Dario Franchitti was standing on the hill overlooking WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca’s Turn 4 as his student came into view.
The four-time IndyCar champion locked onto the No. 48 Honda and tracked its forward movement as Jimmie Johnson flicked through the gears and approached the sweeping right-hander. Peering down, the Scot was searching for where Johnson would place the car on entry to Turn 4, all while listening to discern the point where his 45-year-old understudy would lift leading into a corner that isn’t taken at full throttle.
With a long straight leading to Turn 5 waiting on the other side, getting it right at Turn 4 is an important part of each lap. Any mistakes get paid for with a slower run down the straight, and that’s where Johnson’s progress in early February was being judged.
Franchitti was mostly pleased with the outcome on that lap, noting how his charge was building confidence by carrying speed farther into the turn, and using more authority on the way out, hammering the throttle as he continued to feed steering input into the car. Once through Turn 4, it was obvious to the eyes and ears that Johnson’s pauses between applications of speed were growing shorter.
Three months prior, on Johnson’s testing debut at Laguna Seca, the inaction was just as easy to spot. Through the infield turns, his corner-entry lifts came earlier. They were followed by prolonged coasting in the turns and waiting for the car to be pointed mostly straight before returning to the throttle. Both acts conspired against his lap times and spoke to a fundamental lack of confidence. The seven-time NASCAR champion was at the base of tall mountain to climb.
On his February return to Monterey, the driver from November was nearly unrecognizable, and that’s by design. Franchitti has been instrumental in helping all of CGR’s drivers since retiring at the end of 2013. But Johnson’s transformation into an IndyCar road course racer is an altogether different project.
Johnson’s journey is centered on becoming the best IndyCar driver possible, but the collaboration with Franchitti brings a secondary theme into play, and in the three-time Indy 500 winner’s case, it involves repaying a favor from back in the day.
At the end of 2007, the new IndyCar Series champion and first-time Indy 500 winner decided it was time to reinvent himself as Chip Ganassi Racing’s newest NASCAR driver. Franchitti had a pal waiting to lend support as Hendrick Motorsports’ back-to-back champion Jimmie Johnson offered whatever help he could to the open-wheeler who wanted to become a stock car driver.
“When he came to NASCAR, I was so excited for him,” Johnson tells RACER. “I know he had a couple of big crashes in IndyCar and he was very excited to have a look on the ovals. And I know he was excited to have a roll cage above his head. Honestly, I just tried to help. I was, of course, also busy doing my thing.
“He is very well-versed in vehicle dynamics and understanding what’s going on. He was trying to connect the sensations he was used to, and find a common ground between NASCAR and IndyCar and how to identify those sensations. How to use them to his advantage. How to adjust the car. And here we are, all this time later, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do, but in the opposite direction, and Dario’s here helping me connect the same dots.”
Franchitti’s humbling experiences during that abbreviated 2008 Sprint Cup season have helped the two to connect on a deeper level. As he said at the time, getting the most out of a Cup car on an oval required forgetting almost everything he’d learned in IndyCar.
“The feeling that he had for those type of Cup cars, at that point, I didn’t really possess,” Franchitti says. “It was funny, because when we spoke really in depth about driving styles and what he did in a Cup car, and what was the fast style, he would say, ‘You need to do this, and when it does that, you need do this other thing.’ And I’d go, ‘Mate…I have no idea what you’re talking about.’
Taking a page from his IndyCar mentor, Johnson’s been busy jettisoning the knowledge he amassed in NASCAR to benefit his open-wheel conversion.
“At one of his early IndyCar tests where you could see all the things that make him special in NASCAR, I turned around and said, ‘Well, now I know why I was so **** in a Cup car!’” says Franchitti. “We had a good laugh about it because it’s such a different style over there.”
So far, the changeover process has been everything Johnson was hoping for with CGR.
“It’s just the best fit for me to have the environment I need,” he says. “To relax, to hear honest feedback, and for me to give honest opinions and honest reads on what I’m experiencing so that I can cover as much ground in a short period of time. Dario is fully vested in me, and so is the team in trying to help me. They understand how critical that role is, and are really giving him the tools that he needs to do the job.
“Ultimately, I still have the hunger to learn. That’s what makes this so exciting right now, is that I’m just learning so much. And also the experience of this car. It is the most intense and aggressive vehicle I’ve ever driven. As a guy who likes to go fast, that’s just damn fun. Like there is nothing else. Even the Formula 1 car I tested was more tame than this animal. This thing is so raw and so violent that you feel like, ‘I’m being a race car driver right now!’ It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”