Of all the things Jimmie Johnson prepared for during his NASCAR farewell tour, taking a crash course on iRacing certainly wasn’t on the list as 2020 approached.
After participating in his first virtual IndyCar event on Saturday as the guest driver among IndyCar’s full-time field with the American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, plus competing in Sunday’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series event, the seven-time Cup champion admitted to being a bit knackered once the event at Texas Motor Speedway was complete.
“Sleep is a big issue, there’s no doubt about that,” he said after finishing 19th at TMS. “These coaches and folks that I’m working with all have day jobs — they’re all young guys that have day jobs — and we start sessions at 8 p.m. , and end at 12 or 1 in the morning. So it’s a whole different world, this digital space that I’ve entered into. And I know it’s existed for a long time, but it’s just been super interesting to see this parallel world that’s running next to reality.”
Johnson is finding the engineering and information overload associated with iRacing to be eerily similar to the work involved with racing real cars.
“I really am — and not only the time to figure out what makes these things go, you have all of the engineering support that we’re accustomed to having, exists,” he said. “And the way the game records all this data, there are groups out there that can review, run telemetry on your sessions, provide you with data traces and input to look at. I mean, it honestly is a parallel universe to what we’re doing at the highest levels of car racing. It’s been a huge eye opener for me, especially since my first race last Sunday, to where we are today. I just jumped in and thought I was going to play a game, and quickly realized that wasn’t going so well, and spent this last week trying to learn more. And it opened up this gateway that I just … I can’t believe.
“Last week I thought I was just going to play a game and have some fun, and it was on national television with a million people watching. And then the competitive spirit kicked in, I’m like, ‘OK, this is more than you’re just playing a game.’ So as I’ve gone through that. I mean, I found myself in that real head space of frustration, anxiety and competitive spirit, all of that stuff going on all week. Then I had a race yesterday, and then a race again today. I mean, it’s crazy how I get pulled into the same head space competitively with this game as you do in real life.”
The 44-year-old has been vocal about his desires to run an IndyCar road course race at some point in the near future. A test with the Arrow McLaren SP team in a Chevy-powered Dallara DW12 at Barber Motorsports Park was scrubbed in reaction to the coronavirus, but he says the chance to get a feel for the 750hp open-wheel machine via iRacing from the comfort of his home was a decent first step.
“Yeah, it was good. I feel like it’s not exactly what I would experience in real life, but when you have a big goose egg on reps, I mean, anything close to, similar to, in the ballpark of, is so useful,” he added after taking 16th at Watkins Glen. “And I originally bought my open-wheel rig to learn some tracks. The visual piece is surprisingly … maybe not surprisingly, but just shockingly close and accurate. They can get that part right on all tracks, which is really amazing. Vehicle modeling, tire modeling, you get into some things that aren’t exact. The processing of the computer, there’s some stuff there that doesn’t correlate.
“But you get way closer than you can imagine. That’s what this experience has really opened my eyes to. If you’re trying to shave off a tenth, it’s probably not the place to be. But if you’re seconds off, you can definitely get yourself in the game on a professional level in real life by being involved in one of these sim programs.”
Catch the rest of the conversation with Johnson, including an unexpected reference to 2019 Indy 500 Simon Pagenaud, below: