By David Morgan, Associate Editor
LONG BEACH, Calif. – Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is both a homecoming and a dream realized for NTT IndyCar Series rookie Jimmie Johnson.
The Southern California native, who grew up attending races in Long Beach in his younger days before moving over to the stock car ranks and eventually winning seven NASCAR Cup Series championship, had long dreamed of being able to climb behind the wheel of an open-wheel car to compete in the annual IndyCar race on the streets of Long Beach.
When the green flag waves on Sunday’s season finale, he’ll finally get his chance to do just that.
“So excited to be here,” Johnson said. “I came as a teenager, dreaming of being a race car driver and watched a couple of races here. To be back and be on this side of the fence is going to be really cool.”
Sunday’s race also marks the conclusion of Johnson’s first season in IndyCar, where he has raced on the road and street courses that adorn the 2021 schedule. Though there have been some trials and tribulations along the way, things have started to turn the corner for the driver of the No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda as the season heads down the home stretch.
Just last week at Laguna Seca, Johnson was able to score his best finish of the season with a 17th place result in the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey after a late race tangle with fellow rookie Romain Grosjean.
“It’s great,” Johnson said of his recent performance gains. “I’m so happy to have it show up here at the end of the season. I wish I had a few more races to grow and learn and try to get career bests. Portland on, my comfort level in the car has multiplied and it’s showing. I’m very thankful for that.”
Ahead of the season finale, Johnson looked back on the season that has been, pointing out the biggest difference between the race vehicles he has driven in the past and the open wheel machine he is now piloting.
“Just how specialized IndyCar is,” Johnson said. “I felt like with all of my years of racing, there would be more crossover points or similar points of interest. To my surprise, they are vastly different.
He added that the physicality of driving an open-wheel car is another thing he has noted in making the transition from the stock car world.
“It’s much different, without power steering. And then just the physicality of the car drives a lot higher heart rate for the guys, holding onto these monsters trying to get them around a race track. NASCAR had its physical tracks, but truthfully the heat and the duration of heat was what we trained for. Here there’s much more physical strength required to muscle these cars around.”
Though Sunday will mark the end of the 2021 IndyCar season, the work is not done for Johnson as he looks toward adding some oval races to his plate next season, and possibly making a run at the Indianapolis 500.
“I’ll do the [Rookie Orientation Program] test in early October,” Johnson said of the steps he will be taking in the offseason. “Once I clear that hurdle, that gives me the opportunity to really test on any track, anywhere. Then it really just comes down to deciding what I want to do behind the wheel on ovals and seeing if the team and sponsors can kind of accommodate and get things in line.”