Jimmie Johnson takes a break from IndyCar — but not from racing one of his daughters

IndyCar Jimmie Johnson daughters
Chris Owens/IndyCar

The NTT IndyCar Series raced last weekend without Jimmie Johnson for the first time in 2021, but the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion still was racing – and with family.

Lydia Johnson, 8, climbed aboard a Supercross-style dirt bike and hit a local track for the first time with her dad.

“She’s talked about it for a while,” Johnson told NBC Sports, adding Lydia “has a little desire to race and will ride anything until it’s out of gas” and also has a go-kart along with her sister, Genevieve (who is more into horses). “So this is the first time we really kind of took a step in that direction.

“We’ve been slow-playing it just wondering if it’s something she’s really interested in. Her and her sister both ride horses quite a bit right now and have other activities that they’re caught up in, but she’s pressed long enough and worked hard to earn her dirt bike.”

JIMMIE’S INDYCAR SEASON: How the No. 48 did at Barber l And at St. Pete

Was Dad excited? Or nervous?

Johnson said “a little of both” watching the younger of his two daughters engage “in full send mode” at a dirt track the way he once did at the same age (albeit he was in Southern California).

AUTO: APR 25 INDYCAR - Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Jimmie Johnson walks to the starting grid with daughters Lydia (left) and Genevieve before the Firestone Grand Prix of St.Petersburg (David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

“It was really fun to see,” a beaming Johnson said, pausing to laugh that his wife isn’t completely on board with the plan. “Chani has threatened to injure me if Lydia is ever injured on the dirt bike, and growing up on dirt bikes, it’s not if you fall, it’s when. It’s not if you get injured, it’s when you get injured.

“So I’m trying to prep Chani for any dustups that we have and (say) that it could happen on a horse, too! But we’re just having fun with right now, and it’s great to just have a Sunday off and load up the bikes and pack a cooler and go to the track and ride for 4 or 5 hours, come home, get the pressure washer out, clean the bikes and just hang with her. It’s not something I expected to do with one of my daughters.”

Experiencing the unexpected might be the theme of the year for Johnson, who is in the middle of a two-week break from his rookie season with Chip Ganassi Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series before returning next weekend for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course race (before handling a studio analyst role for NBC Sports at the Indy 500).

In a Zoom interview Monday with NBC Sports (one of his stops during a virtual promotional tour for a new personal endorsement), the seven-time NASCAR Cup champion discussed his IndyCar progression, what it was like watching Tony Kanaan race his No. 48 at Texas Motor Speedway and how he’s learned to embrace the slog of initially being a backmarker (the excerpts below were lightly edited for clarity):

Q: There has been a lot of chatter this year about the exertion required to drive in IndyCar, particularly during the heat of the Grand Prix of St. Pete, but you seem well prepared physically. How did your fitness training meet the goals for adapting to a car that stresses many new muscles?

Johnson: “I think it’s gone really well. I feel like getting out of the car, I’ve not been in a place of complete exhaustion or muscle give-up, so the folks at PitFit who I’ve been working with in Indiana have done a really nice job of getting me physically in place with the new demands of the IndyCar.

“I still feel like there’s room for improvement with my high heart rate stuff, and I’m doing a lot more interval work, even since the season has started, to really keep up with the pace that the IndyCar can handle. There really is no rest time, and every lap on track you seem to get faster and faster, where it’s the opposite in the stock car, and you can actually catch your breath. But I’m holding up well. My schedule is plenty busy. I’m not necessarily slowing down by any means, but many things are different and many things are new and certainly it’s part of the new challenge I’m enjoying.”

AUTO: APR 25 INDYCAR - Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Dallara-Honda finished 19th in the season opener at Barber Motorsports Park and 22nd in the Firestone Grand Prix of St.Petersburg (David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

Q: Now that you’ve had a week to decompress and take account of where things stand, how do you think your first two IndyCar starts went?

Johnson: “You can get into the statistics and clearly see where I’m improving and how I am improving. And we look at a lot of that stuff internally at CGR and inside the 48 car, but until I get more in-race experience, it’s just hard to practice those things that take place in the race. And I look back at my first two events, there’s marked progress in the practice day and qualifying sessions and how I handled those and my improvements, but in the race, I’ve faced new experiences and sadly have made some mistakes along the way.

