Jimmie Johnson is no stranger to ovals. The seven-time NASCAR Cup champion has made 735 starts on oval race tracks during his stock car career. He has completed 207,361 laps on those oval circuits. After making his move over to INDYCAR, one would assume that he would take like a duck to water. Well, not so fast.
While the tracks are similar, and some of them identical to what he raced on before, everything else is different. Aside from the cars, there are other variables like engines, tires, angles, and especially the competitors that make for the ultimate curveball. Johnson made his name on the ovals, but now he must learn them all over again.
Drivers will tell you that going from one discipline to another is an extremely difficult task. There is so much to learn and the driver must erase everything in their memory to start with a clean slate. While these are things that Johnson knew going into this transition, it has not stopped the path towards his goal. In fact, it has actually made him even more hungry.
When Johnson signed his contract with Chip Ganassi Racing, it was a two-year deal with the first season not including any oval events. After watching the Month of May at Indianapolis from outside of the cockpit, the 45-year old driver appears to have been bitten by the bug. With rumors swirling about his increased desire of competing in the 2022 Indianapolis 500, the team scheduled a test day at Texas Motor Speedway.
After six-time series champion Scott Dixon shook down the No. 48 Honda for his teammate, Johnson climbed in and ran his first laps on the 2.5-mile track. Johnson went through five sets of Firestone tires on Monday, turning more than 200 laps at speeds well over 200 mph. The pole speed for last year’s IndyCar race at Texas was 215.74 mph while the pole speed for the most recent Cup Series race there was 189.71 mph.
It is a familiar place for Johnson, who won at Texas seven times in Cup while also recording five runner-up finishes. The Californian admitted that the familiarity of the track did help him during the test. The banking, driving lines, and even the G-forces were all factors in Johnson getting comfortable in his new environment.
The main takeaway for Johnson was seeing and feeling the difference in how he attacks the track. The line of sight is slightly different as everything is happening much faster, so making those adjustments with his eyes was key. There are also different tools inside of the car that he can use to tweak the handling. In addition to Dixon, both Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan were on-hand for the test, providing Johnson with plenty of the veteran experience to lean on throughout the day.
Though Johnson’s crossover to IndyCar has been widely publicized, it is hardly anything new. Dozens of drivers have joined the open-wheel series with dreams of success. Many of them have had no experience on ovals, including fellow rookie Romain Grosjean, who joined the series after a decade in Formula One. Grosjean recently made his oval debut at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway where he finished 14th in the 24-car field.
Grosjean will likely join the long list of full-time drivers next season, competing at every oval event, including the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500 in May. Johnson could ultimately go that same route, as the two drivers appear to be more inclined to do so after seeing the safety improvements the series has implemented over the last several years.
Johnson and his wife have opted to stay away from the Indy 500, deeming it just too dangerous. Grosjean was trapped in a ball of fire during his final Formula One race in 2020, narrowly escaping with serious injuries to his hands. With more knowledge and understanding of the safety improvements, both appear comfortable with the idea of competing on the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.
Several drivers have been in similar situations, and have become veterans of the series. Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power had to make the leap in 2008 when the CART/Champ Car era came to an end. Power is a series champion and Indy 500 winner. Takuma Sato is a two-time winner of the 500 after a seven-year run in Formula One. Alexander Rossi famously won the Indy 500 in his oval debut and Swedish drivers Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist have both won races in IndyCar as well.
When Nigel Mansell came to Indianapolis, the entire world was watching. Those expectations are too high for Johnson, should he decide to run at Indy next year. While his journey has been a storyline to monitor this season, he has yet to taste success. The goal for Johnson is not to compete for a championship, nor should it be. This is about a driver’s desire to quench a thirst that has existed for a long time.
The results have not been what some imagined they would be, but the Ganassi driver is still learning. He has just nine races under his belt and has never driven on any of these tracks. He has improved on his second starts at Belle Isle (doubleheader) and the IMS road course, which signals he is making progress. At the end of the day, that is what really matters.
Regardless of the circumstances, this is a steep learning curve, even for one of the greatest drivers in history. This was never going to be easy, but Johnson knew that before he even started down this path. What he is doing might not break records or add another trophy to his collection, but it is entertaining, inspirational, and something we should all appreciate.
Video credit: Jimmie Johnson Racing / Gabe L’Heureux