Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, who competed in 12 of the 16 races in the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season for Chip Ganassi Racing, turned his first INDYCAR SERIES laps on the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval Wednesday during the Indianapolis 500 Rookie Orientation Program. He spoke with a small gathering of reporters, including Curt Cavin from INDYCAR.com, during the event.
Q: Given how early stock car drivers brake here approaching Turn 1, did you find yourself reaching for the brake pedal early in this case?
Jimmie Johnson: I made sure to put my foot on the dead pedal. I learned that (during a test at Texas Motor Speedway); I kept dragging the brake when I didn’t need to. I made a deal with myself when I got in to find the dead pedal and leave my foot over there.
Q: How different is Turn 1 between a stock car and INDYCAR?
Johnson: The only thing that’s similar is the fear. I don’t think it matters what car you’re in, that corner looks like a tighter radius. It looks more challenging than anything else. Romain (Grosjean) and I were talking about how they’re all supposed to be equal turns, but Turn 1 visually is different, and I think it is (different) the way the banking is. I felt good, flat in 2 and 4, almost flat in 3, and then watching my lap time on the dash I was ready to go flat (in 1), but it’s not time yet. I think this (Rookie Orientation Program), although we joked about it coming here, I think it’s a nice way to (get familiar) without pressure, without worrying about throwing a lap time up and just kind of work through it. Way different, but I can I tell I’m not even at the limit of the car.
Q: You took a photograph with the car before you got in it. Why?
Johnson: I wanted to get a photo of the Indy car I was driving pointed this way (south). The one I had before was pointed in the road course direction.
Q: How did your limited experience here compare to the test at Texas?
Johnson: This was cool; it’s been a fun experience. I look forward to getting up to speed and feeling the car. At Texas, I found it to be very familiar once I found the sweet spot of the car’s potential. Hopefully I’ll have the same experience here.
Q: I’m sure you appreciated having Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan here to assist.
Johnson: (They’re) not short on opinions and advice, so we’ll take it. I’m thankful that they (came) and care. I think (Scott) Dixon is on vacation – he’s already been texting and wondering what’s happening. I gave Alex (Palou) a tough time yesterday. Since the date moved, Alex couldn’t be here because he’s doing some (simulator) work, and (I teased him) that he didn’t care and didn’t want to be here for my rookie orientation. He gave it back, as he does, which is fun. I’ve got a great group of people. It’s really made this transition, help me achieve the most that I can, and has certainly made it a lot of fun.
Q: What were the nerves like in this first opportunity at IMS?
Johnson: What’s really neat is that in the car everyone’s brain shuts off, and you’re just in the moment and experiencing it. I recall sitting on pit lane before I rolled off running through the nerves and feeling them and trying to talk myself through my approach: Be smart and ease into things -- and then a lap in, you forget about them. You’re in tune with the car, worrying about speed, just kind of into that racing/driver experience that you’re used to. Honestly, that’s been the thing that I’ve always known but also been afraid of. Before we had the aeroscreen, I just feel like once I go racing, I’m there for a reason, and that’s to do the best that I can. Being on that ragged edge, we all know that stuff can happen, so that’s been the part that I’ve been aware of in my career that once you get in the car and get going, you kind of forget about it and just focus on going fast.
Q: Do you remember your first laps here in a Cup car?
Johnson: Yes, we came here and tested. There were some other rookies here, and everyone likes to go out and make laps on the track in a rental car. My grandfather loved this racetrack, loved the Indy 500 and spoke of Gasoline Alley and pit road in such a way – even the Pagoda – it meant so much to him that I didn’t want to waste my first experience in a rental car. So, I intentionally stayed in the garage, waited for practice to open, got in my race car and my first time seeing the track or seeing Gasoline Alley was behind the wheel of a race car, and it was through my grandfather’s love of this racetrack that made it more meaningful for me. I wish he was here to see it. I was chatting with my dad a week or two ago about the test and he said, ‘I wish grandpa was here to see the track and see you on the track.’ He (saw me) in a stock car here, but he’s been gone for a while. INDYCAR was never on the radar.
Q: Did your grandfather see you win any of your four Brickyard 400s?
Johnson: No, I think he died of cancer before I won here.
Q: When you were on track Wednesday, did you pretend you were someone like Rick Mears?
Johnson: No, I haven’t gotten that far yet (laughing). Maybe I want to channel Helio (Castroneves) because of his success at 46. (I remember) the Mears (pit lane) fire, obviously (Danny Sullivan’s) spin and win, A.J. (Foyt) working on his car with a hammer, (Kevin) Cogan spinning (at the start).
Q: How would you compare IMS to Texas?
Johnson: You have a long straightaway to catch your breath here and think. At this current speed it was really just to catch my breath because I know I’ll well under the limit of the car. But the flatter corners don’t feel as inviting to run flat out like I experienced at Texas. At Texas, pretty quick I knew I had to run flat out through (Turns) 1 and 2 and quickly. I think it’s going to be a little longer journey here with how tight the (corner) radius is.