Rehabilitation of Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson will end the 2021 IndyCar season much differently than he did in his long run in NASCAR. But Johnson is essentially relearning to race in a completely different car in a series with a completely different style.
It’s early morning on race day for the Portland Grand Prix. The buzz in the paddock of air cannons and tuning engines comes to life, with the swarm of fans still at hours of operation. Nestled near a grove of trees and far from the bustle of the teams preparing the cars, are a series of coaches. As I walk to my destination, Simon Pagenaud steps out of his in a relaxed tee-shirt and shorts. He takes his now famous dog Norman to do his morning homework. Pagenaud raises his cup of coffee in a morning salute. He and Norman enjoy some time alone before the start of the race.
My coach is Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR Cup champion who made the jump to IndyCar at the start of the season. Johnson carries his long racing history with him, but the new world of IndyCar is almost day and night.
Johnson is still a star of proportions that still transcend the NASCAR world. During qualifying, the crowd outside his booth is swarming with fans. His Twitter account of 2.5 million followers is more than double any other pilot in the series. Johnson is, and always will be, a rock star.
So it’s no surprise that when I get to Johnson’s coach a few minutes earlier, he’s already making a Zoom call. As I sit down with members of his PR team, I ask how consuming his sponsorship, fan, and team duties are. “I asked him once when he really had his mind completely in the car and the mental space for the task ahead. He said, ‘When I get in the car.’ “
None of this is to say Johnson is all over the place but not focused on what he was born to be. Jimmie Johnson has started his rehab as a driver with everything he has. He is in constant feedback with the team on his performance, where he is progressing and how he can apply it. Some would see his 28th place in the series standings as they entered the final race of the season at Long Beach as a failure. He did not start higher than 21st on the grid. At the start of the season, his last place in the standings was barely where he had started. Alabama? Started 21st finished 19th. Saint PETERSBOURG ? Started 23rd finished 22nd. Indianapolis Grand Prix on the road? Started 23rd finished 24th.
A closer look shows incredible progress.
Consider this: Johnson has raced on exactly one IndyCar circuit twice (the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway). This means that every training, qualifying and race is a first. And given the significant difference in how an IndyCar handles and races compared to NASCAR, the 2021 season has been a remarkable journey. At the end of the season, Johnson begins to get closer to the car. On his second return to the Indy road circuit, he started 25th and climbed 6 places to finish 19th. In Portland, he started 22nd and finished 20th. And he went from 25th to Laguna Seca to 17th.
It might be early, but Johnson is more like the look you see on kids when they start running. He’s excited about this next phase, grabs his smartphone and starts using it to show off the braking differences between the two racing worlds he’s been in at the end of his career.
“I naively thought that since (an IndyCar) had four wheels, the experience between a Coupe car and the IndyCar wouldn’t be that different, and they absolutely are,” said Johnson. “But now, with barely 30 days in an IndyCar, it’s starting to become second nature – I have a sense of where the car is under me. For a very long time, my limit was way beyond the vehicle limit. With the switch to the IndyCar, I had to recalibrate my senses and my eyes to adjust to the speed at which things are happening. I have regained a lot of ground since the start of the season, and now it’s the little details.
Johnson then mentions a Zen moment.
“Honestly, getting to where I am now is the easiest part of the journey. Normally that part of learning where you become one with the car takes years and years of experience and knowledge (with open wheel racing). I am not yet where I want to be. I’ll stick to it. My goal is to be successful here.
Carvana lets Johnson run without a finish line
Not all drivers win a seat in the race. And even with Johnson’s incredible racing pedigree, landing a seat in IndyCar wasn’t something that happened without the help of sponsorship. In an era when major sponsorship deals at the top of racing can now be what seems like a blink of an eye, Jimmie Johnson has been a rare asset. During his NASCAR Cup days he only had Lowe’s
When he signed his deal with Chip Ganassi Racing for the IndyCar series, the deal was that he needed a major sponsor. Johnson found himself shopping for himself in the spring and summer of 2020, where he quickly struck a multi-year deal with Carvana, the Phoenix, AZ e-commerce company that buys and sells used cars. fully online where consumers can have their cars dropped off when purchased or picked up from one of their stunning vending machines.
“Through personal connections, I was able to meet the people of Carvana,” Johnson said. “They were very interested and closed the deal in about two weeks. Ernie Garcia (the CEO of Carvana) quickly knew and saw the opportunity to be a part of the journey from NASCAR to IndyCar. It was a critical moment because the clock was ticking. The teams signed pilots. It has been a phenomenal partnership with Carvana.
Carvana has been involved with other sports sponsors, but the deal and campaign with Johnson is by far the most significant for the company to date.
Ryan Keeton, Carvana Brand Manager, immediately saw how Johnson’s story aligned with the online used car company.
“It really starts with Jimmie,” Keeton tells me. “Not only is he an incredible athlete and champion, but he is also an incredible person. When we look at these types of opportunities, we’re not the type of company to just invest in something and put our logo in there and hope that will translate into the achievement of our goals, like greater brand awareness. or a familiarity with Carvana. So when we started talking with Jimmie for the first time, we started to uncover the story behind everything he had done and where he wanted to do in this next phase of his piloting career… it got him so much. talked about and also the opportunity for Carvana. “
As Keeton said, Johnson could have simply lived off his legacy. “Instead,” Jimmie said, “I want to start from scratch. I want to do something completely different. I want to grind and push and fail. And while I may not be successful initially, I am not going to give up and work towards this new goal. I think this is something rare to see anywhere, especially of its kind.
Returning to Jimmie Johnson’s rehab, as we talk more about his new journey, he begins to describe the braking differences between a Coupe car and IndyCar. Grabbing his smartphone from the table, he uses it to show the differences between when he brakes in a turn between a NASCAR and an IndyCar.
“The ovals are a lot of pack races,” says Johnson. “There isn’t a lot of braking per se. On a road course, you enter a bend and apply braking to (and he tilts his phone to a 45 degree angle) and roll off. With an IndyCar, it’s like that, “while he points the phone at a 90-degree angle,” and it doesn’t roll. You want to go farther and harder in the corners to allow the downforce of the car to operate.
It is here that we see that the runner is the runner. That a man who started off on dirt bikes, then off road races, then finally on cup cars, and now IndyCars, is something that one keeps learning.
Johnson looks up from the phone with a smile as if to convey this new knowledge that he is making known to others, and you can’t help but see that, as the Carvana ad says, there is no phone line. ‘arrival. Johnson will be back in 2022, and with a full season in the next phase of his studies, you know he’s going to improve.