Jimmie Johnson will end the 2021 IndyCar season far differently than he did during his long run in NASCAR. But Johnson is basically relearning to race in a completely different car in a series with a completely different style.
It’s early morning on race day at the Grand Prix of Portland. The buzz in the paddock of air guns and engines being fine-tuned is coming to life, with the swarm of fans still hours away. Tucked back near a stand of trees and away from the bustle of teams prepping cars are a series of coaches. As I walk toward my destination, Simon Pagenaud pops out of his in a casual tee-shirt and shorts. He’s taking his now-famous dog Norman out to do his morning duty. Pagenaud raises his coffee cup in a morning salute. He, and Norman, are enjoying some alone time before racing begins.
The coach I’m bound for is Jimmie Johnson’s, the seven-time NASCAR Cup champion who made the jump to IndyCar at the beginning of the season. Johnson carries with him his extensive race history, but the new world of IndyCar is nearly night and day.
Johnson still is a star of proportions that still transcend just the NASCAR world. During qualifying the crowd outside his pit box is teeming with fans. His Twitter account of 2.5 million followers is more than double any other driver in the series. Johnson is, and will always be, a rock star.
So it comes as no surprise that when I arrive at Johnson’s coach a few minutes early, he’s already doing a Zoom call. As I sit down with members of his PR staff, I ask how consuming his sponsorship, fan, and team duties are. “I asked him once when he truly has his mind completely in the car and the mental space for the task ahead. He said, ‘When I get into the car.’”
None of this isn’t to say that Johnson is everywhere but not focused on what he’s been born to do. Jimmie Johnson has taken to his reeducation as a driver with his everything. He is in constant feedback with the team on how he is performing, where he is progressing, and how he can apply it. Some would see his 28th place in the series standings as they enter the last race of the season at Long Beach as a failure. He has started no higher than 21st on the grid. At the start of the season, his final spot in the standings was barely where he started. Alabama? Started 21st finished 19th. St. Petersburgh? Started 23rd finished 22nd. Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the road course? Started 23rd finished 24th.
A deeper look shows incredible progress.
Consider this: Johnson has raced on exactly one IndyCar circuit twice (the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway). That means every practice, 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. By the end of the season, Johnson is starting to become closer with the car. On his second return to the Indy road course, he started 25th and moved up 6 places to 19th. At Portland, he started 22d and finished 20th. And he moved from 25th at Laguna Seca to 17th.
It may be early, but Johnson seems more like the look you see on kids when they first start racing. He’s excited about this next phase, grabs his smartphone, and starts using it to show the differences in how braking is different between the two race worlds he’s been in late in his career.
“I naively thought that since (an IndyCar) had four wheels, the experience between a Cup car and IndyCar would not be that different, and they very much are,” Johnson said. “But now, with just about 30 days in an IndyCar it’s starting to become second nature—I’m getting a feel for where the car is underneath me. For the longest time, my limit was well beyond the vehicle’s limit. With the jump to IndyCar, I’ve had to recalibrate my senses and my eyes to adjust to just how fast things happen. I’ve made up a lot of ground from the start of the season, and now it’s the small details.”
Johnson then mentions a bit of a Zen moment.
“Honestly, getting to where I am now is the easier part of the journey. Normally that part of learning where you are one with the car takes years and years of experience and knowledge (with open-wheel racing). I’m not where I want to be yet. I’m going to keep at it. My goal is to be successful here.”
Carvana Allows Johnson To Race With No Finish Line
Not every driver lands a seat in racing. And even with Johnson’s incredible racing pedigree, just landing a seat in IndyCar was not something that happened without sponsorship help. At a time when major sponsorship deals at the top ranks 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 he needed to land a major sponsor. Johnson found himself shopping for himself through the spring and summer of 2020 where he quickly pulled together a multi-year deal with Carvana, the Phoenix, AZ e-commerce company the buys and sells used cars completely online where consumers can have cars dropped off when bought, or picked up at one of their eye-popping vending machines.
“Through some personal connections I was able to meet with the folks at Carvana,” Johnson said. “They were super interested and made the deal in a matter of around two weeks. Ernie Garcia (the CEO of Carvana) quickly knew and saw the opportunity to be part of the journey of moving from NASCAR to IndyCar. It was a critical moment because the clock was ticking. Teams were signing drivers. It’s been a phenomenal partnership with Carvana.”
Carvana has been involved in other sports sponsorship, but the agreement and campaign with Johnson are by far the largest one for the company to date.
Ryan Keeton, Carvana’s chief brand officer 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’s also an incredible person. When we look at these types of opportunities we aren’t the kind of company to just invest in something and put our logo there and hope that translates into meeting our goals like more brand awareness or familiarity with Carvana. So, when we first started talking with Jimmie, we began uncovering the story behind everything that he had done and where he wanted to do in this next phase of his racing career… it just spoke so strongly to him 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 zero. I want to do something completely different. I want to grind and push and fail. And even though I may not be initially successful, I’m not going to give up and work toward this new goal. I think that something rare to see anywhere, especially of his kind of caliber.”
Back to the reeducation of Jimmie Johnson, as we talk more about his new journey he begins describing the differences in braking between a Cup car and IndyCar. Grabbing his smartphone off the table, he uses it to show the differences in when he engages braking into a corner between a NASCAR and IndyCar.
“Ovals are largely pack racing,” Johnson says. “There’s not much braking to speak of. On a road course, you enter into a corner and apply braking at (and he angles his phone at a 45-degree angle) and roll off. With an IndyCar, it’s like this,” as he points the phone in a 90-degree angle, ”and it’s not rolling off. You want to go deeper and harder into corners to allow the car’s downforce to work.”
It’s here that one sees that the racer is the racer. That a man that started on dirt bikes, then to dirt racing, then eventually to Cup cars, and now IndyCars, is something that one never stops learning.
Johnson looks up from the phone with a smile as if to impart this great new knowledge he’s letting others know about, and you can’t help but see that, as the Carvana ad goes, there is no finish line. Johnson will be back in 2022, and with one full season in the next phase of his education, you know he’s bound to improve.