until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Jimmie Johnson’s ‘drinking from a firehose’ IndyCar baptism

by Jack Benyon
11 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Having won seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, you’d think Jimmie Johnson had earned a retirement of spending time with his family and recuperating from a career of 37 races per season for the last 20 years.

Not so. Instead, he chose arguably the most difficult thing he could possibly do: switching to one of – if not the most – competitive open-wheel championships in the world despite having a mediocre record in NASCAR’s road course outings and never having driven more than the odd test in a single-seater.

It’s readily accepted that Romain Grosjean’s transition from Formula 1 to IndyCar is going to be tough, so imagine that same move from stock cars!

While we haven’t kicked off 2021 in earnest yet, we have had an off-season and Johnson has learned plenty about the challenges he faces.

He talked exclusively to The Race about what he’s learned so far, and even to provide an update on whether he’ll do the Indianapolis 500 in the future – the question we all want to know the answer to. You’ll have to read to the end for that…

No regrets!

Jimmie Johnson

It seems maddening to be asking Johnson this so soon – before he’s even raced – but when you evaluate the enormity of the task he’s set himself, you assume he’s been overwhelmed and had the occasional regret about heading to IndyCar here or there?

“Yeah, I’ve been overwhelmed for sure!” he chuckles.

“But there’s no regrets honestly. No matter how it turns out.

“Anyone that’s had chance to drive a proper open-wheel car, IndyCar, knows just how much fun they are to drive.


“It all started when I was able to swap cars with Fernando [Alonso] and I drove the McLaren F1 car in Bahrain in 2018 and it was an experience that I’ve never had before.

“And the years following that I’m like ‘I want more of that, that was so amazing and so unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before that’. That’s where the fuel came to kind of fire this thing up and then get it going.”

A four-time champion for a coach

Dario Franchitti Jimmie Johnson

After ending his full-time IndyCar racing career in 2013, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti has remained a part of the Chip Ganassi Racing set-up and has been its driver advisor ever since.

He still has many of the extensive notes he took during his career, and even though the drivers he mentors are six-time champions like Dixon or ex-F1 drivers like Marcus Ericsson, his input is still so valuable that he’s an integral asset to the team.

What many people may not have realised is that Franchitti was a big reason Johnson chose to race for Ganassi this year.

“He’s been so important for me, and certainly within the company at many levels,” says Johnson.

“I wasn’t around to quite understand how Dario found his way into this role exactly, but I assume it’s much in that space. I mean he still cares a lot for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Dario Franchitti IndyCar 2010

“He has great friends that are working there, and they don’t want to let his experience end up somewhere else or race against it and certainly want to tap into it.

“And during his driving career he took so many extensive notes, and still has it all in the forefront of his mind and loves to teach people. It’s been the perfect storm for me.

“I was fortunate to have a few teams in conversations about coming to race for them in IndyCar, and knowing the support that I’d have from Dario – and everybody at Chip Ganassi Racing – was different than anywhere else, and it’s something that I really valued.

“It’s been so important for me and I’m going to need to lean on these guys, all year long and even all next year, just to get as much as I can out of myself and out of the car.”

Few teams boast a driver as successful as Franchitti to provide insight and additional opinions. What he brings from his work in this area and with young, inexperienced drivers has been a key aspect of Johnson’s adaptation.

Driving a…Formula 3 car?!

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Everyone expected Johnson to take this enormous challenge of an IndyCar switch extremely seriously, but I doubt many anticipated Jimmie going all the way back to a ‘training wheels’ approach of jumping in a junior single-seater.

Funnily enough, it was Johnson himself who called for it, even though The Race would have much preferred his ‘option B’ of driving a Champ Car to have happened…

“It was from me pushing to get seat time to learn tracks,” adds Johnson.

“I was trying to go through the world of simulation through using the Honda sim, using iRacing, rFactor, some karting just to get the muscle groups working when using a formula car and kept pushing on Dario and Mike Hull [managing director] and Chris Simmons [performance director], anybody at CGR like how do I get more seat time.

“Do we get a Champ Car, and try to figure out how to run Champ Car somewhere, or how do we go about it?

“Dario and Mike Hull really came up with the idea to get in the Formula 3 car, and to move around and hit some tracks that we’ll go to in the IndyCar and through last fall into the winter it was very useful, very helpful.

“I had a lot of fun getting in those cars, and certainly had a lot of fun being around all the families and the children, kids that are in these junior formula cars trying to make their next step in racing as well.”

It’s symptomatic of Johnson as a human being that he hasn’t thought twice about going back to the grassroots in this switch. There’s zero arrogance or self-importance here, to the point where it feels like he’s forgotten he was even a NASCAR driver and that he’s back at the bottom floor, waiting to fight his way back to the top all over again at the age of 45.

The engineer that hasn’t been ‘spinning him out’

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Eric Cowdin was called back to Chip Ganassi from Dale Coyne Racing – a move that worked very well last year when Ganassi signed Mike Cannon to engineer Dixon – to take over the tightrope task of engineering the #48.

It’s a tightrope because on one end you’ve got Tony Kanaan, one of the most experienced IndyCar drivers of all time, to engineer for the ovals. Cowdin was Kanaan’s engineer as far back as the 1990s and oversaw their 2013 Indy 500 win at the KV team.

And then, on the road courses, you’ve got an extremely talented driver but total single-seater rookie in Johnson.

That means being extremely selective with the feedback you provide the driver so as to not overcomplicate things, but still give the driver enough tools to understand how he can help improve the car’s performance.

