INDIANAPOLIS — This time of the year, it’s always one that unites families together. Fathers or mothers, taking theirs sons and/or daughters to the Indianapolis 500 is a moment that relishes in a mind to fully capture the art of family bonding. If your ears are open and not being drowned out by the noise of 33 NTT INDYCAR Series machines traveling at speeds in excess of 225 mph around these hallowed grounds, you’re likely to hear a story about that time with their dad in 19xx? Or how they first started come to Indy with their grandpa or their mom or so on.
Indy is a place that so many fond memories come out of but a lot of the stories originate on how, “my mom or my dad or my grandparents brought me here when….”
That’s something that Jimmie Johnson is experiencing first hand this month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. No, not just hearing the stories. He’s living it.
He’s here in what he calls an INDYCAR’s rightful place and despite being 46 years of age, he’s here as a rookie. This race Johnson grew up watching as a kid. He wanted to race here so bad. Racing turned out to be a good career for him. It’s just one that took him to a NASCAR path and not open wheel.
Now? That path is in open wheel. Johnson is in his second season in INDYCAR but first one of being full-time. Being full time means being in the Indy 500. Being in the Indy 500 was something too special to do alone. He had to have his family here.
On Tuesday, his dad is here. He’ll be here all month. He has to. He has a job in this story. He’s a big part and holds a special role. He’s Johnson’s spotter.
“It’s awesome. I waved at him on my install lap,” Johnson said of his dad.
This isn’t the first time his dad has been a spotter. He’s done so for his brother before. But, in his first Indy 500 there’s no one he wanted more than his dad to be 1 of the 2 spotters to use on this large facility.
The rest of Johnson’s family gets here this weekend. They can’t be here yet because his wife is overseas on business and his girls have too much stuff going on back at home. So Johnson is playing “Mr. Mom” this week and commuting back-and-forth to work.
Yes, we’ve all done that. Johnson’s commute is about an hour in length. Not too different than if I had work going on in Carmel and I live down here in Center Grove. However, Johnson’s commute is an hour by plane. Not by car. His plane takes him from his North Carolina home to his Indianapolis bus parked in the lot behind Gasoline Alley here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He’s doing the rare almost daily commute from Charlotte to Indy and back again. He’ll spend the night in Indy on Tuesday night but depending on how long the debriefs last, he’ll head back to Charlotte on Wednesday and Thursday night’s. He has to. He’s a dad and has to be around for his kids.
He’ll fly back the next morning each time. After all, practice isn’t until Noon each day and ends at 6 p.m. ET. If debriefs last say an hour, he can get out of here and on a plane by 7:30 and home by time to put his kids to bed. He’s up to get them breakfast and off to where they need to go before hopping on a plane back to Indy for more work.
He wouldn’t trade this for the world.
“Kids are quite busy. I hate being away from them,” Johnson says. “Try not to be apart when we can help it. Was able to afford the luxury to afford an airplane during my Cup career. I use it like a taxi. It’s only an hour flight to Charlotte.”
Plus, Johnson is up early anyways. His alarm is normally set at 5:48 a.m. Not, that’s not a misprint. Everything in the number “48” in his life even his alarm. But he’s up before it goes off now anyhow. He can’t sleep. His excitement is so large to being here that he sees his alarm going off. He’s up and ready to attack the day.
“I’ve run so many laps in sim and so many laps in my head reminiscing how much fun I had in the open test in my head I was up early and ready this morning.”
Johnson, was third fastest in the first day of practice with a top speed of 227.722 mph in his No. 48 Dallara-Honda. If he keeps this up, his Pole Day photo will be a happy one. It’s one he just learned about today and tells me he can’t wait to have his wife, his kids and his dad in this photo this weekend.
His wife is even excited. Johnson’s excitement is worn on his sleeve like his 7 championship rings could be worn on his hands. He’s beaming with joy. She sees it and is sharing the excitement too.
“Without a doubt. I’ve noticed on social media a lot of these older races come up on my twitter feed and my wife has been watching them with me in those 80s and 90s and watching those great races. We’ve been watching a lot of this old footage. I can’t believe I’m getting ready to do this.”
It brings the kid out of him again.
“It really does,” he told me. “The excitement of my wife too is really special too.”
It’s something his wife wasn’t always comfortable with. An INDYCAR on a high speed oval without an Aeroscreen was off limits. Then it became possible. Then when Texas came back in March, his wife wasn’t happy. It was crazy racing early and the first 5-10 laps he says that she turned around and told a friend of theirs that they didn’t like it and felt like Johnson talked her into something he shouldn’t be doing. Then by the end of the race, her nerves were calmed and she was cheering as loud as anyone.
She’s nervous now but also excited for her husband because life is good for the Johnson’s now.
Is he ready to win? He feels at home. Racing an INDYCAR here is vastly different than a NASCAR. One thing is the steering wheel actually. A NASCAR steering wheel is pretty straight forward. An INDYCAR one the opposite. You can change so much to the car by the push of a button at any time, you’re as busy in the car than you are outside of it.
“I’m better at it,” Johnson told me. “It’s been one of the bigger things to get used to in INDYCAR period whether it be a street or oval. There are plenty of tools in there to tune yourself in or out of.”
He also says what’s different is the driving style here between the two cars too.
“It’s a different world. What I learned in NASCAR on when to lift off and onto the brakes into 1 and 3 but in an INDYCAR you never touch the brakes. What’s natural in an INDYCAR you attack the entries but in NASCAR that’s the worst thing you can do.”
He says it took a few years to figure that out in NASCAR. But when he did, he took off.
“Used to leave here so defeated. Damn I was doing it wrong. I was attacking this track in the wrong areas.”
He’s ready to attack in the right areas now.
“12 months ago today I didn’t think it was possible. Until I left after the race and started the process I needed to at home, it still took months and months and months to get it right.”
He’s got it right. He’s now aiming for an INDYCAR win.