Jimmie Johnson credits Chip Ganassi for suggesting move into NASCAR ownership

Jimmie Johnson Chip Ganassi
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AVONDALE, Arizona – Though the advice and support eventually might end their partnership, Jimmie Johnson credits Chip Ganassi as a major reason why he’s entering NASCAR ownership – and possibly exiting IndyCar.

After two seasons driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, a new minority stake in Petty GMS will make Cup Series stock cars the priority for Johnson in 2023. He grew to appreciate the possibility of being a team owner through Ganassi bringing him behind the curtain for a role that “was never in the cards” for the seven-time Cup champion.

It’s been a longtime reality for Ganassi, whose teams have captured 21 championships (14 in IndyCar) and 240 victories (including five in the Indy 500 and eight in the Rolex 24 at Daytona) over the past 32 years since he ended a brief driving career.

“Chip Ganassi kind of suggested that’s how he got his start (saying), ‘Look, I transitioned from driving a car and moved into team ownership,’ ” Johnson told a small group of reporters Friday after a news conference at Phoenix Raceway. “He’s been really helpful for me in my process of bringing partners into the sport and being in IndyCar and has been very kind to show me behind the scenes what takes place and how things work. I know Mr. Hendrick always had that available for me (while racing at Hendrick Motorsports from 2022-20), but I was never interested. I was too busy driving and focused on that. In the last couple of years, I’ve been more interested in the business side. I’ve done a lot of growing there and help from a lot of areas and certainly from Chip.”

The growth might lead Johnson away from Ganassi – and perhaps IndyCar in general — next year for multiple reasons. Though Johnson wants to race IndyCar next season (his original plan was eight to 10 races, including the Indy 500), his new part-time schedule in NASCAR will create some roadblocks.

Petty GMS is a Chevrolet-affiliated team, which creates a manufacturer conflict with returning to Ganassi in a Honda. Johnson said he has yet to talk to any IndyCar teams or explore the potential manufacturer dilemma (“Haven’t crossed that bridge yet.”). Virtually all of the competitive Chevrolet teams in IndyCar (Team Penske, Arrow McLaren SP and Ed Carpenter Racing) have indicated they’d be unlikely to add a car at the Brickyard next May.

Though Johnson wanted to run the Indy 500-Coke 600 doubleheader, he also wants to race the 2023 All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway – which would conflict with Indy 500 qualifying weekend.

Even if he wanted to race for Ganassi, the team still is trying to nail down who will replace Johnson in its fourth entry. The No. 48 went full time last year after a partial schedule of street and road courses in 2021.

While hammering out the deal to join forces with Maury Gallagher and Richard Petty, Johnson said he’s been in regular contact with Ganassi, who has remained in his corner despite the possibility of losing him next year.

“I’ve kept Chip in the loop,” Johnson said. “We’re obviously hopeful there is some form of IndyCar involvement for me. That’s still very much an objective for myself. Chip’s trying to figure out what makes sense for the four full-time cars and will there be a fifth car at Indy. In conjunction with that, he’s got a WEC program that’s he’s trying to start and get people over to Europe with cars and equipment, so he’s been very busy. We’ve talked a few times. He knows what’s going on, and we both still do have an interest to try to have me in one of his Indy cars. There’s still just a lot to sort out, including of course the manufacturer piece.

“I can’t express how cool he’s been to work for, and when I had the idea, how supportive he was. And throughout the two years I spent in IndyCar, and then as I was trying to make my decision again how supportive he’s been just for me to be me. Do me. Whatever I want to do. As this opportunity came along, he’s been absolutely the same. Same tone, same experience. A day or two ago, when I called him with the official news (about NASCAR), he was so happy. Just genuinely happy for me.”

Johnson and his business team brokered the Carvana sponsorship that funded the bulk of his races with Ganassi. Before the IndyCar season finale, Johnson said Carvana had given “the green light if I wanted to go back to full-time IndyCar racing.” After initially indicating he would take the sponsorship across several series, Johnson said the interest from NASCAR teams “really kicked into gear” shortly after the IndyCar season.

Johnson said he is “very optimistic” that Carvana will continue forward with him into NASCAR (likely starting at the Daytona 500). He also remains interested in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Next Gen ride at the 24 Hours of Le Mans ( “I’ve made sure that my calendar is nice and open in June”).

He also has invitations from old buddies to race off-road trucks (both in the Midwest and in the desert), and former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman has offered a Chili Bowl ride.

But Johnson has been too busy firming up his NASCAR deal to sift through all the options – or understand how some might now be impossible. He said “I haven’t heard no yet, so I’m encouraged” about still racing IndyCar but also concedes his NASCAR obligations could restrict him from the testing and qualifying needed for the Indy 500.

“I have been solely focused on this and don’t know the impact of this commitment and relationship and how that plays out,” Johnson said. “But once the dust settles from here, I’ll get deeper into those other conversations and try to build out the best race schedule I can have that does fit with the new commitment and obligation that I have here.”

Heart of Racing program aims to elevate new generation of women to star in sports cars

women sports cars
Mike Levitt/LAT Images/Heart of Racing

(Editor’s note: This story on the Heart of Racing sports cars shootout for women is one in an occasional Motorsports Talk series focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)

Heart of Racing driver and team manager Ian James says his daughter, Gabby, isn’t so interested in auto racing. But she is interested (as a New York-based journalist) in writing about the sport’s efforts and growth in gender equality

It’s a topic that also was brought up by James’ wife, Kim.

“They’re always saying, ‘Hey, you manage all these guys, and you help them, so why not a woman?’ ” Ian James told NBC Sports. “And I feel like there are a lot of women that haven’t had a fair crack at it in sports car racing.

