Imagine Michael Jordan, weeks after announcing his run at an MLB career, driving aimlessly around one afternoon after Spring Training in Sarasota, Fla., and waltzing over to a tee-ball practice. The three-time NBA champion, months removed from stepping away from a sport he loved dearly, one he thoroughly dominated, where he was seen as more than human, steps up to the tee, grabs the nearest aluminum bat and starts taking cracks into the backstop fence.
Not for the spectacle of it. Not for attention or to surprise some kids or for kicks. But because he needed to see the ball, feel that “smack” down to his fingertips. Get that hip rotation just right.
That, more or less, is how Jimmie Johnson learned how to drive an Indy car this offseason. Getting thrown in the deep end first. Nearly drowning. And then stripping away the ferocity of “the monster” in his hands to nearly its most basic level: a Formula 3 car, the machine of choice for some of the fastest 14- and 15- year-olds in the country, with aspirations of one day making it to IndyCar or Formula 1.
The idea sprouted from the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion’s almost unhealthy work ethic and determination and his Chip Ganassi Racing team’s willingness to pull out all the stops to get their latest – and toughest – project up to speed.
So back to the basics Johnson went, trying to, in essence, “practice” for practice. That’s what the team at Velocity Racing Development does.
Created in 2018 by longtime race engineer and driver coach Daniel Mitchell, the team aspires to bridge the gap between kart racing and the lowest levels of race cars for young drivers. Drivers are put in groups with similar types of cars and trade off in 20-30 minute sessions to try one or two new things, whether it’s hyper-focused on perfecting one corner or honing in on a basic concept in each one.
Despite being three times as old as most of the rest of his driving school partners, Johnson fit the bill.
“Ultimately, it was about learning different basic racing techniques, learning to trust in the ‘aero’ of the car, working on cornering speeds and just a general introduction to the open-wheel ranks,” said Dakota Dickerson, Johnson’s driving coach for his four days with VRD this winter.
Johnson began his work with two days at Barber, which wasn’t by accident. Not only was it the site of his first true IndyCar test a couple weeks before, but, in March, it would also be his last – and ultimately, the site of his coming-out party April 18.
So to Alabama he went, along with a couple CGR engineers, including the newly-hired head engineer on the No. 48 car, Eric Cowdin. Immediately, Franchitti said, you could tell the improvement and Johnson’s hyper-focused attitude that emerged after stripping away some of the ferocity from an Indy car.
“At first, all the kids were kind of in awe of ‘Jimmie Johnson’,” Franchitti said. “And then by the second day or so, they started really looking at when Jimmie went out on-track. You could tell, the stop-watches started coming out.”
That’s not to say Johnson all-of-a-sudden joined a league of his own in simpler equipment. Dickerson, who’s been coaching at VRD for nearly two years, said that out of happenstance, the program was also mentoring a then-17-year-old driver named Jason Alder who, decided to reroute a childhood of aspiring to be a Cup Series driver to focus on open-wheel street course racing. But with a heavy background in paved midget oval racing, he – like Johnson – had a lot to unlearn.
“It was interesting. (Alder and Johnson) had very similar techniques when they first came to us,” Dickerson said. “Trusting in the braking potential of a car that has a couple thousand pounds of downforce, but is also incredibly light, is not an easy feat. We’d be talking about the brake reference signboards and telling them, ‘We’re going to the last one,’ and you have some of the corners that are very daunting to take for the first time.
“How you achieve that isn’t easy, with massive amounts of peak pressure initially, and then trusting the car enough to ultimately get off the brakes. We saw that when we were working with both of them.”
And the benefits, Johnson said, came in his mistakes. He could make as many as he wanted – like a little leaguer spending an afternoon at the batting cages.
“The testing isn’t limited. There isn’t a tire count,” Johnson said. “All the flat-spotted tires? We’d just head over to the tire truck and buy another set.”
In a teenage teammate of sorts, Johnson found companionship – at a championship-level. During his four days on-track with VRD -- two at Barber, one at Sebring and another at Homestead -- Johnson at times was paired up with Hunter Yeany, who a year ago became the youngest Formula 4 champion in the world at 15.
“It was cool. Those two, they were just like teammates,” Dickerson said. “They’d both go on-track, and you’d have debriefs together. Hunter’s listening to Jimmie’s comments, and Jimmie was listening to Hunter.
