‘You just worry all the time’: IndyCar drivers strive to avoid COVID-19

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For Simon Pagenaud, assessing risks is natural while behind the wheel of his No. 22 Dallara-Chevrolet. It’s inherent to virtually every decision he makes at more than 200 mph.

But in the era of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, assessing risks has become an obtrusive part of daily life in order for the defending Indianapolis 500 winner to ensure he continues racing in the NTT IndyCar Series this season.

“You’ve got to be careful about everything you do,” Pagenaud said Tuesday during a Zoom media conference. “I wash my hands too many times a day. When you really think about it, everything you touch is a risk. Every movement you make with your hands across your face is a risk, and it brings a lot of anxiety, because you just worry about it all the time. Racing being everything in my life.”

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The Team Penske driver said he and his wife, Hailey, mostly have remained in isolation at home since mid-March, just after IndyCar’s originally scheduled season opener in St. Petersburg was postponed (eventually to the season finale in October).

Though Pagenaud has left the house for job obligations (namely, simulator testing, an NBC shoot at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May and the June 6 race at Texas Motor Speedway), he has placed heavy restrictions on his social life and used “extreme caution” to protect the profession that he loves and is central to his life.

“It’s difficult because we have friends we want to go see, but then you’re wearing a mask, and I’m the one that has to be extra cautious and explain I’m racing in two weeks, and I can’t contract the virus because I want to be able to race.

Simon Pagenaud waits to be interviewed after finishing second in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway (Chris Jones/IndyCar).

“So we haven’t been able to go back to the restaurants because we don’t want to take that risk. I love going to the restaurant, it’s part of who I am, and I can’t quite do it. You could do it, but it’s risky, and those are things you have to think about. It’s been big adjustments. I think as we go through times, obviously life is going to be different for everybody, and for us, if we want to keep racing and make sure that we are allowed to race, we’ll have to make some big efforts and dedicate everything to racing.”

Pagenaud isn’t alone in being overly careful about his interactions. Joey Logano, Team Penske’s No. 22 counterpart in the NASCAR Cup Series, recently said he treats everyone as a potential carrier of COVID-19. Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing also recently disclosed they had had shop employees test positive for the coronavirus.

Mindful of five IndyCar races over 14 days (starting with Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis and followed by weekend doubleheaders at Road America and Iowa Speedway), Team Penske’s Will Power said he hasn’t been to a restaurant and bought exercise equipment so he can work out at his home in Troutman, North Carolina (where gyms remain closed).

“I’ve been to the go-kart track by myself in my garage,” Power said. “And when I have to do a simulator day, they’re pretty strict on the precautions they take. Everyone’s at least 6 feet apart with gloves and masks.

“So yeah, I’m doing everything possible to make sure that I stay healthy, because it would be a real disaster to come down with the COVID and miss a few races because they’re pretty stacked close together during the season.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly said he also has been vigilant about avoiding extraneous contact with the outside world.

“For sure,” said Daly, who is running a full season for the first time since 2017 while splitting time between Carlin and Ed Carpenter Racing. “In the end, you’ve got to think what is your main goal in life? Well, mine is to try to be a racing car driver for as long as possible, and right now I’ve got the best opportunity I’ve had in years for my career, so for sure thinking about that every day. Whoever you interact with, how you do it.

“It’s tough because after so many months sitting at home and doing what we had to do, I definitely want to be social. I want to see people I haven’t seen in forever. I want to obviously interact with our fans as well when we have fans back at races, but in the end, I won’t be of use to my team if I can’t drive the race car. So I’ve got to think about that, and we want to make sure we’re taking care of not only ourselves but our team members, our fans, everyone that we could potentially interact with in the next few months.”

Conor Daly was sporting a distinctive mask while out of the car before the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway (Chris Jones/IndyCar).

Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”