“ And the other thing is I’m going to keep making mistakes, because I’ve literally only had 10 days ever in an IndyCar and two days in race conditions and traffic. So it’s just a tough day to be a rookie right now. It doesn’t matter if you’re a seven-time former NASCAR driver or one of these young guys coming in that are showing up in all sports right now. I think because of COVID and then also the natural progression of motorsport and trying to make it more cost effective is really reducing the amount of days you get in the car and makes that learning curve all the steeper come race day.

Q: You told us in March you were about 60 percent acclimated to driving in IndyCar, and you might not get to that 100 percent. After Barber and St. Pete, what is the percentage now? Are you above 70 percent acclimated now?

Johnson: “Yeah, that’s a great question. I feel like the single-car stuff, I’m in a pretty comfortable place. I know what to expect. I know how to adjust the car. I know the warmup cycle of the tires and getting the pressures there and trying to find peak grip and all of that is really improving, and I’m doing really well in it. It’s the newness of racing and traffic and of the fact that you might not have any cautions in a race. The strategy that you need to be on with fuel savings and how to really stretch the fuel in these cars to make it a two-stop vs. three stop.

“So there are just nuances there that I’ve just got to live through and experience. So come race day, I feel like I’m probably at the 40 percent mark, but the 60-70 percent mark is much more single-car related, much more practice and qualifying related.”

Jimmie Johnson, who is running the road and street courses in the NTT IndyCar Series this season, will make his next start at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

Q: Did you watch Tony Kanaan race the No. 48 last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway?

Johnson: “I caught Saturday. I did not catch Sunday while at the dirt bike track and missed most of it.”

Q: I’m sure you enjoyed watching him come through the field Saturday, and then Sunday, even though he was involved in the Lap 1 crash, he said it was important still to make some laps to give your new team reps with pit stops. What’s it like to watch someone else drive your car for two races but also know that he’s helping with the growth of your team?

Johnson: “It’s much easier watching somebody that’s intended to drive your car drive it, vs. what I went through last year when I had COVID. Somebody else was just in my car when I felt I was fine and should have been in it myself, but it’s really important for Tony and his experience to help lead this new team. We really did start this team up from scratch. There are some familiar faces on the car. Eric Cowdin who is the engineer worked with Tony in the past and was over at Dale Coyne Racing and came to join us at the 48. It’s a tough time in Indiana right now to find all the right people to put together a race team. There’s so much going on with IMSA, IndyCar that we’re still putting all the right pieces in place with the race team. And I think Tony’s expertise. Tony’s competitiveness compared to where I’m at was really able to show everyone on the 48 where to focus next and inside of CGR.

Q: After Barber qualifying, you tweeted “We’re not last!” and you had a big smile on your face after that race and St. Pete. You knew going in that this would be a slog, but it seems as if you are really enjoying that and embracing the adversity, and it seems as if the fans appreciate that, too, on social. To hear a seven-time Cup champion say, “I’m not going to win, but I’m still going to have fun.” Have you noticed their reaction and did you have prepare yourself to have that attitude?

Johnson: “Ultimately, I quit worrying about what people think a handful of years ago, and my life has improved dramatically since then. I had so much success in Cup, and as things started to slow down, it was easy to be distracted or disappointed by what you read in various places. And I just got over it.

“I didn’t get into racing for anyone else. And I’m not still racing for anyone else. This is me. This is who I am. This is my journey. This is something I’ve always wanted to do. And it’s a series I’ve always wanted to compete in. So that’s a big part of it. But in the truth of it all, in the test sessions that I had leading up to the start of the season, I knew how far away I was from Scott Dixon and Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson on the track, and you look at the starting field, and you see how tight it is, I thought I was going to show up at Barber and be off the back by a couple of seconds. To actually not be in that position and to actually qualify up there in 19th or whatever it was, was a huge win for me.

“And as time goes on, the expectations for myself will continue to rise, and I feel like I’m doing a decent job and getting what I’m capable of on practice day and qualifying day, and I think there still is a bit more for me to get. But race day, I’ve left too much on the table. And it’s tricky because I’m trying to learn how to adapt and go fast, but I’m making mistakes that lead to me being down multiple laps, and I don’t have a chance to really show my competitiveness, so learning as I go here, but really excited about the upcoming race (at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course). It’s a track I’ve had a chance to test at, it’s much more forgiving than St. Pete or Barber for that matter. So I feel like I should have a good showing and be much more competitive on race day than I have in these first two.”

