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

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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.