HOPING FOR LOVE BUT READY FOR HATE
Fractions of time, often in the hundredths and thousandths of a second, tend to separate IndyCar drivers who qualify inside the Firestone Fast 12, and again when the Fast Six is set in the final knockout round. Even for a guy who went from being multiple seconds off the front-running pace late last year to only a handful of tenths away, the hardest part of the journey is just beginning.
Over his 14 races, Johnson will look to shrink the lap time deficit, but miracles would be required for the gap to get down to the hundredths and thousandths where the lifelong road racers play. There’s no mystery as to the outcomes that await this rookie in 2021: He’s going to get hammered in every session by a field of road racing specialists, which he knew and accepted before signing with CGR.
He also knows to expect plenty of negativity on social media and in comments sections if his name is at the bottom of the speed charts.
“I really feel like it’s on me to be as real and as authentic as I have ever been in my career,” Johnson says. “I feel like I will be able to do so, because I have nothing to prove. I’ve spent a career worrying about all those things. It’s going to be hard not to worry, and I don’t want to say that’s not going to happen, but I think there’s a real opportunity for me to really be as truthful as I can and as honest as I can, through the good and the bad. And I’m comfortable with that.
“The people that truly are fans, or people that are watching and respect the process and respect the fact that I’m still eager to learn and eager to drive and all that stuff, I think there’s a real story in. But I’ve got to be realistic; when I’m not on the pace, or I make a mistake, I need to own up to that.
“At the same time, I need to own up to the fact that this is so different and I still have so much to learn. I hope it’s a minimum of two years I’m here. Three would be better, and four would be better yet. I have no idea where opportunities will take me and where CGR will be in three or four years, but I know each year I’m out there, I will get better and better and better.
“There will be people who will want to hate and criticize what we’re doing, and you’re never going to get around that. All I can do is use my digital platforms to be real about this process and articulate what it’s like and hope that’s enough for everybody.”
Barring a few welcome surprises this year, Johnson’s second season as an IndyCar driver is where his true capabilities will start to be revealed.
“I think we knew the first half of the year was always going to be tough because how steep the learning curve is,” Franchitti says. “All the things he’s never done, the tracks he’s never seen… I think people know what he’s up against. But he also came to St. Pete with me so we could do a couple of laps, get driven round in the pace car, and then walk the circuit at night together. He flew to St. Pete just to do that last year to prepare mentally for racing there this year.
“That’s his level of commitment, but he’s still got to do his first lap in an IndyCar there. So to expect him to be in the front half of the field is a big ask. And nobody’s going to give him an easy time. None of the other drivers will, because they’re just not built that way. Nobody’s going to say, ‘Oh, Jimmie, you’re a great guy. I loved watching you in NASCAR, please, take the corner from me.’ It just doesn’t work like that. But he’s a tough cookie. I think by the second half of the season, we can start annoying some people.”
MONTEREY MISSION STATEMENT
The new season is here and one of racing’s biggest names is ready to write a new chapter with a good buddy as his coach, CGR as his team, and new sponsors in Carvana and American Legion ready to tell his story. We don’t know how the chapter will end, but Franchitti appreciates the purity and spirit Johnson has brought to the adventure.
“When you’ve got a driver who, the first time he goes by the pits at Laguna Seca, comes on the radio and says, ‘This is awesome!’…yeah, and people still wonder why is Jimmie doing it?” he says. “When I first met him, Jimmie was just a normal guy, and seven championships later, he hasn’t changed. If they listened to that radio conversation at Laguna, they’d know. And he’s actually done it at two different tests, and I bet it won’t be the last time we hear it this year. It’s like, ‘OK, that’s why he’s doing it.’”