Jimmie Johnson opens up on IndyCar move: ‘If I pass up this experience, I will kick myself’

IndyCar Jimmie Johnson Avett Brothers
Chris Owens/IndyCar
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If Jimmie Johnson put his IndyCar transition in terms Avett Brothers fans could appreciate, the seven-time NASCAR champion might describe it as mothballing his banjo for a new instrument.

Or as he said it during a discussion with Scott and Seth Avett on Lindsay Czarniak’s “The Artist and The Athlete” podcast, the midlife leap between motorsports disciplines could be akin to another seven-time champion in his mid-40s: Super Bowl winner Tom Brady switching teams last season.

“But I’m not just changing teams, I’m kind of going from football to baseball,” said Johnson, who was testing Tuesday at Barber Motorsports Park. “It’s not NASCAR anymore, I’m starting over as a 45-year old rookie, so I’m really going to be tested on that belief, and that’s one of many (tests), and I’m looking forward to it.”

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During a wide-ranging conversation with the Avetts in the podcast episode that was released Tuesday, Johnson went in-depth to explain the reasons for his move to the NTT IndyCar Series, which he said was “my dream as a kid” while being raised in Southern California.

“In that whole journey, my eyes were on IndyCar,” Johnson said. “The West Coast is so IndyCar-focused, and I had Robby Gordon ahead of me, Rick Mears, Roger Mears, all these off-road racers that went to IndyCar. That’s what I always wanted to be. Now I’ve created a situation where I can go do that.

“I almost feel like if I pass up this experience that I have access to, I will kick myself down the road. I’ll kick myself more for not taking this experience than I will kick myself if I go out there and don’t perform as I hope that I can. So I’ve been kind of wrestling that over the last year. You get one chance to walk this earth, and I’m all about experiences, and I better take advantage of this experience I can create.”

A strong bond has been built between the Avett Brothers, who grew up as NASCAR fans in Concord, North Carolina, and Johnson, who (along with his wife, Chandra) is a longtime of their music and was featured in their most recent annual New Year’s Eve concert.

Growing up in the shadow of Charlotte Motor Speedway (where they recently played two drive-in concerts), the Avetts already had natural connections to two seven-time Cup champions from the Tar Heel State.

“Whether you knew NASCAR or not, you knew about Richard Petty, and then we realized we grew up directly in Earnhardt Country,” Scott Avett said. “Knowing the spirit of what Earnhardt was. Going to school with family members of his and everything. Just being dialed down into NASCAR.

“When Jimmie entered, we were so obsessed with our own outings, I don’t think we were paying attention to any sports or anything. We were in the band world. But as the dust settled in those times and seasons of our lives, what I would pick up about Jimmie was right in line with this principle that our dad always talked about that you don’t have to tell people when you’ve got it. You don’t have to say anything. Jimmie didn’t seem to be a loudmouth. He’d just go and perform and do it. His actions showed who he was, who he is. That seemed to be different than some of the obvious bravado.

“It’s something I admire a lot that this guy, his actions do all the talking. The rest is just handsome integrity. It’s really beautiful. For that to be in NASCAR was a little different than how we’d all seen it growing up.”

In addition to discussing their competitive fire, child-rearing in the age of PG-13 movie streaming and the support of their wives, Johnson and the Avetts also traded notes on their parallel paths of toiling in obscurity before reaching the big time.

“I’ve often wondered about both of your journeys with music and instruments,” Johnson said. “My competitiveness has really been with myself and for me to own what I do and how I do it. I wasn’t winning for the longest time. This was in the background of my mind of leaving the track knowing that I did all I could and trying to outperform myself from a previous event.

“I can imagine holding an instrument and trying to learn how to own a riff or a song … where you get real competitive with yourself and get caught up in your own thing and perfect your craft independently in some ways.”

The Avetts said their band went through a similar self-motivation when playing before crowds of “people telling us we sucked” when they began touring nationally.

“It becomes, ‘What have I got in me to get back up there,’ ” Scott Avett said. “Is it about me doing better at something they said I suck at or about I don’t care what they think, I’m just getting up there.”

The Avett Brothers In Concert - Brooklyn, NY
Scott (left) and Seth Avett played the Barclays Center in Brooklyn with their band Oct. 5, 2019 (Debra L Rothenberg/Getty Images).

Said Seth Avett: “Scott and I had heckling situations, and some were justified in retrospect, but for a driver in this area, I think people take it so seriously. I’d imagine when people are saying negative things about Jimmie, they take it too seriously. You’ve probably come under fire that felt exaggerated.”

Johnson said that “for sure, age helps” in coping with heckling, which he uses as motivation. He also conceded he might need a similar approach if he struggles in 2021.

“Yeah, totally,” Johnson said when asked by Czarniak if he was worried about getting up to speed in IndyCar (where he is within about a second of his teammates in preseason testing but still off the pace). “That’s the fuel. I’m trying really hard to stay competitive with myself and not worry about timing and scoring and where I might qualify, where I might finish — though, of course, I care. Of course, I’ll have an eye on it.

“I’ll have to test myself and all the things of how I fought off this pressure through the peak of my career and now I’m reinventing myself now and really falling back on those core ethics in my own headspace. That’s what I have to work all year and through ’21 and ’22 in IndyCar.”

You can listen to the podcast episode through Apple Podcasts by clicking here or wherever you download podcasts.

Czarniak also recently interviewed Danica Patrick and Alanis Morissette together on The Artist and The Athlete podcast, which pairs professional sports stars with famous musicians.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”