott Dixon and retired Dario Franchitti, with 10 IndyCar championships between them, will respond favourably to tutoring this 21st century legend because they know that Johnson hasn’t just turned to open-wheel racing as a passing whim, something to occupy himself now his NASCAR days are over. He was always into open-wheel racing. His original hero was Rick Mears, and racing Indycars was his ambition when he was a pre-teen growing up in Southern California, attending the Grand Prix of Long Beach and watching all the Indycar races on TV with his grandfather.

Attending the 2004 Formula 1 Spanish Grand Prix with fellow NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon, as guests of Juan Pablo Montoya and the Williams F1 team, Johnson principally recalls "the pageantry of open-wheel racing". It was the December 2018 car-swap with Fernando Alonso in Bahrain that fanned the smouldering interest into a flame of desire. Alonso drove Johnson's regular NASCAR Chevrolet, while Johnson piloted a 2013 McLaren MP4/28 and found the experience "unlike any other I’ve had".

“It was, 'Holy crap! I want to do more of this'," he tells Autosport. "I wasn’t sure it was going to come together and a lot had to happen between then and now but that was when I got really serious about open-wheel.”

Jimmie Johnson McLaren test Bahrain 2018

Jimmie Johnson McLaren test Bahrain 2018

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Initially, it seemed McLaren was the team most likely to present Johnson with his first IndyCar opportunity, for a test with the Arrow McLaren SP team was planned for Barber Motorsports Park last April. This fell victim to the upheavals caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but as Johnson puts it, “Zak Brown [McLaren CEO] and Fernando really created that opportunity with the McLaren F1 car, and Zak believed in me and was crucial in getting that test date that unfortunately never happened.

“But I really wanted to try an IndyCar, know what it’s about and get a sense of how far off I might be. After Zak’s plan fell through, I tried to keep the ball moving. Chip Ganassi Racing was another team I’d been chatting with, and one day Chip simply said to me, ‘Look, just come out and drive it, see what you think', and that really was the right approach. It was basically, if I liked it, and the team saw some hope in me, then OK, let’s look into how we can go forward together.”

"I’ve taken big chunks out of the gap as I’ve become more comfortable in the car, reacting instinctively and not thinking as much. I’m still going to be racing a lot of tracks I don’t know, but at least I’m acclimating to the car" Jimmie Johnson

A day’s testing on IMS’s 2.4-mile road course in July last year was enough to convince Johnson he liked it, and yes, the team saw hope. In October, Ganassi and Johnson announced their deal with title sponsor Carvana to run all of IndyCar’s road and street course rounds in 2021 – a total of 13 races. Former series champion and 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan will drive the #48 CGR-Honda in the four oval races.

It was a huge leap of faith considering the Ganassi/Johnson combo had just that one day of testing together. Of course, it’s hardly unknown for Ganassi to hire rookies: he’s employed a dozen over the past 30 years. Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya both earned him championships, JPM even managed to do so while still a rookie in 1999. But all 12 of the Ganassi newbies had accumulated vast amounts of open-wheel experience beforehand, and/or extended courtships in the form of testing. Johnson, by way of contrast, has two decades of stock car experience to unlearn.

Since that day at Indy, Johnson has tested his IndyCar at Barber, Laguna Seca, Sebring and Laguna Seca again (and flogged around in a Formula 3 car) and progress has been noteworthy. At Barber last fall, he was 3.7sec off the pace. At Laguna Seca two weeks ago, he was 1.6sec off, but his ideal lap – putting all his best sectors together – was just 0.7sec from Dixon, according to CGR managing director Mike Hull, who says Johnson's attitude "makes everyone want to work with him and give their absolute best for him”.

"Jimmie is genuine, and he combines that with being gracious and unassuming," continues Hull. “I think all of us were – and maybe some still are – in awe of both who Jimmie is and what he’s accomplished. Jimmie’s won seven championships in an era when it’s actually more difficult to do that in most forms of motorsport.

