INDIANAPOLIS — Hopefully mother nature allows us to witness history in the making on Wednesday. Both Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson will be able to complete their Rookie Orientation phases at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That sentence alone is huge for how much the NTT IndyCar Series has grown over the year.
On an October day, we get to see two polarizing race car drivers strap themselves into a Dallara and pilot their rocketships around the 2.5-mile oval at speeds in excess of 200 mph.
10:30 a.m. ET start
6 p.m. ET End
The start time was moved up 90 minutes due to the potential of wet weather in the Circle City. There’s a 47% chance of rain at the time of the start with a 43-47% chance staying around until 1 p.m. ET. From there, it goes up to 51% before falling down to 40% at 2, 34% at 3, 37% at 4, 47% at 5 and 51% at 6.
Sunset on Wednesday is 7:20 p.m. ET.
Phase 1: 10 laps of 205-210 mph.
Phase 2 is 15 laps of 210-215 mph.
The final phase is 15 laps over 215 mph.
Grosjean’s 1st Taste Of A High Speed Oval
At this time last year, Romain Grosjean was bracing himself for a full time slate in the NTT IndyCar Series. He knew his F1 days were numbered and a change was needed. He was talking to teams over here about a potential venture Stateside. Then came that frightening crash in late Fall which changed his future outlook.
While racing was still in his future, he didn’t want to race on the ovals anymore, especially the high speed ones. See, without any past oval experience and coming off of a crash that frankly he’s lucky to be alive from, he didn’t want to take any additional risks nor put his family through that fear anymore.
But, once we got over here and saw how safe these cars are and how fun they are to drive, Grosjean became more open to the potential of a full time slate again. If he was going to do so though, he’d have to run the ovals including Texas and Indianapolis.
So, off he went to World Wide Technology Raceway this past summer for a test and after being there, he wanted more. So, Grosjean ran the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 in August and had a blast. That opened the door again for a full time effort in the series.
In turn, Andretti Autosport had an open seat and they courted Grosjean. He happily obliged and now he’s driving the same No. 28 Honda that Ryan Hunter-Reay has for over a decade. He will be full time in 2022.
In saying that, he has to complete the three phases to become Indy 500 eligible. Scott McLaughlin did his around this time last year and now Grosjean will get a chance to do the same.
This will be the fastest he’s ever traveled in a race car so it will be fun to witness his emotions at the end of the day.
Will This Lead to Indy 500 Opportunity For Johnson?
Jimmie Johnson is in the opposite scenario as Romain Grosjean on Wednesday. While both are after the same goal in completing their three phases, Grosjean is all about an eye for next May. Johnson’s eyes are on May but they’re also focused on what’s in front of him first – seeing if he wants to do it.
Johnson has taken a methodical approach to his INDYCAR aspirations. It all started in testing an INDYCAR on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course late last summer to see if racing in this series was even an option. If the test went well, then some appearances in the series in 2021 could be on the horizon. If it didn’t then he’d close the door before a chapter in his book was even written.
It clearly served its purpose. Johnson, raced 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.
“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’s next progression was a test at the Texas Motor Speedway on Aug. 30. See, before you can even hop behind the wheel of an INDYCAR on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, you have to have oval experience elsewhere.
Texas was the spot they chose.
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.
Johnson added that the comfort from a the Texas test is there. He circled the track at over 214 mph that day 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.
An Indy test is the next step. If he likes it, is the next hurdle his 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.”
The direction is 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 will be back in all road and street course races next season. Will he run full time if he does Indy?
He says he’s just focused on Indy first and let the chips fall as they will.
Is this a one-off Indy effort in 2022 or would he come back for 2023 or even beyond that mark?
“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.”
How Quickly They Get Up To Speed
The other thing to watch is how quickly both drivers feel the comfort. The speed is something they’ll get used to. Hell, Johnson’s raced 18 times here in a stock car. He knows his way around Indy. It’s just that the speeds will be a lot quicker on Wednesday and the lines/vision points may be different.
How quick do they run through the phases and once they’re done, how quick on the speed charts do they rise?
I know they’ll have a lot of downforce on the cars, so I don’t expect 225+ mph laps by any stretch of the imagination. But, how fast do they go though? That’s something to be seen.