“He’s been amazing in the fact that he is experienced at CGR, experienced with Kanaan, really seems to be in the right headspace for this journey to bring me in and get me up to speed,” Johnson said of Cowdin.

“I’ve had to learn just how different things are, how they’re framed up and organised in IndyCar versus NASCAR. I’m so used to building a relationship with the crew chief who calls the race, engineers the car. In IndyCar those are separate.

“So thankfully, on the strategy side, Max Jones will be calling the race and be the voice that I have in my ear, and thankfully I’ve known Max forever on the NASCAR side of life. Seen him around the garage areas, a familiar face and a friend there.

“Working my way through with Eric, he has been very descriptive, very understanding, walking me through in detail, the things that I need to know, not spinning me out with a bunch of the outside stuff that I don’t need to know.

“And then honestly just to show his commitment, he’s been at those F3 test sessions with me, just so we can talk on the radio. We can debrief after a session and to start building that dialogue.”

Cowdin is certainly relishing the challenge of his dual role on the #48 team, and he’s backed up with Simmons and Hull as part of a stunning set-up of engineering and just general talent at Ganassi.

Last year, he helped Alex Palou adapt to IndyCar with Coyne, so he has some experience of adapting a new driver to the series.

A second off his team-mates? Better? Worse?

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Johnson’s team-mates alluded to the fact that he is around a second per lap off them at the moment.

That was in testing though, so it’s important to ask the man himself what he feels is a realistic number, and how that fits into his expectations for the season ahead.

“It’s a fair point, testing is much different than a race weekend, and the pressure and the racing craft that exists on the track,” he says.

“I’ve had four proper test days in the car and then a fifth when I jumped in the car in July last year just to see if I enjoyed driving an IndyCar.

“So, to only have five days in a car, and to see where I started and where I finished up, to be less than a second off my team-mates in pace is, I feel really good about that.

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“I’m very happy with that progression.

“But there’s still so much I haven’t had a chance to experience yet.

“I have not been behind another car let alone the field on a start to understand dirty air.

“I’ve never done a start or restart, the importance of using the overtake button at the right time, especially on pit-ins and pit-outs, bringing tyres up to temp in race conditions, it’s nice when you have the whole track yourself in a test session!

“But come race time it’s a different story so I feel like I’ve probably only experienced 30-40% of what I will experience once we go racing.

“So I still have so much to learn, but I’m ready for it, I’m going to take it one day at a time and just keep smiling and drive that beast on the track.”

The Race adds that Johnson hasn’t even done a qualifying sim on the softer red-walled tyres used on race weekends yet, which many new-to-IndyCar drivers pick out as the most difficult thing to prepare for when joining the series.

“No, you’re right, we tried some lighter tanks and simulation on blacks but, to get on the alternative tyre and go, I’ve not had that chance and I won’t get it until we’re in Barber,” Johnson replies.

“So hold on tight, try not to use too much brake and hit the gas sooner, all those things that you, in theory, kind of know take place but I’m drinking out of a firehose, man! We’ll see what happens.”

Will you do the Indy 500? Yes or no!

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Ever since Johnson’s switch to IndyCar, the juxtaposition of not doing the ovals despite coming from a NASCAR background has transfixed those lucky enough to interrogate Johnson over his future.

Perhaps that’s because in each answer he gives to the inevitable questions of if he will do ovals and/or the Indy 500, he never outright says no and there’s usually some sort of caveat.

In this answer though, Johnson is as bullish as I’ve heard him when discussing his chances of racing on ovals in the future, and in particular the Indy 500 which he dreamed about longingly as a child.

“I certainly need to test myself [on an oval] just to check that box and know if it’s still a hard no or not,” Johnson tells The Race.

“Putting this programme together through last year and where we sit now; Tony Kanaan is signed on for the two years to drive the car on the ovals.

“So I think there’s probably still some wiggle room to figure out a 500 opportunity if I wanted to, but to run the full year for points, it would take a lot of work to figure out how to pull off something like that.

“I do feel the cars are much safer now than they’ve ever been. I was watching the Indianapolis open test and saw [Rinus] VeeKay piling into the wall and thankfully he’s OK. What a hit.

“What I’m most afraid of is myself, I feel like I could go out and test and be fine. ‘All right, let’s go do this, we’re going to go racing on an oval’, you know, the racer kicks in, and I get in there and make a mistake or get into a position I don’t need to be in, that’s the part I’m trying to protect myself against.

“I feel like after a year of driving IndyCars on the road courses, I’ll truly have a better sense and feel, and then if I can get the team to take me to a test session, and that’ll really kind of put the final nail in the coffin as to whether it’s worth a try or not.”

Reading between the lines, Johnson is almost definitely going to do an oval test this year if it’s possible within the realms of the pandemic, and that day will decide if we get arguably one of the biggest spectacles in American motorsport history – Johnson at the Indy 500.

You may think that’s a huge exaggeration, but there’s only two other seven-time NASCAR champions, and neither Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt Sr ever did the Indy 500.

The scene is set and providing Johnson feels safe, I think we’ll see him in the Indy 500 over the next two years.

In the meantime, we have to caveat Johnson’s 2021 switch with his lack of single-seater experience, the huge competitiveness of the IndyCar Series and the fact that he still has so much to learn. He could well be celebrating a result as apparently muted as a top 15 in his first season as he acclimatisation.

I for one don’t care about that. Just having Johnson in IndyCar is one of the biggest and best stories in American motorsport for a long, long time.

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