INSIGHT: Johnson having to adapt his mindset from NASCAR racer to co-owner/driver

Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Images

INSIGHT: Johnson having to adapt his mindset from NASCAR racer to co-owner/driver

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Johnson having to adapt his mindset from NASCAR racer to co-owner/driver

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Perhaps you’ve heard of the nightmare drivers have about waking up at a track and missing the start of a race. Jimmie Johnson does. To this day, Johnson, who has decades of racing experience and successes, admits to being haunted by such a dream.

That bizarre feeling of being unable to find the hauler, wearing street clothes while “Gentlemen, start your engines” is given, and subsequently missing the start of the race is what Johnson said felt like being in L.A. for the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum. It was Johnson’s first time at a NASCAR Cup Series racetrack as a team owner, watching cars he had a vested interest in, .

“I show up and walk in the garage,” Johnson tells RACER, “the trucks are parked, the drivers are in fire suits, and there was this moment of this panic hitting me again like, (expletive) I missed something. Wait, I didn’t miss anything. So, I make some rounds, say hellos, see everybody, and I’m trying to figure out, do I walk into the truck and see drivers?

“Who do I talk to? There are sponsors there. We have prospects. I was just trying to figure out how to handle those moments and put the attention where I need to.”

Johnson found himself torn between where he wanted to be. When the race started, Johnson wanted to see the action, but there was a suite with guests, sponsors and prospects. Although he was able to watch the heat races, Johnson believes he only saw about 30 laps of the feature.

“And it was really bizarre,” he says. “At times, I would forget and be present in the conversation, but oftentimes I would hear cars and I’m like, ‘How are we doing? What’s going on?’ I should have a radio on and be listening to the drivers and figuring out how I can potentially be of help there. That whole competition side — I was so in the front office side, the business side, and detached from the competition — that it was just bizarre.”

L.A. was truly the first time Johnson has been to a Cup Series race since retiring from competition in 2020. The busy racing schedule Johnson did for two years with the NTT IndyCar Series and other events kept him away. However, he was at the same track when IndyCar and NASCAR had a combo weekend at the Indianapolis road course.

Johnson was in Phoenix last year when it was announced he had bought into the ownership group with Maury Gallagher and Richard Petty. But L.A. was his authentic welcome back to the garage in his new role.

“It is all new,” Johnson says.

Of watching the cars on the track, Johnson laughs, “It was far more stressful than I anticipated. My heart was racing. I think I had sweaty armpits after. It was wild. Noah (Gragson) ran and was (locked) in and we were watching Erik (Jones), and Erik’s transfer to make it to the feature was literally down to the last lap — it was stressful.”

Legacy Motor Club shared a video on Twitter of Johnson, Gragson, and Mike Rockenfeller cheering Jones transferring into the main event. The video was pulled out as Johnson spoke with RACER and again brought a round of laughs of his excited reaction.

But it’s not just watching cars that Johnson owns that’s new. He looks at the Nos. 42 and 43 with a business mindset.

“Right now, of course, running well is our biggest concern,” Johnson says. “It’s the lifeblood of any race team and trying to get off to a quick start. We have this momentum we’re carrying from the brand launch and the partnership, and I feel like a lot of really strong prospects and to transition those from prospects into partners and partnerships. Of course, running well gets a lot of that to the finish line.

“So, I’m watching intently with performance in mind, and how are we going to run? How high up can Noah finish? Erik finish? When Erik spun around, and the toe link broke on the car, it’s like, shoot, now we’re down to one bullet. We got one shot at this. There are multiple pieces of the business mind working as that’s all playing out.”

It’s an entirely different mindset than the “singular selfish” one Johnson had for so many years as a driver.

The one thing Johnson didn’t have to figure out in L.A. was how to look like a team owner. Johnson has been picked on by his peers and drivers about his particular and cliché attire.

“It’s funny because gear has always just appeared in my career. You’re a driver, here’s a polo,” says Johnson. I step in (with Legacy Motor Club), and they’re like, here’s your vest. There’s attire designated for all these different places.

“I put my vest on, not thinking much of it and Erik, Noah, a bunch of the people at the shop say, ‘Oh, you’re in owner attire’ right away. Then when I was at the Clash, the first thing (Tony) Stewart and Clint (Bowyer) said to me before we on, ‘Oh yeah, look at you, already got the owner kit on.’”

As he learns the team owner ropes (and fashions), Johnson also has to stay in the driver groove at Daytona aboard Legacy Motor Club’s Carvana Chevrolet. Matt Thacker/Motorsport Images

Johnson is still in the early stages of finding his place at the racetrack. In L.A., he was a team owner. In Daytona, Johnson is a team owner and driver as he qualified for the race in a third car for the team.

“I feel like the last couple of years in IndyCar, this business piece was a surprise to me how much fun it was and how much I enjoyed it,” Johnson says. “And how our little office did so well, bringing Carvana on and managing and maintaining that relationship, which has set up well for this experience. That’s really has been where my focus has been with the team is really trying to build out the front office and leverage my friendships and relationships with prospects to come in and work for us, and to really get the sales force intact, communications, social media, account services that whole aspect, to create the revenue for the competition side.

“I always thought I was a competition guy and this is new to me in the last couple of years that the other side is a hell of a lot of fun. I do hope that the front office piece will be self-sustained, self-sufficient here very soon, and I can have a better balance of the two because the times I have been in the simulator with our engineer staff or the times I have been in competition mode, I do feel like I’ve been able to help. So, I’m still trying to find that balance, and right now, I’m just going any direction at all times.”

Despite the adjustment and learning curve, Johnson is enjoying this next chapter of his career.

“I am having fun,” he says. “I am working my guts out, as is Amy (Walsh Stock, communications director) and everyone. We are all grinding hard, but it really is a unique feeling that we’re building something. So far — and I’ve not been in a real race as an owner yet — but so far, in the limited data that I have, the pressure that’s on the team, the driver, crew chief that pressure is so intense every single day.

“There are many more facets in this ownership role and a lot of other people; you put a lot of trust in a lot of other areas. It’s just a different experience that has plenty of pressure, but so far, it’s not equal to the pressure of being the guy holding the wheel. That’s a very intense pressure.”

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