Our whole DNA at Heart of Racing is we give people opportunities in all types of situations where there’s been crew personnel or drivers. And I felt like we hadn’t really addressed the female driver situation. I felt like there was a void to give somebody a chance to really prove themselves.”

During the offseason, the team took a major step toward remedying that.

Hannah Grisham at the Heart of Racing shootout (Mike Levitt/LAT)

Heart of Racing held its first female driver shootout last November at the APEX Motor Club in Phoenix, Arizona, to select two women who will co-drive an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the SRO SprintX Championship.

The season will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway with Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt behind the wheel. The team also picked a third driver, 17-year-old Annie Rhule, for a 2023 testing program.

The Phoenix audition included 10 finalists who were selected from 130 applicants to the program, which has been fully underwritten by Heart of Racing’s sponsors.

“We didn’t want it to be someone who just comes from a socio-economic background that could afford to do it on their own course,” James said. “We can pick on pure talent. We’re committed to three years to do this and see if we can find the right person. I’m very hopeful.”

So is Grisham, a Southern California native who has been racing since she was 6 in go-karts and since has won championships in Mazda and Miata ladder series. She has several victories in the World Racing League GP2 (an amateur sports car endurance series). The last two years, Grisham has worked as a test driver for the Pirelli tire company (she lives near Pirelli’s U.S. headquarters in Rome, Georgia, and tests about 30 times a year).

Starting with the Sonoma during SprintX event weekends (which feature races Saturday and Sunday), she will split the Heart of Racing car with O’Meara-Hunt (a New Zealand native she got to know at the shootout).

“It’s huge; the biggest opportunity I’ve had in this sport,” Grisham, 23, told NBC Sports. “Now it’s up to me to perform how I know I can. But I’m super lucky to be with such an amazing team and have a good teammate. The Heart of Racing has a family vibe and energy to it that’s really amazing. It’s super exciting. It’s hard to put into words.”

Grisham is hopeful that a strong performance eventually could lead to a full-time ride with Heart of Racing. The team has full-time entries in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and won the GTD category of the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 piloted by James, Darren Turner, Roman DeAngelis and Marco Sorensen.

James said “there’s no guarantee” of placement in an IMSA entry for Grisham and O’Meara-Hunt, but “if they prove themselves, we’ll continue to help them throughout their career and our team. The GT3 program is an obvious home for that. If they get the opportunity and don’t quite make it, we’ll be looking for the next two. The next three years, we’ll cycle through drivers until we find the right one.”

Grisham described the two-day shootout as a friendly but intense environment. After a day of getting acclimated to their cars, drivers qualified on new tires the second day and then did two 25-minute stints to simulate a race.

Hannah Grisham reviews data with Heart of Racing sports car driver Gray Newell during the team’s shootout last November (Mike Levitt/LAT).

“Everyone was super nice,” she said. “Once everyone gets in the car, it’s a different level. A different switch gets turned on. Everyone was super nice; everyone was quick. I feel we had an adequate amount of seat time, which is definitely helpful.

“It’s always cool to meet more women in the sport because there’s not too many of us, even though there’s more and more. It’s always cool to meet really talented women, especially there were so many from all over the world.”

IMSA has celebrated female champions and race winners, notably Katherine Legge (who is running GTD full time this season with Sheena Monk for Gradient Racing). The field at Sebring and Daytona also included the Iron Dames Lamborghini (a female-dominated team).

The Heart of Racing’s female driver shootout drew interested candidates from around the world (Mike Levitt/LAT).

James believes “a breakout female driver will be competing with the best of them” in the next five years as gender barriers slowly recede in motorsports.

“It’s been a male-dominated sport,” James said. “It’s still a very minute number of women drivers compared to the guys. I’m sure back in the day there were physical hurdles about it that were judged. But now the cars are not very physical to drive, and it’s more about technique and mental strength and stuff like that, and there’s no reason a girl shouldn’t do just as well as a guy. What we’re just trying to achieve is that there isn’t an obvious barrier to saying ‘Hey, I can’t hire a guy or a girl.’ We just want to put girls in front of people and our own program that are legitimate choices going forward for people.”

“There’s been some really good female drivers, but a lot of them just haven’t been able to sustain it, and a lot of that comes from sponsorship. I think (with the shootout), there’s no pressure of raising money and worrying about crash damage. We’ve taken care of all that so they can really focus on the job at hand.”

Funding always has been a hurdle for Grisham, who caught the racing bug from her father, Tom, an off-road driver who raced the Baja 1000 several times.

“I don’t come from a lot of money by any means,” she said. “So since a young age, I’ve always had to find sponsorships and get people to help me, whether it was buying tires, paying for entry fees, paying for the shipment of a car to an actual race. Literally knocking on the doors of people or businesses in my town.

“So yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve always struggled with and held me back because the sport revolves so much around money. So again to get this opportunity is insane.”

Rianna O’Meara-Hunt was one of two women selected by the Heart of Racing to drive in the SRO SprintX Championship this year (Mike Levitt/LAT).

Grisham credits racing pioneer Lyn St. James (an Indy 500 veteran and sports car champion) as a role model who has helped propel her career. She was hooked by the sights, smells and sounds of racing but also its competitive fire.

“There’s a zone you get in, that subconscious state of mind when you’re driving. It’s like addictive almost. I love it. Also I’m just a very competitive person as I think most race car drivers are.

“For sure I want to stay with the Heart of Racing. Obviously, I’m still getting to know everyone, but it’s a super family vibe. That’s how I grew up in the sport with just my dad and I wrenching on the cars. That’s what I love about this sport is all the amazing people you meet. And I think this is one of the most promising teams in this country. For sure, I want to learn as much as I can from them and hopefully continue. I feel so lucky and grateful to be one of those chosen.”