Jimmie Johnson, Mike Hull Indianapolis Motor Speedway IndyCar test 2020

Jimmie Johnson, Mike Hull Indianapolis Motor Speedway IndyCar test 2020

Photo by: Chris Owens, IndyCar

"And now we’ve worked with him, it’s easy to see why he found success. He’s very dedicated to detail, he’s very dedicated to getting himself ready, and he’s very open-minded about how to process information that will make him a better team member.

“Right from the very first test at Indianapolis road course last summer, it felt like we’d been working with him forever. We could tell he came from a team system that must be very close to ours in terms of the mechanism of a team itself and the resource that the team can supply on a test day.

"He asked all the right questions… and he has two great people in Scott [Dixon] and Dario [Franchitti] who will work with him and patiently answer all his questions and accelerate him up the learning curve.”

Sure enough, modesty and realism keep Johnson’s feet on the ground.

“Based on laptime deltas with the fastest laps from my team-mates [Dixon, Alex Palou, Marcus Ericsson], I’ve covered about 60% of the deficit,” he says. “I feel like the last 20% will be the hardest to get, and that’s where years of experience – which I don’t have! – will come into play.

"But I’ve taken big chunks out of the gap as I’ve become more comfortable in the car, reacting instinctively and not thinking as much. I’m still going to be racing a lot of tracks I don’t know, but at least I’m acclimating to the car.

“I’ve gained a little everywhere. At straightforward sixth-gear-down-to-first-gear tight turns, I seem to be close to the top guys. High-speed stuff like Turn 6 at Laguna, I’m line for line with my team-mates. I lose time in middle-speed corners where there’s a lot more lateral capability in the car than my senses tell me are there. I over-slow the car, braking or staying off the throttle too long, so that’s where I’m trying to re-wire right now.”

Jimmie Johnson IndyCar Sebring test 2021

Jimmie Johnson IndyCar Sebring test 2021

Photo by: Chris Owens, IMS Photo

Hull observes that for Johnson, "it’s not about theoretical laptimes". Asked what will be enough to maintain Johnson’s interest and application to continue his quest beyond 2021, Hull says: "Maybe the satisfaction comes in never being satisfied. That’s always been the mark of a great driver.

"If you assume everyone’s ability is equal, what separates the equality is the dissatisfaction with the present. Drivers are always working really hard to separate themselves in ways that they feel will make them outstanding and hard to beat. And Jimmie has that about him. He pushes himself and leading by that example, he pushes everyone around him to get the most out of the opportunity."

"You’ve got to be so ahead of an IndyCar – anticipating, not just reacting. And it’s so stiff. In NASCAR, there’s much more suspension to absorb chassis rake and roll and twist; in an IndyCar, it stays flat" Jimmie Johnson

Discovering what is and isn’t possible in an IndyCar is a tough task even for those groomed in junior open-wheel categories. For a driver who has spent the last two decades in cars with more power than grip that lurchingly inform drivers in advance if they’re about to break away, finding the limit of adhesion in fat, wide Firestones on each corner of a flat, downforce-equipped single-seater is daunting. There’s so much less ‘feel’.

“Trying to pick up cues on when to get back to the gas exiting slow speed corners, I’ve found myself backward quite a few times,” chuckles Johnson. “You’ve got to be so ahead of an IndyCar – anticipating, not just reacting. And it’s so stiff. In NASCAR, there’s much more suspension to absorb chassis rake and roll and twist; in an IndyCar, it stays flat, so you’re driving off the tire sidewall, and it’s either going to hook up, or it’s gone.”

That said, Johnson has refined his senses as he’s gotten quicker, and gotten quicker as he’s refined his senses – and so continues to edge toward the edge. For example, when he leaves the pits during a test session he can feel the extra grip from a fresh set of Firestones and also detect the car’s lazier responses from a full tank of fuel, “but I’m not kidding myself that I’m at the limit".

“I lay down a lap and feel I’m driving the car the fastest it’s ever been – and then come in and see the lap times, and think, ‘Oh, guess not! There’s more to come'," he says. "But honestly, that’s fun: it makes me really uncomfortable but in a good way, where I’m constantly challenging myself.

"I’ll think, ‘OK, only half the amount of brake this time… but will it stick?’ and then it does – and I can feel there’s more potential beyond that. I think, ‘You’re kidding me!’ Then next time, I get further into that area, reduce the braking even more. That’s fun.”

Scott Dixon Jimmie Johnson IndyCar Sebring test 2021

Scott Dixon Jimmie Johnson IndyCar Sebring test 2021

Photo by: Chris Owen, IMS Photo

It’s clear that it may be a while before Dixon, Palou and Ericsson are looking at Johnson’s traces for tips. But Johnson can gauge the progress of his adaptation in how his feedback corresponds with that of his team-mates.

“We had an engineering call recapping our recent Laguna Seca test and the changes that Scott, Marcus and Alex were talking about, I had the same feedback, so that’s a sign that I’m feeling the right things,” he says. “Granted, I was seven-tenths off Scott’s times – that guy’s special – but I was really encouraged by that call.”

And Hull believes that Johnson's commitment to contesting the remaining three rounds of the IMSA SportsCar Championship's Michelin Endurance Cup, in which he’ll continue in the Action Express Racing Cadillac he drove to second place in January's Daytona 24 Hours, will only aid his learning curve.

“I don’t mean to sound derogatory about sportscar specialists, but having a solid background in open-wheel racing will take you a long way in a DPi car,” Hull says, “and I think Kevin Magnussen proved that to us by his adaptation from Formula 1. By Jimmie driving a Cadillac DPi car that has been compared to an open-wheel car with fenders, I think he will learn a lot.

"Just as an example, an IndyCar is literally scraping the ground several times a lap and that’s very unnerving for someone not used to it, the downforce level constantly being affected by the car bounding off the ground in small incremental stages.

"The nature of the Cadillac means Jimmie will gain a similar kind of experience to what he’s found in IndyCar, and that will build his confidence in medium-speed corners, where you mentioned he felt he was lacking at the moment.”

Johnson admits that being a newbie aged 45 is an odd feeling – “you just don’t expect at this point in life to have to go back to basics!” – but he doesn’t feel overawed by his environs, nor a direct comparison with one of IndyCar’s greats.

Jimmie Johnson 2021 IndyCar test Sebring

Jimmie Johnson 2021 IndyCar test Sebring

Photo by: Chris Owen, IMS Photo

“I’ve been with the VRD [Velocity Racing Development] team, running a Formula 3 car alongside 15-year-olds, kids with their whole careers ahead of them who dream of being professional racecar drivers. There I am, going back to ground zero, learning all over again, and that feels a bit bizarre.

"I don’t know how competitive I’ll be, but we’re all learning from watching Tom Brady in NFL, Scott Dixon in IndyCar, myself in NASCAR, that desire and determination are the foundation of success. And people can still have the required desire and determination in their 40s" Jimmie Johnson

“But once I get close enough, the resources I have around me at Ganassi – people like Scott and Dario – are going to be priceless. So no, I don’t feel intimidated by having those guys there, just excited to have vastly experienced people around me.”

Fitness-wise, age hasn’t been a factor, because Johnson – trim and still race sharp – has taken careful note of advice from Jim Leo of the renowned PitFit organisation and has had suitable training equipment delivered to his home. With the physical demands figured out, adapting to his new venture is thereafter just a mental issue, says Johnson.

“We’re seeing athletes in all sports extend their careers staying healthy and disciplined,” he comments. “Right now, I don’t know how competitive I’ll be, but we’re all learning from watching Tom Brady in NFL, Scott Dixon in IndyCar, myself in NASCAR, that desire and determination are the foundation of success. And people can still have the required desire and determination in their 40s and onward, in any walk of life. They’re the defining factors, not age itself, and that’s a secret that 40-somethings are currently unlocking across a range of sports.”

If anyone can do that, even in an utterly different branch of his chosen sport, it’s Jimmie Johnson. Watch and enjoy, folks.

Jimmie Johnson 2021 IndyCar Sebring test

Jimmie Johnson 2021 IndyCar Sebring test

Photo by: Chris Owen, IMS Photo

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About this article

Series IndyCar
Drivers Jimmie Johnson
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing
Author David Malsher
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