This story appears in the winter 2020-2021 issue of RACER magazine alongside other great features including a chat with another recent IndyCar convert in Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, interviews with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, and an in-depth preview of the new IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car season. Click here to get your copy, or set yourself up for a full year of stellar motorsport writing and photography with a print or digital subscription.
Ed’s note: This interview took place before the Rolex 24 at Daytona, where Johnson was part of the line-up that finished second in the No.48 Action Express Cadillac DPi.
To a lot of drivers savoring their off-seasons, Jimmie Johnson’s first months of “retirement” probably look an awful lot like work. IndyCar tests. DPi tests. Days spent pounding around places like Barber and Sebring in Formula 3 cars. Simulator work. Trips to the race shop. Plus a lot of phone calls to engineers, teammates, friends, and pretty much anyone else who might be able to help one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history reinvent himself as an IndyCar road/street course racer.
Of course, the word “retirement” belongs in air quotes, because as Johnson’s winter schedule – and his diary for at least the next two years; the length of his deal to drive Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 48 at every NTT IndyCar Series track that includes turning right – shows, this isn’t retirement, but simply the next chapter.
The planning that’s brought the 45-year old to this point was well over a year in the making. Speculation about what his post-NASCAR life might look like had begun even before he confirmed the 2020 season would be his last as a Cup full-timer. His appreciation for open-wheel racing was no secret, and suggestions that the next phase of his career might be headed that way gathered momentum when he turned up at a freezing-cold COTA last February to check out IndyCar Spring Training. He didn’t try to hide his interest at the time, but he did frame it in a way that left plenty of room for interpretation.
Asked to guess, a lot of observers would probably have put money on the seven-time Cup Series champ spending a year or two cherry picking random fun stuff, Fernando Alonso-style – an IndyCar race or two, maybe the Rolex 24, and a return to his off-road roots at somewhere like Baja or the Dakar Rally. Yet behind the scenes, he was already channeling his energy toward something a lot more focused and requiring a far bigger commitment.
“It’s always so tricky when you’re trying to be vague, but not too vague, on what you want to do,” Johnson chuckles. “I was in conversations with multiple IndyCar teams, and trying to see how it made sense for them. The notion of having an oval driver and then the road/street driver seemed to be where everybody was kind of tracking, so I had an idea that’s where it was going early.”
Johnson spent most of his COTA visit with Arrow McLaren SP, which shortly afterward announced its intention for him to test with the team at Barber in April. The intervention of the COVID-19 pandemic brought the curtain down on that, so Johnson again sounded out teams all along pitlane in search of another opportunity.
“There was interest, some more serious than others, and at the end of the day, a lot of it required funding,” he says. “The pandemic took its toll on the opportunities that we thought might exist at Arrow McLaren SP, and some of the other opportunities that were out there. And then I was in a position that I had to make a decision on the team, and the Ganassi folks had more stuff in place. I felt like there might be a chance there, but you really had to get to Chip, and he had to understand the seriousness of it.”
In a way, it would be easy to forgive any reservations on Ganassi’s part. Alonso’s IndyCar adventures were focused specifically on the Indianapolis 500, and while there was no question over the two-time Formula 1 champ’s dedication and commitment within the context of what he was doing, preparing for a single, targeted event is very different to what Johnson was proposing: a full slate of road- and street-course races. Alonso himself acknowledged that the effort required to pull that off at the level required to be competitive was the reason he’d balked at a similar program of his own.
If such concerns regarding Johnson ever did exist within the walls of CGR, they don’t now. He tested with the team for the first time on the IMS road course in late July, and has been building toward the 2021 season ever since.
“Every waking moment, he’s working on it,” says CGR managing director Mike Hull. “He’s trying to make himself better. He’s done great things in NASCAR and, let’s face it, a lot of drivers would ride off into the sunset and just show up to the Hall of Fame dinners, but he’s still hungry to go racing, and to drive an IndyCar, and he wants to drive it well.”