“With Jimmie, someone who knows themselves very well, but also knows how to communicate what they’re feeling, Hunter learned a lot off of that. But at the same time, Jimmie’s here leaning on Hunter’s loads of junior open-wheel experience.”
Dickerson knew of the champion, but he’d never heard about the “humble leader” Johnson would become. At times, Johnson would treat the other drivers to watching some of his old races and help break them down. Had he stripped away his Ganassi logos, bared just his salt-and-pepper beard, and walked into a room, those unfamiliar with Cup Series racing wouldn’t have been able to tell him apart from the rest of the drivers – beyond his age, of course.
“He never gave off this persona that he’s this big-shot,” Dickerson said. “He was just another racer that showed up to the track that day and made everybody feel super comfortable.”
'Rookie mistakes' are inevitable
In a sport where a single second can nearly separate the front row from the rear in qualifying, Johnson’s gobbled up that precious second that gapped him from second-to-last – and then some. According to Franchitti, Johnson was more than within reach of the times that had been laid down in similar conditions the week prior.
“He would not have been nearly the slowest car there. Let me put it that way,” said Franchitti, who was reluctant to give any specifics. “He was out there with our other cars.
“And Barber’s probably the most high-commitment circuit that IndyCar races on, and he was right there. That last day, I watched all day and listened on the intercom to the poor guy. His level of commitment, I’ve gotta say, for someone brand-new to IndyCar was so impressive.”
Dickerson said he noticed the biggest gains in Johnson’s braking shapes, which he called “pretty much spot-on towards the end.” The higher-speed corners, too, were coming easier. The exits, Dickerson recons, have always come easier for Johnson due to his NASCAR days – maybe the one thing that helped in this transition. If there’s one thing that lingers, his coaches agree the corner entries will give him the most trouble.
But of course, there still are things Johnson is yet to experience in an Indy car. Starts, restarts, tuning and taking advantage of softer red Firestone tires and the simple act of racing on a street course that can, at times, feel like speeding down a narrow hallway when you’re pushing 200 mph.
Those parts won’t come without experience, and more than likely, some of those much-feared “rookie mistakes.”
What’s changed, though, is Johnson isn’t afraid of them.
“It’s inevitable. I will make rookie mistakes,” he said, referencing a 24-hour span at Sebring in his IMSA ride earlier this year when he crashed in qualifying, forced his crew to rebuild a new chassis, and then crashed again less than 15 minutes into a 12-hour race trying to pass lapped traffic. “I got a little ahead of my confidence there. There are times where I will cross that line, and unfortunately, those are the most impactful lessons that any driver will experience on this journey.”
But Johnson reckons he doesn’t make up those chunks of time without that same mentality he’s ridden all offseason. And so as he rolls into Alabama for the fourth time in less than six months, Johnson feels notably confident. Perhaps someone who’s spent less than a week’s time in an Indy car in his life should. At times, he recognizes that, and that’s when the doubt creeps in.
“But the experiences that I’ve had in life, two decades later. Starting over now, I find myself more calm,” he said.
It’s important to hold onto that come Sunday, he said. Because he knows, no matter where Johnson finds himself starting on the grid, that competitive fire that helped land him next to the likes of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in the record books, is going to be churning near the surface.
He’s going to want to win, particularly after spending his last three-and-a-half years at the Cup level doing none of that. Three years removed from his last season-long championship, Johnson finished 18th in the standings.
This time, though, there’s no amount of grit and rubbing bumpers that can help send him to the front. Now, it’s patience, until you can’t be. Concentration, when your world is spinning. And confidence, when there’s no reason to feel it.
No one else out there’s done what he’s done: Sacrificed a well-deserved retirement to put himself and his legacy on the line and trained with teenagers just to get here. And so it’s that lone human being he’s at wits with.
“Staying within myself and racing myself, that’s my focus,” he said. “And having fun. Because my wiring is this isn’t about fun; it’s always been about a career path. I think that’s embedded in me, and I’m going to have to put up a true effort to keep myself in-check and really enjoy this.”
But maybe Johnson’s already being too hard on himself, because for Franchitti, one memory above all will stick with him from the past five months.
“He’s the only driver I’ve ever been on the radio with, two tests now he’s done it,” he said. “He’s passed on the main straight and said something like, ‘This is so badass!’ He’s just having an absolute ball, and I just thought to myself, ‘That’s phenomenal. That’s what this is all about, him just enjoying it.”