Q: Having covered you in NASCAR for 20 years, I know that allergies are something that you always battled, and I’ve been told that you have found some relief through a new product you’re endorsing that has helped with improving life in the car, especially probably with a lot more air blowing through the cockpit?

Johnson: “For sure, I’ve tried it all. But I’ve really had nothing that helped with my eyes specifically, and with my love of cycling, running, being in a race car. The wind kind of in your face. Especially a little bit more now with the IndyCar, the pollen and all that irritates my eyes is just being forced in there faster and faster. And Pataday Once Daily Relief Extra Strength has honestly changed the game for me and has treated the problem right at the source. This is one of the worst springs I’ve had in quite some time, so I’m even a bit congested right now and fighting through it. But I wake up each morning, use the drop and really get the relief that my eyes need to get me through the day, and especially behind the wheel of the race car.”

A deep dive into the new GR Cup as Toyota branches into single-make sports car racing

Toyota GR Cup
Swikar Patel/Toyota Racing Development

MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Inside this former textile mill, a retro building built in 1892 with massive floor-to-ceiling windows and sturdy brick, Toyota has planted a future seed with the GR Cup.

Once a hub for making cotton dye, the first floor has been turned into a factory that churned out spec sports cars for the past year as Toyota Racing Development prepares to launch its first single-make series.

The inaugural season of the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, the first of seven SRO-sanctioned events (each with two races) featuring a field of homologated GR86 production models that have been modified for racing with stock engines.

Under the banner of its Gazoo Racing (a high-performance brand relatively new to North America but synonymous with Dakar Rally champion Nasser Al-Attiyah), Toyota will join Mazda, Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini as the latest automaker to run a single-make U.S. series (with Ford recently announcing plans for its own in the near future).

It’s grassroots-level amateur racing for manufacturers that are accustomed to racing at motorsports’ highest levels, but there are many benefits through competition, driver development and marketing despite the lower profile.

“It’s not the easiest thing or cheapest thing to do,” TRD executive commercial director Jack Irving told NBC Sports. “But there’s massive value to be a part of it and have our DNA in the cars. You get to race a bunch and get a bunch of data. You get to engage directly in feedback from the people beating those cars up.”

The GR86s being raced are very similar to the street versions that retail for about $35,000 at dealerships that annually sell several thousand.

“It’s a test of the car and your design,” Irving said. “We take an engineered vehicle designed to spec for the road and then apply our resources to make it race ready. Some of those things cross over.

The first floor of Toyota Racing Development’s Mooresville facility that finished the vehicles for the new GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

“Everyone approaches it differently. It’s a marketing piece for us. It’s a development piece for drivers. We’re supporting grass roots racing. This is a very long-term deal for us. This isn’t something we’re doing two years and done. It’s got a long-term vision. There’s big value in it, and there’s a lot of responsibility with that, too.

“You’re ultimately supporting it. You’re not just selling cars into a series and hoping it goes well. You have to be involved in a very material way to make sure it goes off well and has your fingerprints and represents the brand.”

Early indications have been solid. The GR Cup cars were rolled out on iRacing in January and immediately became one of the platform’s most popular vehicles (with 212-horsepower engines, the cars handle well and are difficult to spin).

TRD’s GR86 factory floor (Swikar Patel/TRD).

TRD has sold 33 cars for GR Cup with 31 racing in Sonoma, easily surpassing initial expectations.

“Our target was to sell 20 cars in the first year, and we could have sold 50 if not for supply chain issues with some vendors,” TRD president David Wilson told NBC Sports. “We basically came up with the idea of taking the GR86 and looking at what it would take to turn that into a little race car and do it affordably and competitively, and what’s come along with that is just a tremendous interest level. It seems like a market that perhaps has been underserved right now.”

Here’s a deeper look at the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup and how the manufacturer built the new series:


The race cars start as production models that are shipped directly from the factory in Japan to a port in Charleston, South Carolina. After being trucked to the Mooresville facility, they are stripped and sent to Joe Gibbs Racing to be outfitted with a roll cage.

