Jimmie Johnson moved one step closer to racing the 106th Indy 500 to his schedule with a successful test on his first oval Monday at Texas Motor Speedway.
“I’m definitely a step closer. I think that there are more conversations to be had with family, team and sponsors, at least another test session ahead of me before I can really make a decision,” said Johnson, “but driving the car only piqued my interest more.”
By testing at a superspeedway, Johnson now is cleared to enter a Firestone test that is scheduled for Oct. 8 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. During that session, Johnson can complete the Rookie Orientation Program, a stair-step process of turning laps in incremental speed brackets on the 2.5-mile oval.
The ROP is a formality for any Indy 500 rookie, but by receiving the approval this year, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion can devote all of his potential laps next year toward qualifying and racing the Indy 500 on May 29, 2022.
Johnson said Tuesday that Romain Grosjean also could be at the Firestone test. Though Grosjean has yet to turn laps on a superspeedway, IndyCar clarified Wednesday that the Frenchman would be allowed to go directly to IMS after his recent test and race at 1.25-mile World Wide Technology Raceway.
There are several more wrinkles for Johnson to work through for racing Indy, including sponsorship for additional races, as well as the Chip Ganassi Racing personnel required for both Johnson and Tony Kanaan, who drove the No. 48 Dallara-Honda on ovals in 2021 in the first season of a two-year contract, to run at the same time.
“There are a couple layers to it,” Johnson said. “From a team standpoint, I was pretty clear that I just wanted to do road and street courses. Car, crew, how does that all work out, and how do we pull that off from a team standpoint.
“Certainly we have the relationship with (sponsor) Carvana, and are they willing to expand to an additional race, is that another partner, how do our existing partners work. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. I first need to say, yeah, I’m in, before we really get into the granular details to sort it out, but that’s kind of a process. And I think after another go in the car, and especially on the track that would be the focal point, will really give me my decision and if it’s time to pursue all that.”
And then there’s his wife and two daughters, who Johnson has routinely cited as the reason he wouldn’t race ovals. He said Tuesday he regrets now pinning the decision on his family.
“I hate that I’ve joked about it over the years that it’s my family. My family is looking directly at me and my comfort,” he said. “The Indy car that we have today versus where it was five years ago is just totally different. Yes, there will be conversations, and I guess ultimately I’m trying not to say that it’s on my family and the pressure that comes with that.
“It’s my journey and my wife and kids support me in whatever I want to do. Certainly they have their concerns, and their concerns are mine. There are inherent risks when you’re driving a race car, and I’m good with that, and I’m on this journey right now to prove to myself that the Indy car is back in that inherent box of danger of driving a race car.”
Johnson said the steps he’s taking are right now just “a pathway to Indy” and not the entire oval schedule.
“There’s still so many hurdles between now and one event that to look at the others is tough at this point,” he said. “I will need to face that decision and that opportunity in the somewhat near future, and we’ll just see how this next test session goes and really how everything aligns.”
And he stressed he still must test the car at Indy to work through the nuances from 20-plus years of driving a stock car in circles to now handling a lighter, faster Indy car.
“In NASCAR you go fast by being on the ragged edge and having the car sideways, and I’m quickly learning and understanding that in an Indy car, you don’t set the car up to drive it there,” he said. “That’s been a pretty big eye-opener for me. In the Cup car in some respects, although you’re going slower, you’re on that ragged edge.
“My perception was I need to drive it like a NASCAR and just hang on, hold your breath every single lap, and directionally that’s not how you go fast in Indy cars. I need to go experience that at Indy. I remember watching qualifying all these different years and just holding my breath for these guys – I need to go experience that and see what that’s like for myself before I can make that decision to run in the race.”
The track was familiar – Johnson has a record seven victories at Texas Motor Speedway – but the sensation of speed was totally different. The 45-year-old IndyCar rookie hit an average speed above 214 mph, a mark that would have qualified him fourth for the 2020 race at the 1.5-mile speedway.
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) August 30, 2021
“It was quite significant to start, so low in the car, vision is somewhat limited, just how quick the car responds to steering wheel input was pretty new and different for me,” Johnson said Tuesday, a day after his test at Texas.
He went to Texas with a full support staff from Ganassi, where driver coach Dario Franchitti and current teammates Scott Dixon and Kanaan were there to guide Johnson through the day. The trio has a combined five Indianapolis 500 victories and Dixon, a five-time winner at Texas, was already in the No. 48 preparing to shake it down for Johnson when he arrived at the track at 5 a.m.
“There’s only so much you can do with an oval, but the awareness of the banking and how to support the IndyCar with the banking was a little different for me, and my NASCAR line had me a little wide on corner entry and exit. And Dario and Scott, I got their attention a couple times with my wide entries and had to bring that in,” Johnson said. “But once I kind of understood what to look for and how quickly the car would turn, I got into the flow of it pretty easily.”
Johnson entered IndyCar this season adamant he’d never run on an oval, largely because of safety concerns and a promise he made to his wife to stick only to road and street and courses. IndyCar’s last two fatalities, Dan Wheldon in 2011 and Justin Wilson in 2015, were in crashes on ovals and the day after Wheldon’s death Johnson had called on the series to drop all ovals from its schedule.
Robert Wickens, meanwhile, suffered a severe spinal injury in a crash at Pocono in 2018 that has left him in a wheelchair.
The risks made it easy for Johnson to build his IndyCar program around only the road and street courses, with Kanaan driving the No. 48 in the four oval races this season. That’s the deal both drivers are committed to through next season. But as Johnson fully immersed himself in the series, he quickly had the urge to at least test an oval.
He’s cited the safety advances in IndyCar, including last year’s introduction of the cockpit-protecting aeroscreen, as reason to reconsider his decision.
Grosjean, who moved from Formula One to IndyCar this season, also left ovals off his schedule this season but found himself missing the competition so much as he watched the Indy 500 on television that he ran the oval at Gateway this month. Grosjean is now on the cusp of moving to Andretti Autosport next season to run the entire IndyCar schedule, ovals and all.
Johnson seems headed to his own expanded schedule in his second season, which might not be his last in IndyCar.
“I’ll run as many years in the IndyCar that Chip will have me and I can find sponsorship,” he said. “I am having such a good time, and every rep I get in the car, I’m only going to be better. If I were to come back in ’23, I think those expectations would rise up again, and my performance would be better yet.