By David Morgan, Associate Editor
INDIANAPOLIS – When Jimmie Johnson first started his journey in the NTT IndyCar Series, racing on the ovals, including the Indianapolis 500, was just not in the cards, but on Sunday, he’ll be one of 33 gladiators ready to take on the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
So, how did we get here and what ultimately turned the tide for the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion to agree to race at breakneck speeds in an open wheel car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
While driving an Indy car wasn’t on his radar as his NASCAR career wound down, a couple of key moments transpired in the waning months of his time in a stock car that would change the trajectory of his post-NASCAR career. First came the chance to test a Formula 1 car for McLaren, then a subsequent test in IndyCar for Chip Ganassi Racing.
After those two experiences, Johnson was hooked, setting his sights on trying to make racing an open wheel car a reality. Even if the choice to pursue that path was a surprising one.
“Honestly, I am surprised that I’m here,” Johnson said “This was not some master plan that I had. Driving the Formula 1 car in 2018 sparked my interest in a formula style car. I almost tested an Indy car for McLaren, but then COVID hit. My friendship with Chip [Ganassi] and his willingness to put me into an Indy car later that year panned out. I drove the car and thought, damn, this is really cool. It’s a lot of fun.
“That experience is really what I’ve been chasing. And I’ve been thankful to find a partner in Carvana and American Legion. A team in Chip Ganassi Racing that’s been willing to take me on this journey. Again, there was not a master plan and it’s really been an experience that I’ve wanted to have and because of the partners involved I’ve been able to do it.”
Johnson added that after all of his time in NASCAR, when the opportunity came to venture into open wheel racing, he leaped at the opportunity.
“Driving the car, just to feel the G forces, the acceleration, the cornering, the braking,” Johnson said of what really drove his want to race in IndyCar.
“The paddle shifting, as simple as that might sound. Like the technology behind the car. The rules allow there to be such a higher performing car. It’s not a knock on NASCAR at all. I think the NASCAR framework really helped me because I can sense and feel a car.
“There wasn’t a lot of technology allowed, so the driver needs to be the computer and has to articulate all the loads and senses to the team, and then the team makes the changes. Doing that was awesome and very, very cool, but I always wanted to feel more and experience more. More speed, more technology. Those early days of trying the F1 car and then Chip’s car here on the road course was just such a cool experience.”
Starting with the road and street courses in 2021, the ovals were still off the table for Johnson, but the thought of doing it someday was still in the back of his mind.
While Johnson had opportunities to race at Indianapolis at times during his NASCAR career, the added danger of the exposed cockpit ultimately kept him away.
Enter the Aeroscreen.
The safety device, which was introduced in 2020, provides added protection for the drivers in IndyCar by partially enclosing the cockpit. It was the addition of that item to the series that was the big factor in helping to sway his opinion of racing on ovals.
“I had a few opportunities,” Johnson said. “You know, Chani and I talked about starting a family and we both agreed that if we had kids, open cockpit just wasn’t for wasn’t for me. And then when the Aeroscreen came along, I was like, maybe, but even then I was like, no, not doing it. And then here I am.
“First, the halo coming along, was kind of an interesting thought and kind of primed the pump for me. Then the Aeroscreen, specifically in IndyCar. Coming here last year and watching the race. I was one of the first drivers to Alex after he had his big crash on Carb Day, I guess it was. Just ‘How’d it feel? Did It hurt?’ That was a massive impact. So being around some crashes, being in the paddock for a year, that really changed my perspective on how safe the cars are.”
Johnson added that the Aeroscreen was the major change that helped ease his mind about the safety of the car, but it was not the only safety advancement that has come along in recent years to make the Honda he will climb into on Sunday much safer than the cars of the past.
“I think that there are big steps along the way that have raised the safety level,” Johnson said.” Coming into this, I just wanted the risk taken here to be similar to risks that I was taking in NASCAR. With the Aeroscreen being on the car and all the other improvements that have happened after Hinchcliffe’s incident, the knowledge from Wickens incident.
“There are just many, many, many things learned that have now made the cars I think the safest they have ever been.”