Jimmie Johnson’s Indy 500 Rookie of the Year experience: ‘The biggest rush of all time’

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INDIANAPOLIS – From the moment he first watched the world’s biggest race on TV with his grandfather and father in El Cajon, California, Jimmie Johnson dreamed of racing in the Indy 500, long before becoming its 2022 rookie of the year.

At 46, he got to live his childhood dream in the 106th Indy 500 and despite finishing 28th after crashing hard into the Turn 2 wall with five laps to go, the experience greatly exceeded Johnson’s expectations.

That’s remarkable considering Johnson is a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion who won 83 races in NASCAR.

“The experience was amazing,” Johnson told NBC Sports before the Indianapolis 500 Victory Celebration that was held Monday night at the JW Marriott in downtown Indianapolis. “I’m so thankful to have had this opportunity. I wish I had performed better in the race and had a better result, but that’s racing. I learned a ton. If I have a chance to come back and do it again, I’ll be a lot smarter when I come back.”

Johnson was among the fastest drivers in nearly every practice session and made the Fast 12 round of qualifications. He started 12th and quickly realized the race itself is completely different than running in large packs in traffic.

He lost four positions on the first lap and dropped to 16th. It would get more challenging from there.

Jimmie Johnson and his wife, Chandra, attended Monday’s Indy 500 victory presentation (Bruce Martin).

“I really feel like track position was my biggest issue,” Johnson said. “I was a little cautious at the start of the race and lost a couple of positions. Ultimately, the caution flag coming out when it did and putting us at the tail end of the field, I couldn’t recover from that.

“I simply could not figure out how to pass cars and get around anybody.”

In the back of the field with all of the turbulence from the other race cars, Johnson’s No. 48 Carvana/American Legion Dallara-Honda was running in the center of the tornado.

“I enjoyed it, I had a lot of fun, but I was frustrated that I couldn’t pass anyone,” Johnson said. “That long line of cars, the air was so turbulent, nobody could really pass. Up front for the lead, cars could race for the lead but once you got from fourth on back, it was really single file. We stayed in a single-car line all the way around the track, and it was hard to pass.”

Johnson’s favorite Indianapolis 500 experience was standing on the starting grid with his family next to his race car taking in the prerace ceremony that is one of the great traditions of this race.

“It’s hard to pick one, but the prerace ceremonies standing on the grid with my family hearing ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ was pretty awesome,” Johnson said.

When NASCAR driver Kurt Busch finished sixth in the 2014 Indy 500, he said the race “will blow you away.”

“Without a doubt,” Johnson said. “Not only race day, but the two weeks that we’ve been here. To experience the fan interaction and the track, it really is a special event.

“The family loved it. They had a great time.”

Johnson loved the experience but also realized said “it was a challenge” unlike anything he had experienced in racing.

“I really thought we were going to be better in traffic than that,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t as good as we could be. In my aggression going forward, I made mistakes trying to get past and really just had a hell of a time advancing.”

It didn’t diminish his enjoyment of the event. “It’s amazing,” he said. “It’s the Indianapolis 500. I loved it. I had a great time. Without a doubt, it exceeded my expectations.

“I want to come back next year, absolutely.”

Johnson said there is no date on having an agreement for 2023 in place with Chip Ganassi Racing. He hopes to have an “understanding” by fall.

“I definitely know that I would approach things differently if I have a chance to come back,” Johnson said. “Reps are reps and always help, and I know I would do better.”

Johnson injured his hands from the hard crash into the Turn 2 wall. X-rays were negative, but his hands were scraped up from the knobs on the wheel with some superficial cuts.

“I lost the car out of the short chute into Turn 2, and it might have been a wind gust because I had not had an issue over there all month.”

Johnson does not believe he will have any issues heading into this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. It will be the final time the contest is held on Detroit’s Belle Isle, as it moves to downtown Detroit beginning in 2023.

Because of his disappointing finish, Johnson was surprised when he was named the winner of the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award during the Victory Celebration.

The award is based on this criteria: “The Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award should be presented to the driver who has performed with the most distinction among first-year drivers in the Indianapolis 500. Criteria includes on-track performance in practice, qualifying and the race, media and fan interaction, sportsmanship, and positive influence on the Indy 500.”

Johnson was competing against a rookie field that included: Devlin DeFrancesco, Romain Grosjean, Callum Ilott, Kyle Kirkwood, Christian Lundgaard, David Malukas, who was the highest-finishing rookie in 16th.

Johnson did manage to be the second-highest qualifying rookie and posted strong lap speeds in practice. He also led Laps 188-189 before making his final pit stop and cycling back in the field. A few laps later, he lost control and crashed after a low entry to the corner.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles explained voters’ mindsets when presenting Johnson with the honor.

“It’s based upon practice, qualifying and race performance as well as fan and media interaction as well as elevating the sport of IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500,” Boles said. “Certainly, you have helped us elevate the sport and brought along a lot of folks that may not have paid attention to INDYCAR as you have made the transition from NASCAR to the NTT IndyCar Series and this year to the Indianapolis 500.

“Although you weren’t the highest finishing rookie, the votes came in and Jimmie Johnson you are the 2022 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year.”

Said Johnson: “What an honor. I didn’t really prepare an acceptance speech because I didn’t think I would be getting this award.

“I want to thank Carvana and The American Legion for their support. To be 46 and leaving with the Rookie of the Year trophy is quite humbling, but I’ll take it.”

Johnson had many great memories throughout the month and summed up his race day experience.

“The racer in me wishes I had a more competitive day and wished I hadn’t crashed at the end and brought out the red flag and put the 8 team (Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson) through all of that,” Johnson said. “I’m letting in as much as I can, but I will forever have these memories of how special it is to be on that grid, be part of the opening ceremonies, turning down Turn 4 and see that tunnel of all the fans. It’s a sea of people with all the color, then the next time you come through there you are going 230 mph.

“It’s the biggest rush of all time.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”


James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”