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.”
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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?”
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.”