As NTT INDYCAR SERIES teams make final touches on their racing machines for next Sunday’s season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is preparing for his first test in an Indy car.
Johnson said he will test an Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet at Barber Motorsports Park on Monday, April 6. That is one day after the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, the second race of the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season.
Johnson was at the Arrow McLaren SP show in Indianapolis on March 4 to be fitted for a seat in the car. After spending the day at the team’s shop on the northwest side of town, Johnson left for Phoenix Raceway, site of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series contest.
Johnson confirmed the April 6 date after his qualification attempt Saturday at Phoenix.
“There’s nothing on the books now that has been discussed,” Johnson said. “With it being so early in the year, there’s still time to get some more tests in. We’ll know more after April 6 and kind of re-evaluate from there.”
Johnson views an NTT INDYCAR SERIES test as a "bucket list" item he wants to check off, but he said there are no races on his schedule for 2021. He wants to see if he likes the completely different type of race car before moving forward with any potential plans.
“There’s a chance I won’t like it,” Johnson said. “I think the chances are low. More than anything I’m just thankful that McLaren and the friendship I have there with Zak Brown (McLaren CEO) where he said, ‘Hey man, come give it a shot, see what you think. You take a look at it and we’ll take a look at you.”
“It’s great for INDYCAR. It’s great for NASCAR as well, especially if I run well. We’ve seen drivers come this way and no one has gone that way. Kurt (Busch) did recently and did a helluva job at Indy, which did a ton for our sport. I think there’s a lot of good that come from it. I’m thankful that I’m going to get a proper test and look at it and kind of re-evaluate it after that.”
Johnson’s test will come one day after one of NASCAR’s most physical short-track battles at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The four-time Brickyard 400 winner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is already working on his physical fitness.
“It’s wild,” Johnson said. “We come off of Bristol, one of our most physical tracks and Barber. I think Bristol is NASCAR’s most physical track and then Barber is INDYCAR's most physical track. I’m working hard to make sure my neck is prepared and certainly my shoulders. There’s no power steering in those Indy cars. After a race I’m told when the rubber is down from the INDYCAR race, the grip level is going to be higher, the demands on the driver are going to be higher. I’ll be coming in after our toughest race.
“I love a good, physical challenge and here we go.”
When Johnson climbs into his famed No. 48 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports, he does it through the driver’s window. When he enters the cockpit of the Indy car, he’s going to slide in from the top of the new Aeroscreen. That is INDYCAR’s innovation safety device that will provide superior cockpit protection for the driver.
“From squeezing your butt down into the seat, the steering wheel and the things around to adjust front and rear roll bars and how to start, not necessarily how to start it, but how to turn it off,” Johnson said in rattling off the differences. “It’s just a totally different environment. The seating position is way different.
“Luckily, I experienced some of that when I drove the Formula One car. I am taller so I feel good about the Aeroscreen. When I drove the F1 car, I was taller than Fernando Alonso and my head was exposed and we had a hard time keeping my helmet on my shoulders -- it kept trying to blow off. So, the Aeroscreen certainly helps with that, which is really nice. I think safety has gone up tremendously with the Aeroscreen on.”
The introduction of the Aeroscreen is one reason Johnson wants to finally test an Indy car because he believes it increases safety for the driver. He is open to racing on a road course and has so far said he wants to stay off the ovals.
But with the Aeroscreen, would he be open to ovals?
“The focus is really road course,” Johnsons said. “I’m supposed to be retiring.
“I’m going to keep a close eye on the year and the safety that is in the Aeroscreen development. I really don’t have a desire to run ovals. I don’t know what opportunity might present itself to me and if I would have to consider that in order to have the opportunity. There are some things there that I’m probably faced with and have to make a decision. I really don’t have a desire to do the ovals.”
There remains one oval, though, that he would love to consider, even though he has said in the past his wife, Chandra, won’t let him.
“Indy?” Johnson said followed by a pause. “It is Indy and so it weighs on me and makes it harder to say no thanks.”
The 17-race NTT INDYCAR SERIES season begins March 13-15 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the city streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.