One legend to another: Jimmie Johnson visits Fernando Alonso at Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – Fernando Alonso had a visitor to the McLaren garage early Thursday morning – seven-time NASCAR Monster Energy Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

“My wife sensed his charisma years ago when his car broke in an F1 race and he sat down in a lawn chair to get some sun,” Johnson said. “My wife said, ‘Who is this guy?’ He’s really cool.”

And having someone of Alonso’s stature only helps elevate auto racing’s biggest event, which airs May 26 on NBC.

“I’m glad you are in the States and racing in the Indianapolis 500,” Johnson said to Alonso.

“I am excited, too,” Alonso said. “This race is very important, too. We hope to get a good result next Sunday.”

THE 103RD INDIANAPOLIS 500: Click here for how to watch, full daily schedules

Both are legends and true racers; just with a different focus.

Alonso is the two-time Formula One champ. Johnson is a four-time Brickyard 400 winner. He has competed in the Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway 17 times. But Thursday was the first time he ever attended an IndyCar event at the Speedway. The Indianapolis 500 is what Johnson watched growing up in El Cajon, Calif.

“I’m totally excited,” Johnson said. “There is nothing like seeing a race car come down the frontstretch. I’ve never seen the intended car – an Indy car – come down the frontstretch here. I have a lot of friends in this series.

“It’s nice to finally be here and see these cars whip around here.”

After visiting with Alonso, Johnson talked to NBC Sports.com about his first trip to Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the month of May. NBC Sports.com got exclusive access, thanks to McLaren’s IndyCar program and Johnson’s representative, John Lewensten.

“It’s cool to be here,” Johnson said. “I’ve had this on my list for years but didn’t plan far enough in advance. I always kicked myself. I want to come back and see the start of the race, and I would love to do that this year. More important to me, I wanted to see some friends and hang out.

“I had an awesome experience with the McLaren guys when I did the car swap last year.

“I didn’t have anything else going on today so heck, why not?”

Steve Shunck Photo

Alonso told Johnson, “You need to jump in this one,” pointing to the McLaren Chevrolet the team is trying to prepare for the Indy 500. “But your wife would not be happy.”

Johnson has expressed interest in driving an IndyCar, but he has said his wife, Chandra, wouldn’t be a fan of him competing in the Indianapolis 500 or any big oval in an Indy car. Johnson has expressed a desire to drive in IndyCar on a road course, however.

Last year, he told Motorsport.com that he had been approached several times about the Indy 500 and said that “I’m not overly excited about those fast ovals, but I think with my status and relationships I could put together some road course races in IndyCar.”

“I’ve run so many ovals, I want to do some road course racing,” Johnson told Alonso. “Especially, after feeling the braking and the downforce when I drove your McLaren at Bahrain last November.”

Alonso and Johnson swapped cars last November after the 2018 NASCAR Cup season and Formula One World Championship seasons ended.

“You saw how little performance our cars have,” Johnson said, referring to the No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It’s quite different racing,” Alonso said of NASCAR.

There is a mutual respect that champions have for other champions, and that was evident between Johnson and Alonso.

“I’ve always had fun meeting people along the way and building friendships,” Johnson said. “I’ve done the Race of Champions. When these guys come to our races, I make sure to meet them and get to know these other guys.

“My phone is blowing up now that other people know that I’m here. I better go visit them.”

Johnson met Alonso for the first time during the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona, and that is when the idea for the car swap last November began.

Johnson has followed McLaren’s progress, or lack of progress, during the first two days of Indy 500 practice. An alternator issue limited the team’s track time in Tuesday’s Opening Day. On Wednesday, Alonso crashed in Turn 2 just 1 hour and 34 minutes into practice and never returned to the track.

According to McLaren officials, the backup car won’t be ready for practice on Thursday until after 1 p.m.

“Every team struggles here at some point or another,” Johnson said. “There is still a lot of time.”

Johnson admitted walking into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May gets him jacked up.

“You are not human or a racer if you don’t,” Johnson said. “A Cup car is awesome to see here, but one of these cars not lifting into Turn 1 is spectacular.

“IndyCar has grown immensely. It’s highly competitive with McLaren getting involved. I would like to drive one of these cars one day, but ovals don’t appeal to me, but I would like to drive on a road course.

“The Indy 500 is definitely off the table for me.”

NHRA: Antron Brown takes major step toward team ownership

NHRA
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There will come a day that when three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown wants to talk to his boss, he’ll need to look no further than in the mirror.

The New Jersey native announced Tuesday that he has begun to lay the groundwork to own his Top Fuel team, eventually branching out from Don Schumacher Racing.

“It’s definitely exciting, but at the same time, it’s also nerve-wracking because the buck stops here right now,” Brown told NBC Sports. “Now the coolest part is you get to help and drive and motivate and push the team forward, to make decisions and leave a legacy behind for my family.”

Brown will continue racing for DSR this season while beginning the transition to eventual sole ownership of the new AB Motorsports in the future. Even when he officially leaves the DSR camp as a hired driver, Brown and his new team will retain a technical partnership with the Schumacher organization.