For now, that hunger extends only to road and street courses. Ovals remain definitely, absolutely, 100 percent off the menu. Probably…
“There is a small, small chance,” says Johnson. “But I committed to two years at Ganassi and Tony [Kanaan] has as well, and Tony’s coming in as the oval driver. So it would really take a unique situation to develop for it to happen.
“But as I’m involved in the series this coming year, I assume my confidence in the safety of the cars on ovals will increase just by me being around it, and me being on the road courses. And I’m sure I’ll hit some s*** this year, so I’ll be experiencing impacts and all of that. And maybe that will soften me more for it? And I do really feel like I should test on an oval before I rule it out completely. So, there’s still a long, long road and the chances are very small, but I don’t want to slam the door on it completely.”
Sonoma 2010 stands as Johnson’s only NASCAR road-course win, to his considerable chagrin. “I always enjoyed road courses and it’s frustrating I haven’t been more successful on them,” he says, “because my upbringing before NASCAR was really all road course-style racing.”
But the fundamental differences between a stock car and an IndyCar mean that his new mission entails a steep learning curve regardless.
“When I first started, there was so much going on in the car and I had to think about too many things, including learning the tracks,” he says. “I feel I had a breakthrough recently where I’m thinking less about technique, and instinctively finding speed just by flowing and not [consciously] connecting each dot, like, ‘brake, turn-in, throttle.’
“One thing that’s been a little tricky to feel is the rotation moment on power. It’s such a small window you can slide the car in, and the mass of the car is so different from what I’ve experienced before – all the weight’s behind me now. It’s a much smaller window to catch the car. I’ve spun out plenty of times on power down on slow-speed turns, just because I was too aggressive and didn’t pick up the warning signs early enough. That’s the scenario I’m trying to dial in right now.”
From the team’s standpoint, he’s right where they’d expect him to be on his learning curve.
“I think there’s trepidation for him,” says Hull. “But we’ve seen measured growth since we started with him. In the very technical parts of the race track, he’s as good as anybody. It’s having the understanding in the higher-speed corners of what this fairly well-downforced road-course car car will accept, and he’s trying to relate the feel of that to the feel of what he’s raced in the past.”
Johnson’s candor about his progress rolls over into his expectations for what 2021 will bring. Expressing those as specific goals is pointless, and he’s under no illusions about the scale of the challenge that lies ahead.
“It’s hard for me not to desire to be competitive,” he says, “but I’ve learned along my journey that you’ve got to crawl before you walk. And this sport is so humbling that I’m trying to put realistic goals in front of me, gain some self-confidence and have an enjoyable experience. Sadly, there’s so little track time in the IndyCar that I’m going to show up not where I need to be [at the season opener]. That’s a reality I just have to face. But I do have a few months until then, and I had that breakthrough in testing where I’m not thinking about every step. Sure, there’s still a long road ahead, but I feel like I’ve been able to work through a big piece of it here recently.”
Johnson will enter IndyCar as a rookie, albeit one with a list of accomplishments that puts him in rare company even among the sport’s all-time greats. With such a formidable body of work must surely come a sense of freedom: whatever IndyCar brings, nothing can take away what he has already done, right?
“What’s interesting is, I do feel I truly am at peace with what I’ve already accomplished, and it’s really helped me in tackling this next adventure,” he says. “But I’m not sure that many people outside of myself or my family see it the same way. My wife and I have had many deep conversations about this next chapter, and how I’m in the spotlight in a car I’ve never raced before, on tracks I’ve never driven on before, with the expectations of others that come from me being a championship-caliber driver. But I’m all about living life and experiencing things that my life is affording me to experience.
“It’ll be tough to not be the contender, but who gets to say they raced NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA? And that they got to drive for Chip Ganassi, and to split a car with Kanaan? There’s a lot of experiences here that are so unique and so special. And I’m excited to champion them along because I’ve already had that success. So, in my own head, yes, I’m in the right spot for that. We’ll see what other people’s expectations are of me, and deal with that from there. Even if I don’t run as I’d hope, there’s a neat story to tell. I think it’s going to be a really fun journey for us all.”