Jimmie Johnson: The NASCAR legend's IndyCar challenge

Jimmie Johnson is one of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time, yet has decided to take on the NTT IndyCar Series for 2021. He tells David Malsher-Lopez why, while Ganassi managing director Mike Hull explains the challenges.

Jimmie Johnson: The NASCAR legend's IndyCar challenge

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 83 race wins. Now he’s about to embark on an IndyCar career of currently indeterminate length, with Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda.

The active Scott Dixon and retired Dario Franchitti, with 10 IndyCar championships between them, will respond favorably 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 Indy cars 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 Indy car 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 smoldering interest into a flame of desire. Alonso drove a NASCAR, Johnson piloted that year’s McLaren Formula 1 car and found the experience “unlike any other I’ve had,” Johnson tells Motorsport.com.

“It was, ‘Holy crap! I want to do more of this.’ 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.”

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.”

A day’s testing on IMS’s 2.439-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.

 

Photo by: Chip Ganassi Racing

It was a huge leap of faith considering the Ganassi/Johnson combo had just that one day of testing together. Since then, 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 – i.e., putting all his best sectors together – was just 0.7sec from Dixon, according to Hull. Impressive and encouraging, although modesty and realism keep Johnson’s feet on the ground.

“Based on laptime deltas with the fastest laps from my teammates [Dixon, Alex Palou, Marcus Ericsson], I’ve covered about 60 percent of the deficit,” he says. “I feel like the last 20 percent 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 teammates. 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.”

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’.

 

Photo by: IndyCar Series

“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.’ 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.”

So 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 teammates.

“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.”

Scott Dixon, Jimmie Johnson, Dario Franchitti.

Scott Dixon, Jimmie Johnson, Dario Franchitti.

Photo by: IndyCar Series

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.

“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.

“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 organization 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.

Mike Hull on Jimmie Johnson's arrival and the challenges he faces

 

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

“I think all of us were – and maybe some still are – in awe of both who Jimmie is and what he’s accomplished,” admits Mike Hull, managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing. “Jimmie’s won seven championships in an era when it’s actually more difficult to do that in most forms of motorsport.

“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.”

If, as Johnson admits himself, finding the last 20 percent of his deficit to Dixon will be the hardest, race fans who appreciate watching one of the greats tackle a whole new venture must hope that Johnson will continue to pursue his quest beyond 2021. But what does Hull, someone who openly enjoys studying the attitude and aptitude of Ganassi’s drivers, believe will be enough to maintain Johnson’s interest and application to the new task in hand?

“Maybe the satisfaction comes in never being satisfied,” he replies. “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.

 

Photo by: IndyCar Series

“The Laguna Seca tests were good examples. We went there in November with just Jimmie and Alex Palou, no other teams testing, and it was a typical Laguna day. In the afternoon, you’ve got sand blowing on the track, lower grip, and Alex was doing a heck of a job considering he’d never seen the place – he said, “I’ve done a video game with Laguna Seca” – but his lap times were actually good compared with what we’d done there in 2019 on black tires [Firestone primary compound].

“So Jimmie at least knew the racetrack was capable, and he and Dario worked very hard. But Jimmie got frustrated because technically he was really good in certain parts of the track, and his overlays were very comparable to Alex’s, but in overall laptime he was lacking. But importantly, he didn’t let that frustration eke into working on his craft, so when we went back there in February, the weather and track conditions were very similar to what we’d found in November, and now he had three teammates to compare with – Scott, Alex and Marcus [Ericsson]. He started out with laptimes comparable to what he’d done three months earlier but then his best sectors got him within six-tenths of fastest time, and I’m sure his smile under the helmet was wider than the helmet himself.

“But it’s not about theoretical laptimes for him. It’s how hard you have to work to get near that theoretical time by combining all your best sectors, putting all those pieces together. I’m sure he and [race engineer] Chad Knaus worked on that at Hendrick Motorsports in NASCAR, and having been around Jimmie, I have even greater appreciation for those Hendrick guys and how much of a strong team environment they must have instilled in him. It’s in his very methodical thinking, the calm approach and the sheer hard work he puts in.”

There are still many tough days ahead, particularly at tracks that are complete anathema to an ex-NASCAR driver. Think of the pucker factor on pock-marked pavement around Belle Isle, Toronto, St. Petersburg if your previous frames of reference were a wide variety of ovals and a few natural terrain road courses. It’s obvious that on street courses, Johnson’s contributions to the team as a whole will be less than elsewhere: in this first season, it’s just going to be an acclimation headrush.

“As a team, we have to find a means to make sure that each of the four entries gets equal treatment yet at the same time one car doesn’t detract from the other three,” acknowledges Hull. “That’s the hard part, because you have this pressure group with high expectations: the team owner, the commercial partners, the engineers and the teammates. It’s easy to say, ‘We just want to win’ but you have to define what winning really is when a driver comes in from such a different background and has to learn so much, so fast.”

Hull believes that Johnson’s IndyCar campaign can benefit from his participation in the IMSA’s four Michelin Endurance Cup rounds (confirmed today), in which he’ll compete for Action Express Racing and against Ganassi.

 

Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

“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,” says Hull, “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’s arrival in IndyCar has superb novelty value, but the fact that he’s driving for the legendary Chip Ganassi Racing team is perhaps even more surprising. Of course, it’s hardly unknown for Chip 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. 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, was signed after just one test – and in an era where test days are at a premium – and also has two decades of stock car experience to unlearn.

Yup, like Hull said, the #48 team really does have to redefine what ‘winning’ means in such extraordinary circumstances. However, the whole Ganassi team have welcomed the opportunity to work with Johnson.

“They’re enjoying it, absolutely,” assures Hull. “Jimmie is genuine, and he combines that with being gracious and unassuming. His attitude makes everyone want to work with him and give their absolute best for him.”

They will, too, and their efforts are already being reciprocated. Their progress together will be one of the most fascinating aspects of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season.

 

Photo by: Chip Ganassi Racing

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