Moving toward team ownership is just a natural evolution for Brown, who previously ran his own Pro Stock Motorcycle team from 1998 until joining DSR in 2002. It’s also a move that potentially may lead other current drivers to start thinking about their own futures.

It’s no secret that many of the biggest names in drag racing – both drivers and owners – are getting up in years. John Force will soon turn 72, while Schumacher is 75. They’re among several others in the sport who are making contingency plans for their teams to continue to operate once they’re gone – and Brown wants to do his part to help the sport grow and flourish.

“When you’re able to have ownership, you’re looking at the talent coming up,” Brown said. “You’re able to reach down and see and give other people opportunities that you had. When I came to race for Don Schumacher at DSR, he’s given all these people at his place this opportunity to drive.

“But what happens when the Don Schumachers, the John Forces, the Connie Kalittas go? You lose all the owners of our series, so who’s next in line to take over that lineage or carry that torch? It’s a necessary means for the future for the upcoming people.

Antron Brown’s plans to become a team owner were embraced by his current team owner, Don Schumacher. (Getty Images)

“I’ve been in this sport for over 20 years. This is the next evolution of my chapter, the next page of my book. What am I going to do when I decide to hang the helmet up one day? I want to be there to bring that new crop of drivers and talent up and help mold them to be the best version of themselves to carry the sport forward and to share with them what was shared with me over all my years in the sport, from Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Big Daddy Don Garlits, Mark Oswald and Don “Snake” Prudhomme, all the people I looked up to.”

While Brown will start as a single-car team once he transitions to ownership, he hopes to eventually build AB Motorsports into at least a two-car operation, with his Top Fuel dragster and a Funny Car.

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The path to eventual ownership began nearly a year ago when Brown and Schumacher discussed the future.

“Me and Don had a heart-to-heart talk,” Brown said. “When I told him what I wanted to do, Don said, ‘Antron, I know this is what you want to do. I’ll support you in this.’

“That’s a cool experience when you have a gentleman that has done everything in this sport, from over 350 national event wins, 17 world championships – and I’ve done three with him – and is in every motorsports hall of fame there is.

“What is he going to do next? He’s making the sport better by pushing people like myself to do what I’m doing now. No matter how long it takes, I know I have him on my backside, pushing me to get to that point.”

Like father, like son: Antron Brown and son Anson, who is following in his father’s drag racing footsteps. Photo: Antron Brown’s official Facebook page.

His family’s future also figured into Brown’s decision. His oldest son, Anson, soon turns 16 years old and is heavily involved in NHRA’s Jr. Dragster program, as are Brown’s other children. It’s likely his son some day will follow in his father’s footsteps.

But don’t think that the elder Brown, who turns 44 in March, is ready to hang up his firesuit just yet.

“I’ll stop driving when I feel I’m not capable to drive no more and I’m not having fun no more,” he said. “That’s nowhere in the near future. I know I’m going to drive for at least another 15 years.”

Heading into this season, Brown will retain current sponsorship from Mac Tools and Toyota, as well as associate sponsorship from Hangsterfer’s on his 11,000-horsepower dragster. Global Electronic Technology also has signed on as a new associate sponsor in a multiyear deal.

“It’s no secret this has been a goal of Antron’s for a while now, and I’m happy to be able to provide the tools and resources needed for him to be able to successfully branch out on his own,” Schumacher said in a team media release. “It’s important for me to see my team members grow.”

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Brown burst upon the NHRA scene atop a Pro Stock Motorcycle in 1998, earning 16 wins over the next 10 seasons. He joined DSR in 2002 and made the switch to Top Fuel in 2008.

Since then, Brown – who now resides in suburban Indianapolis – has gone on to become one of the winningest drivers in Top Fuel history with 50 national event victories, as well as three championships between 2012 and 2015.

That performance recently earned him AutoWeek magazine’s Top Fuel Driver of the Decade.

Brown also announced Tuesday he is reuniting with former crew chief Brian Corradi, who returns to the team after spending the last two seasons as co-crew chief for 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force. Corradi will share crew chief duties for Brown with NHRA veteran Mark Oswald.

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When he won his first title in 2012, Brown became the first African-American world champion in Top Fuel history. He hopes his move to ownership will continue to grow NHRA’s already significant focus on opportunities for minorities and females in the sport.

“I think it’s important across all spectrums, period,” Brown said. “I think a lot of fans see me, and they can relate to me because I am them. I came from a good, hard-working family in Chesterfield, New Jersey, which is right next door to Trenton.

“Everybody in my family from my great uncles to my grandpop made their own way, had their own businesses, from swimming pool to paving to septic tank businesses.

“One thing my grandpop said to me is the world is wide open. He said, ‘Son, you can have anything you want in this world, as long as you put the effort and put the work towards it.’ If people can resonate with my story from where I came from and where I’m heading, I hope it gives them this energy, this ray of hope that ‘if Antron Brown can do this, so can I.’

“That’s the only way for motorsports to grow. It’s for the young ones to get interested in it and I want them to know the opportunity is there. All they have to do is take it.”

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Brown will be among more than 30 Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers who will take part in this weekend’s annual preseason “spring training” test at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in preparation for the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals Feb. 6-9 in Pomona, California.

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