Oval racing is the story of the NTT IndyCar Series this week, and the most interesting left turn still is yet to come from Jimmie Johnson.
World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis will play host to the 13th race of the 2021 season (which then will conclude over Portland, Laguna Seca and Long Beach) and also will mark the circle-track debut of Romain Grosjean.
Saturday’s start for the F1 veteran (who is mulling a full IndyCar season in 2022) will be as highly anticipated as the upcoming oval foray for Johnson. The seven-time NASCAR Cup champion likely will test at Texas Motor Speedway near the end of August, and he is putting an intriguing spin on one of his objectives (aside from getting up to speed and kicking the Indy 500 approval process into motion).
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“Ultimately, I need to hit something,” the seven-time champion said recently. “Like, I want to know what it’s like to crash one of these things. I sure as hell don’t want to do it in a test session and draw the attention to it and all that, but that’s the million-dollar question.”
OK, but you don’t want to feel the impact, though? Just a lazy spin into a wall?
“Yeah, a little of both,” Johnson said. “I tried to be the first one to (Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Alex) Palou after his (qualifying) crash at Indy.
“I just want to know how bad does it hurt. I know what it feels like to have all that steel around you and have it crush on impact. I don’t know what knocking off a couple of wheels that are supported by toothpicks feels like. It’s part of it.”
Knowing the effects of an oval crash impact is important for Johnson because his possible Indy 500 debut hinges on evaluating the safety of the cars.
“I’m probably going to be more careful in this decision than anything I’ve done,” he said. “I’m just trying to make sure I’m making smart decisions, good decisions in that respect.”
Since he began broaching the concept of running the Indy 500 next season, Johnson said he’s been in constant communication about the possibility with his wife, Chandra, and his two daughters.
His family ultimately will need to sign off on whether he attempts 500 miles on the 2.5-mile oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway next year, but Johnson concedes he possesses great latitude in swaying his wife.
“She’s trusting me more than anything because she doesn’t know what it’s like to be in the cars,” he said. “She hasn’t been as close to it as I have, so it’s really on me to make the right decision.”
The aeroscreen, a cockpit safety device that was implemented last year, has helped assuage many of the concerns Johnson had when he committed to running only street and road courses this year (Tony Kanaan has driven the No. 48 Dallara-Honda in place of Johnson on ovals, making his last 2021 start Saturday).
Ryan Hunter-Reay credited the aeroscreen with preventing serious injury during a crash in the season opener at Barber Motorsports Park.
Johnson said Alan Miller, his longtime attorney who has represented dozens of auto racing drivers, had five clients killed in IndyCar crashes, including four on ovals when being struck in the head by a flying right front tire.
“Now that the aeroscreen is on the car, you’re like, ‘OK, that can’t happen,’ ” Johnson said. “So it’s helped me way more than (Chandra). I feel like every time she goes to the track and watches a car go through a turn, it maybe sets her back a little because the cars go so fast. Big picture, she’s trending the same way, but she’s never seen a car at 200 mph” on an oval.
Unlike Johnson, who scored 82 of his 83 Cup victories on ovals, the transition is more about simple acclimation for Grosjean, who will be racing the first circle track of his life after a career on European road and street courses before coming to America this year.
“It’s so different from every type of racing I’ve done before,” Grosjean said last Saturday after his second runner-up finish on the IMS road course. “I’ve been named a rookie all year long. I don’t feel like one. (This Saturday), I am one. I just want to gradually go for it, improve myself, learn about it.
“It’s a weird one. The car drives itself. People are telling you that’ll be fine, and you’re like ‘What are they talking about? I drive my car!’ On the ovals, I think the car does the work, and you control the speed, and it’s quite a bit of a strange feeling.”
The Frenchman tested last month at World Wide Technology Raceway and talked with Johnson afterward about the surprises of the 1.25-mile oval.
“It is harder than what people think it is,” Grosjean said. “It’s a bit strange the way you need to drive the car. It’s all about the rear-right tire, making sure you feel confident with that. I’m sure for (Johnson) it’s probably going to be a little more normal than maybe road or street courses. Where for me, it’s a thing to learn. I like that.”
After hearing Grosjean’s feedback on the oval test, Johnson was heartened about his upcoming adaptation. Few NASCAR drivers in Cup history are as good as Johnson in managing their right-rear tires at speed.
Johnson said he was told by two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, who has won in both IndyCar and NASCAR, that he thinks Johnson will be “very competitive” in a single-seater cockpit on an oval because of his experience with the efficient racing lines of a stock car.
“He’s not a man of a lot of words, so it’s hard to really extract from (Montoya) what that is, but I absolutely believe him and look forward to trying to find that competitive piece that comes with it,” Johnson said.
The learning curve at Texas (which is viewed as a more viable option for a test than the original choice of Homestead-Miami Speedway, which last played host to IndyCar in 2010) will start with help from a Ganassi teammate. Six-time series champion Scott Dixon will shake down Johnson’s car at Texas.
Dixon also is expecting Johnson, whose best finish is 19th in nine races as an IndyCar rookie, will find the pace more quickly than on road and street courses.
“The Cup car when it goes onto the track for the first time is typically the fastest lap of the weekend,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “It’s the opposite (in IndyCar). I think Jimmie struggled with that a little bit and just getting rid of muscle memory and thoughts of how it should be done. Even if it’s a single-car test, the first run will be the (worst) of the day and then it’ll slowly get better.
“We’re kind of stepping into his forte of why he’s so damn good and what he’s used to more. So I’m interested to see what things he finds abnormal. The (G forces) at Texas will be big. That’ll shock him.”
After the test at Texas (where he has seven Cup victories), Johnson is hoping the next step will be a tire test at IMS this fall to help him complete the Rookie Orientation Program that is required to start his first Indy 500.
With the expected addition of Iowa Speedway to the 2022 schedule, Johnson said he is undecided on if he would be interested in racing a full schedule with ovals next year.
“It’s a distant thought,” he said. “I want to drive on an oval (in the test), and that will start the next step and then the next step. A few steps out there could be a chance, but there’s a lot to get in place.”