Upon return to TRD, the transmission and stock engine is added. The body remains virtually the same as the street version with a slightly altered hood, decklid and splitter for ride height and aerodynamics.

Jack Irving (Swikar Patel/TRD)

The cars mostly are customized to help manage the heat – the stock versions aren’t designed to handle the oil that sloshes around in the high-speed left- and right-hand turns on the road and street courses of the GR Cup schedule. TRD puts about two dozen parts on the cars, using Stratasys 3-D Printers to manufacture many on site (which allows flexibility for adjusting on the fly during R&D). In addition to help with cooling, many of the tweaks focus on allowing a limited number of setup changes.

“You don’t have a lot of ability to adjust these cars,” Irving said. “It was done on purpose. The intent was you have three spring sets, and you can adjust the shocks and do air pressure. That’s it. We seal the engine and components of it. We dyno everything. Everyone is within range to create as consistent a series as we can.

“Some of that is to mimic what Mazda did. They’ve done a really good job with their series. Porsche, Ferrari and other OEMs have done it very well. We had a learning that was easier to go through their book and see the Cliffs Notes version to get where we are.”

After taking delivery, GR Cup teams are responsible for transporting the cars to each track (and can buy up to three sets of Continental tires per event). Toyota brings two parts trucks to each track


After Sonoma, the GR Cup will visit Circuit of the Americas (May 5-7), Virginia International Raceway (June 16-18), the streets of Nashville (Aug. 4-6), Road America (Aug. 25-27), Sebring International Raceway (Sept. 22-24) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Oct. 6-8).

Though Nashville (IndyCar’s Music City Grand Prix) and Indy (SRO’s eight-hour Intercontinental Challenge) are part of weekends with bigger headliners, the GR Cup mostly will be the second-billed series (behind SRO’s Fanatech GT World Challenge) for events that will draw a few thousand. Sonoma had a crowd of about 4,000 last year, and SRO Motorsports America president Greg Gill said its events draw a maximum of about 13,000 over three days.

“There are some iconic venues, and the SRO it’s not IMSA,” Wilson said. “It’s got a different feel to it. It’s not the show. IMSA is kind of the show. I actually think it’s a good place for us to start, because it’s a little bit under the radar relatively speaking. It’s not a venue where you see the grandstands full of fans. It’s very much racers and their families. It’s got a neat vibe to it because it’s kind of small. So for our first effort as a single-make series, it’s the right place for us.”

Toyota GR Cup
The interior of the GR86 that will be raced in the GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

Though the attendance will be much smaller, Toyota still is bringing a large hospitality and marketing activation area with two 56-foot trucks that will provide a central gathering area for the series.

Teams’ entry fees will include meals there and provide a place to connect with Toyota engineers and other officials.

“I think we have a very different way of engaging with our group of drivers, and this series is similar to that,” Irving said. “Knowing that this isn’t going to get 100K people watching, but we want to have a direct connection with the drivers and understand their feelings about car, how do we make it better and empower them to be brand ambassadors for GR.”


Toyota has positioned the GR Cup as filling a price gap between the Mazda MX-5 Cup (a spec Miata Series known for high-quality racing at very low costs) and the Porsche Carrera Cup

“If you look at the ladder of MX5 to Porsche Cup, the difference in cost is massive,” TRD general manager Tyler Gibbs told NBC Sports. “We slot in closer to Miata than Porsche. We’ll slot another car in potentially in the future above that. It’s a good place for us from a price point perspective. Our road car is slightly more expensive than a Miata, so it makes sense our performance on the car is higher than Miata.”

A GR Cup car will cost $125,000. Full-season costs will vary depending on how much teams spend on equipment and transportation with estimates from $15-35K per event. So a competitive full season probably could be accomplished in the $250,000-$300,000 range.

Toyota GR Cup

“The goal was if you can ‘Six Pack’ it like Kenny Rogers and throw it in the back of a trailer, that would be amazing for us,” said Irving, referencing a movie about being an independent racer in NASCAR. “That would make it more of what we hoped it would turn into, just being as accessible as we possibly can make it.”

Toyota has tried to bridge the gap by posting a purse of $1 million for the season. Each race pays $12,000 to win (through $5,000 for eighth) with the season champion earning $50,000.

“Our hope was if you won, the prize money would cover the cost of that weekend,” Gibbs said. “We’re not all the way there. But almost there.”

