LONG BEACH, California – With an entourage of 80 soaking up a sun-splashed weekend in his native state, Jimmie Johnson is awash in good vibes at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
His debut in Sunday’s NTT IndyCar Series season finale (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) will be a much different feeling than Johnson’s last visit to the majestic street race carnival that has been a Southern California staple for nearly a half-century.
In 1995, Johnson headed over to the Trans-Am Series paddock just off Turn 1 to meet with GM Racing boss Herb Fishel, who had been counseling Johnson on a career in major-league motorsports after the 19-year-old had turned heads while winning in stadium truck series.
INDYCAR AT LONG BEACH: Details and how to watch Sunday’s race
“I thought my pathway was Trans-Am/Indy Lights/IndyCar,” Johnson said. “That’s what we were discussing and talked about it in the winter, and I came here in to see how it was going. I thought I was going to be introduced to team owners and they had something grand for me coming along.”
For the past few years, the meetings had taken place at a motorhome parked among the hospitality are for CART (a forerunner to IndyCar), and it turned out the new location was portentous.
“I left here with my heart broken,” Johnson said. “They said they were pulling out of IndyCar racing, and if I wanted a future in motorsports, I needed to move to North Carolina.”
Within a year, Johnson was sleeping on Ron Hornaday Jr.’s couch and making the transition to stock cars that would lead to a Hall of Fame career in NASCAR.
But after seven Cup Series championships, the path eventually did lead back to IndyCar as a Chip Ganassi Racing driver this year on street and road courses (and likely in the Indy 500 next season).
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) September 25, 2021
Johnson has spoken wistfully throughout the IndyCar season about his long-anticipated return to Long Beach, which has lived up to the billing.
“It’s neat to see it,” he said before practice Friday. “My experiences as a kid, I’d cross over here at Turn 9 and then just hang on the side of the track, and that’s all I really saw. But it was neat to walk over the pedestrian bridge and remember being here in the mid-90s and hearing cars go by and the adrenaline rush that came with it to hear, smell and see Indy cars driving by.”
That visceral experience is being shared by the large group of guests, most of whom know Johnson from his days of growing up 120 miles south in El Cajon outside San Diego.
“There’s a few from sponsorship, but it’s generally friends,” Johnson said with a laugh. “We had to turn some friends away. It’s just a marquee event. It’s so big. I think my friend group, too, is just enjoying this. Some have been and want to come back. Others are just really curious. There’s just a lot of interest from my friend group to check this out.”
After ranking 28th (and last) in Saturday morning’s practice (he was 27th fastest Friday), Johnson (who finished a career-best 17th last Sunday at Laguna Seca) will seek to give his cheering section something to root for in qualifying at 3 p.m. ET Saturday (NBCSN, Peacock Premium).
Ready to take on the streets of Long Beach. pic.twitter.com/x7ewVrY2eO
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) September 24, 2021