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

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.

Heart of Racing program aims to elevate new generation of women to star in sports cars

women sports cars
Mike Levitt/LAT Images/Heart of Racing

(Editor’s note: This story on the Heart of Racing sports cars shootout for women is one in an occasional Motorsports Talk series focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)

Heart of Racing driver and team manager Ian James says his daughter, Gabby, isn’t so interested in auto racing. But she is interested (as a New York-based journalist) in writing about the sport’s efforts and growth in gender equality

It’s a topic that also was brought up by James’ wife, Kim.

“They’re always saying, ‘Hey, you manage all these guys, and you help them, so why not a woman?’ ” Ian James told NBC Sports. “And I feel like there are a lot of women that haven’t had a fair crack at it in sports car racing.

Our whole DNA at Heart of Racing is we give people opportunities in all types of situations where there’s been crew personnel or drivers. And I felt like we hadn’t really addressed the female driver situation. I felt like there was a void to give somebody a chance to really prove themselves.”

During the offseason, the team took a major step toward remedying that.

Hannah Grisham at the Heart of Racing shootout (Mike Levitt/LAT)

Heart of Racing held its first female driver shootout last November at the APEX Motor Club in Phoenix, Arizona, to select two women who will co-drive an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the SRO SprintX Championship.

The season will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway with Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt behind the wheel. The team also picked a third driver, 17-year-old Annie Rhule, for a 2023 testing program.

The Phoenix audition included 10 finalists who were selected from 130 applicants to the program, which has been fully underwritten by Heart of Racing’s sponsors.

“We didn’t want it to be someone who just comes from a socio-economic background that could afford to do it on their own course,” James said. “We can pick on pure talent. We’re committed to three years to do this and see if we can find the right person. I’m very hopeful.”

So is Grisham, a Southern California native who has been racing since she was 6 in go-karts and since has won championships in Mazda and Miata ladder series. She has several victories in the World Racing League GP2 (an amateur sports car endurance series). The last two years, Grisham has worked as a test driver for the Pirelli tire company (she lives near Pirelli’s U.S. headquarters in Rome, Georgia, and tests about 30 times a year).

Starting with the Sonoma during SprintX event weekends (which feature races Saturday and Sunday), she will split the Heart of Racing car with O’Meara-Hunt (a New Zealand native she got to know at the shootout).

“It’s huge; the biggest opportunity I’ve had in this sport,” Grisham, 23, told NBC Sports. “Now it’s up to me to perform how I know I can. But I’m super lucky to be with such an amazing team and have a good teammate. The Heart of Racing has a family vibe and energy to it that’s really amazing. It’s super exciting. It’s hard to put into words.”

Grisham is hopeful that a strong performance eventually could lead to a full-time ride with Heart of Racing. The team has full-time entries in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and won the GTD category of the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 piloted by James, Darren Turner, Roman DeAngelis and Marco Sorensen.

James said “there’s no guarantee” of placement in an IMSA entry for Grisham and O’Meara-Hunt, but “if they prove themselves, we’ll continue to help them throughout their career and our team. The GT3 program is an obvious home for that. If they get the opportunity and don’t quite make it, we’ll be looking for the next two. The next three years, we’ll cycle through drivers until we find the right one.”

Grisham described the two-day shootout as a friendly but intense environment. After a day of getting acclimated to their cars, drivers qualified on new tires the second day and then did two 25-minute stints to simulate a race.

Hannah Grisham reviews data with Heart of Racing sports car driver Gray Newell during the team’s shootout last November (Mike Levitt/LAT).

“Everyone was super nice,” she said. “Once everyone gets in the car, it’s a different level. A different switch gets turned on. Everyone was super nice; everyone was quick. I feel we had an adequate amount of seat time, which is definitely helpful.

“It’s always cool to meet more women in the sport because there’s not too many of us, even though there’s more and more. It’s always cool to meet really talented women, especially there were so many from all over the world.”

IMSA has celebrated female champions and race winners, notably Katherine Legge (who is running GTD full time this season with Sheena Monk for Gradient Racing). The field at Sebring and Daytona also included the Iron Dames Lamborghini (a female-dominated team).

The Heart of Racing’s female driver shootout drew interested candidates from around the world (Mike Levitt/LAT).

James believes “a breakout female driver will be competing with the best of them” in the next five years as gender barriers slowly recede in motorsports.

“It’s been a male-dominated sport,” James said. “It’s still a very minute number of women drivers compared to the guys. I’m sure back in the day there were physical hurdles about it that were judged. But now the cars are not very physical to drive, and it’s more about technique and mental strength and stuff like that, and there’s no reason a girl shouldn’t do just as well as a guy. What we’re just trying to achieve is that there isn’t an obvious barrier to saying ‘Hey, I can’t hire a guy or a girl.’ We just want to put girls in front of people and our own program that are legitimate choices going forward for people.”

“There’s been some really good female drivers, but a lot of them just haven’t been able to sustain it, and a lot of that comes from sponsorship. I think (with the shootout), there’s no pressure of raising money and worrying about crash damage. We’ve taken care of all that so they can really focus on the job at hand.”

Funding always has been a hurdle for Grisham, who caught the racing bug from her father, Tom, an off-road driver who raced the Baja 1000 several times.

“I don’t come from a lot of money by any means,” she said. “So since a young age, I’ve always had to find sponsorships and get people to help me, whether it was buying tires, paying for entry fees, paying for the shipment of a car to an actual race. Literally knocking on the doors of people or businesses in my town.

“So yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve always struggled with and held me back because the sport revolves so much around money. So again to get this opportunity is insane.”

Rianna O’Meara-Hunt was one of two women selected by the Heart of Racing to drive in the SRO SprintX Championship this year (Mike Levitt/LAT).

Grisham credits racing pioneer Lyn St. James (an Indy 500 veteran and sports car champion) as a role model who has helped propel her career. She was hooked by the sights, smells and sounds of racing but also its competitive fire.

“There’s a zone you get in, that subconscious state of mind when you’re driving. It’s like addictive almost. I love it. Also I’m just a very competitive person as I think most race car drivers are.

“For sure I want to stay with the Heart of Racing. Obviously, I’m still getting to know everyone, but it’s a super family vibe. That’s how I grew up in the sport with just my dad and I wrenching on the cars. That’s what I love about this sport is all the amazing people you meet. And I think this is one of the most promising teams in this country. For sure, I want to learn as much as I can from them and hopefully continue. I feel so lucky and grateful to be one of those chosen.”