Jimmie Johnson rekindled his childhood dream to compete in the NTT IndyCar Series actually by testing the limits of a Formula One car.
When the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion did a car swap with the McLaren of two-time champion Fernando Alonso after the 2018 season, Johnson was surprised by his zest for an open-wheel race car that once seemed his path.
“To test the Formula One car, and do the car swap through Zak Brown’s generosity and McLaren, I had an experience behind the wheel I’d kind of suppressed,” Johnson said in a Thursday interview (watch the video above) with IndyCar on NBC analysts Leigh Diffey and Townsend Bell. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is what I wanted to do since I was a kid. Looking at the tires, the speed, the power, the power to weight.
“That experience was so awesome that it really sparked this for me, and I’ve been trying to pursue an open-wheel option for ’21 and ‘22.”
Johnson will be making that transition with Chip Ganassi Racing as he wraps his full-time NASCAR career with Hendrick Motorsports this year. He still is trying to lock down the sponsorship to firm up a schedule, but the venture already has created major buzz.
During a “Coffee With Kyle” interview, Mario Andretti, who won both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, predicted that Johnson would be “a natural” in IndyCar.
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) September 10, 2020
Johnson said the crossover success of Andretti, Parnelli Jones “and many others from that generation are kind of my inspiration (for IndyCar). I have a unique opportunity where I can create options like this.
“I recall watching my heroes take their helmet and race any car anywhere in the world. Today’s racing is much different, and championships are the focus, but for me to move around and enjoy some IndyCar, maybe sports car racing at this point in my career, really comes from watching my heroes doing it.”
Before his Chevrolet ties led to NASCAR, Johnson told Diffey and Bell that his childhood dream was of racing IndyCar “since I was hanging on the fence of the Long Beach Grand Prix as a kid.”
He said he has “no clue” how he will perform on a schedule of street circuits and road courses but plans to lean on five-time champion Scott Dixon and Ganassi driving consultant Dario Franchitti.
— Chip Ganassi Racing (@CGRTeams) September 9, 2020
“I’m with an amazing and am going to have the best shot that I really would probably ever have in my life to try open-wheel racing, and I’m up to the challenge,” Johnson said. “I want to be as competitive as I possibly can. To go run back of the pack is not why I’m doing this. I want to be up front. I don’t know what that journey is going to exactly look like.”
During a July 28 test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Johnson said he had trouble with sensing the rear tires on exit and still was adjusting to much shorter braking zones than in a Cup car.
“Some might call me crazy trying to pick the most intense of road racing that exists in North America, but I like a good challenge,” Johnson said. “I know what I’m capable and really excited to just race … it’s a freeing moment.
“I have no idea what kind of success it’ll bring, but certainly I know that going to IndyCar, with the amazing leadership there, the many drivers I know and have been around a long time. I can feel this vibe and brotherhood within the paddock area. That’s something I want to be part of and experience.”
Watch the video above or click here to see Johnson’s interview with Leigh Diffey and Townsend Bell.