Jimmie Johnson accomplished another step off his list of racing in a future Indianapolis 500. See, when his NASCAR career came winding to a close, he wasn’t ready to fully hang up his helmet. He was just tired of racing 38 weekends out of a year. He felt like post NASCAR career was a time to try other various forms of motorsports as a proper send off.
But, one of them has stuck out above the rest – the NTT IndyCar Series.
Johnson, tested an INDYCAR on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course late last summer to see if that was even an option. If the test went well, then some appearances in the series in 2021 could be on the horizon.
It clearly served its purpose. Johnson, is racing in all 12 road and street course events this year for Chip Ganassi Racing. With that said, the elephant in the room and the one main question that kept reappearing during this endeavor was if he’d ever want to give Indy a try on the oval.
Prior to having children, that was an honestly an option. Then, once the family grew, it became off the table. But, once the cars grew safer over the last few years, an oval no longer was off limits. It’s just that the road and street courses would be the easiest natural progression for him to transfer over in the sense that they clearly are much safer than peddling around an open wheel car at speeds in excess of 220 mph.
That comfort over the season has grown so much that an oval test became imminent.
“I’m good with where I am right now,” Johnson said back in May on how badly would he want to be in a car for the Indy 500 on May 30. “Until I can test a car, which is the most realistic next step for me on an oval, you know I had a chance when this was all getting started to be here on May 30 but I elected not to. I still have a process that I’m going through. I’m very eager to try an oval. I’m very eager to be here for the ‘500 and I know that’s only going to fuel the fire more.”
That eagerness helped this happen.
At that time in May, Chip Ganassi said that he hasn’t had any discussions about Johnson testing on an oval but it would totally be up to him when he wants to.
“He knows the opportunity is there,” Ganassi told me of Johnson and an oval test. “I’m not trying to put T.K. out of a job or anything. We’ll have to come up with another car or something. He knows it’s there if he wants.”
Johnson was awe struck in May to be at Indianapolis, as an INDYCAR driver, roaming Gasoline Alley.
“This is their native environment. This is what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s cool,” Johnson said of being an Indy Car driver at Indianapolis during the Month of May. “I can’t wait to be here for the oval practice and qualifying and see the race and soak all of that in. An Indy Car on this track is pretty darn special.”
Now, he’s one step closer to being one of the drivers piloting those cars next May with testing on Monday at the Texas Motor Speedway. The test went so well, that the next option would be to test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the annual Tire Test in October.
Would he do that though? Is that what he wants?
“I’m definitely a step closer,” he mentioned. “I think that there are more conversations to be had with family, team and sponsors, at least another test session ahead of me before I can really make a decision, but driving the car yesterday only piqued my interest more.”
Johnson added that the comfort from Monday is there. He circled the track at over 214 mph which would have ranked fourth in qualifying from the last time out. He said that the first couple of runs were a little sketchy and taking some time to get used to, but the third run on, it felt normal.
“The day went really well. I really enjoyed it,” said the seven-time Cup Series champion. “The first few outings. Was definitely quite different with the speed around the racetrack, the feel of the race car and how nimble and lightweight the car is.
“But as I worked through my second set of tires and on, the car started to feel much more like home and certainly the track and being on an oval felt like home. By the end of the test session itself, I felt very comfortable and in a very familiar place, which was nice.
“I would say the first two sets of tires was a pretty big adjustment process for me. Just trying to understand the lateral grip that the car had because it was so much more significant than what I felt in a Cup car.
“The bumps were a lot smaller in the INDYCAR, which was really surprising to me. I felt like at that speed and how rigid the cars are, the bumps would be more so. But I guess the downforce that the car has in it, and then also probably something relative to ride height, as well, played a role in that.
“I would say probably by the third set of tires I was feeling it and was really aggressive with the car. Turns 3 and 4 is pretty straightforward, but Turns 1 and 2 is quite tricky, and to get through there flat out was kind of the goal, and on the third set of tires to really be able to pull that off and do it consistently felt good.”
As far as the speed aspect?
“I mean, it was quite significant to start,” he said. “So low in the car, vision is somewhat limited. Just how quick the car responds to steering wheel input was pretty new and different for me, and then the line that you run is similar.
“I mean, there’s only so much you can do with an oval, but the awareness of the banking and how to support the INDYCAR with the banking was a little different for me, and my NASCAR line had me a little wide on corner entry and exit, and Dario and Scott, I got their attention a couple times with my wide entries and had to bring that in.
“But once I kind of understood what to look for and how quickly the car would turn, I got into the flow of it pretty easily.”
The day started with a 4:30 a.m. wake up call due to the test starting at 6 a.m. That’s due to commitments that Johnson had to get to Arizona late that afternoon for a sponsorship appearance, so they felt like they could do a full eight hours if they started in the wee hours of the morning.
The team was all in.
Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon helped. Dixon, was there at 5 a.m. doing a seat check. Their advice paid off with Johnson saying that the only thing they wish they could have accomplished more of was turning more laps around the 1.5-mile track but the reason they couldn’t wasn’t due to a time constraint but rather the tires were falling off so quickly due to the heat and that they couldn’t do a full 50+ lap run on a set of tires like they had planned to.
Still, he had a blast and said that there are some notable differences driving around Texas in an INDYCAR in comparison to a NASCAR, but he got used to them and feels like he’s there.
“It was a different experience. The faster you go, it’s almost the more stuck the cars are due to the downforce. That’s something that I really didn’t anticipate and felt the car would be maybe a little more lighter at the end of the straightaways and entering the corners and a little more uncomfortable, and the car was just stuck and planted. So that was an eye opener to me.
“Something else that was a little different was shifting mid-corner or shifting in the corners with ease as you do in an INDYCAR and the paddle shift that’s in there. So Turns 1 and 2 you go down a gear and then up a gear and kind of make your laps that way, and that was something new and different for me to get used to on an oval, and part of that stretching the legs. In an INDYCAR with a six-speed gearbox and the fact that you don’t lose any time with gear shifts, the gearing is much different, and those top three or four gears are very close together to help you with either a tow or wind direction, track conditions, and if you get in the mindset of how to use the right gear and the right time was new for me, as well.
That’s a far cry from where he feels like on a road/street course in the sense that there’s just so much to learn on these circuits.
“Nope, not in the game,” Johnson told me last month in Indy. “I really thought I would be by now. New tracks all the time but kind of excited to come back this weekend at a track for a second time. It’s just hard. I’m not missing a lot. It’s just a tenth of a second in the braking zone. That’s so small. But, those tenths of a second around over a 2-mile course with all these turns, that’s where I’m off.”
Johnson says that he’s not in the hard spot of finding the limit the last little bit. With how minimal testing is these days, the only time he can have a chance to find the limit is in actual race weekends.
“In NASCAR when you end up in a slide, there’s a large window to control the car. Here, the window is so small you rarely can react to it and save it. It’s almost you have to have the experience to know ‘oh I have too much steering where in it or I’m on the brakes a little too much at this point or I’m on the gas too much.’ You almost have to be ahead of it and the only way to get ahead of it is to get laps. I’ve made a career in driving a loose race car in NASCAR and my car is much tighter on balance than my teammates. It thought that would be a strength of mine to convert but it hasn’t.”
Ovals could be a spot that helps transform Johnson back up the grid in 2022.
“Ovals would definitely be an uptick in performance for me, I believe,” says Johnson.
Does he want that though? A test is one thing. The comfort is another. Remember, he has to be all in and so does his family to even kick this can further down the road. Is this in the best interest for the Johnson family?
“You know, it’s — I hate that I’ve joked about it over the years that it’s my family, and they certainly do have a very big voice in all this, but my family is looking directly at me and my comfort,” said Johnson. “The INDYCAR that we have today versus where it was five years ago is just totally different from the aeroscreen and all the safety it brings in so many different ways, to the fact that we don’t have pack racing any longer.
“My journey and my comfort in this is really what my family is looking at, and I’m trying to be systematic and work through, and yesterday went very well, and it’s only created more interest for me to check out the Brickyard, so that’s the next step.
“But yes, there will be conversations, and I guess ultimately I’m trying not to say that it’s on my family and the pressure that comes with that. But it’s my journey and my wife and kids support me in whatever I want to do. Certainly they have their concerns, and their concerns are mine.
“I share the same concerns. I try to be very systematic and methodical and make sure that I’m in a standard — in a traditional box of risk in getting into a race car.
“We were all very comfortable with the risks associated to NASCAR, and through my experience this year in the INDYCAR Series, and certainly being in the car yesterday, I feel that the INDYCAR is now back in that same box. There are inherent risks when you’re driving a race car, and I’m good with that, and I’m on this journey right now to prove to myself that the INDYCAR is back in that inherent box of danger of driving a race car.”
After this test, it seems like those convos are now a formality and he’d join Romain Grosjean here in October to complete his next phase and pass Rookie Orientation, the same way Scott McLaughlin did last year. That would then put him in the game for the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500.
From that point it’s all about finding sponsorship and ensuring he has a car for next year. Chip Ganassi told me in May that if Johnson wanted to do Indy, that, “I think you’d certainly take a look at it, yeah,” he said regarding adding a fifth car for him.
The direction in pointing that way with a strong breeze to his back pushing him that direction. The thing is, the breeze can’t catch him because he’s running there with eagerness. Johnson said that if he does Indy, he’s also going to still do all road/street courses as well but hasn’t opened the door up on a full season. He’s taking this step by step and Indy is just the second step.
Would he race past 2022?
“I’m happy to go on the record and say I’ll run as many years in the NTT INDYCAR that Chip will have me and I can find sponsorship. I am having such a good time, and every rep I get in the car, I’m only going to be better. If I were to come back in ’23, I think those expectations would rise up again, and my performance would be better yet.
“My intent is to stick around as long as I possibly can.”