Toyota also has posted an additional $5,000 (on top of prize money) to the highest-finishing woman in every race (which dovetails with SRO’s 50 percent female-led executive team structure).

GR86 Manufacturing at GRG before the first 3 cars are picked up.
—Swikar Patel/TRD

“If you’re a female driver who wins, you could get very close to sustainable” and cover a team’s race weekend costs, Irving said.

There are four women (Mia Lovell, Toni Breidinger, Cat Lauren and Isabella Robusto) slated for the full schedule.

The 31 cars will be fielded across more than a dozen teams including Smooge Racing (which fields GT4 Supras in SRO) and Copeland Motorsports (with Tyler Gonzalez, a four-time winner in MX-5 Cup). After a test last month at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, teams began taking delivery on Feb. 24.


Toyota fields Lexus in the GT categories of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship but elected to go with the SRO Motorsports Group (“SRO” stands for Stephane Ratel Organization; Ratel is the founder and CEO) as the sanctioning body for the GR Cup.

With a heavy focus on GT racing, SRO’s marquee events are 24-hour races at the Nurburgring in Germany and Spa in Belgium. In the United States, SRO primarily is focused on GT3 sprint racing, and Gill said it’s viewed as a “gateway to IMSA” and its endurance events.

In choosing SRO, Gibbs said “the schedule was a big part of it.” GR Cup races will be held almost exclusively on Saturday and Sunday mornings in a consistency that would have been difficult with IMSA (which runs a greater volume of bigger series).

“Our people can show up Friday, race Saturday and Sunday and be on the way home Sunday afternoon,” Gibbs said. “For our customer for this car, that was important. They still have jobs and particularly the younger drivers have to go to school. The SRO really fit us. They were very interested.”

Irving also was drawn to SRO’s flexibility with digital media right and free livestreams of races that Toyota can use on its platforms.

Toyota GR Cup
The SR86 in testing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (TRD).

Said Irving: “It’s hard to get a schedule that made sense and having a break between races so an amateur can repair their cars and have a month to regroup was a big deal. The long-term vision of SRO was a big part of that. IMSA runs a lot of classes. How we fit in was difficult. Would they have done things to make it work, yeah. But they just didn’t work for the vision we were doing. This is its own thing for us.”

Gill said the SRO is focused on “customer racing” that balances individual interests against factory programs – while still putting an emphasis on the importance of manufacturers such as Toyota.

“We were very impressed with the development of sports car racing at Toyota and what they wanted to do for the brand and the very strategic way they looked at things,” Gill told NBC Sports. “We had enjoyed real success and had a lot of admiration for the programs that Honda and Mazda developed with sports car racing at the grass roots and entry level. We thought they’d done an excellent job. Toyota has taken it to another level and should be commended because it’s good for the entire industry.”


Irving said Toyota has set a goal of turning Gazoo Racing into the premier performance brand in the United States within a decade, and the GR Cup is part of that thrust.

Gazoo Racing is the baby of Toyota Motor Corp. president Akio Toyoda, who founded a separate company called “Garage Racing” while racing under a pseudonym for many years.

Toyoda, who eventually would race a Lexus LFA at Nurburgring, eventually transitioned the program into Gazoo Racing (Gazoo translates to photographs in Japanese; Toyoda often took pictures of vehicles he wanted to build and race) as he rose through the ranks of Toyota.

Toyota GR Cup

“The concept of the brand is we’re going to build cars that are fun to drive, not just for accountants,” Gibbs said.
Irving said the intent of GR is “the car is born on track and not the boardroom.” In order to be certified by Toyota for Gazoo Racing, the GR86 had to decrease its lap time by a certain percentage over its street model.

In the long-term, Irving said Toyota could work with another series to adapt the GR86 to endurance races. But in the short-term, there are plans to roll out a “dealer class,” possibly by its COTA round in May.

“That’s our version of a softball league with dealership principals who purchase cars and race against each other,” Wilson said with a laugh. “As competitive as dealers are, we’ll sell a lot of spare parts. It becomes a way to generate competition amongst our dealer body, and we’re going to have some fun with it.”

Toyota GR Cup
Toyota Racing Development’s fleet of GR86s shortly before GR Cup teams began taking delivery (Swikar Patel/TRD).