With the next IndyCar round, the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix, being held at a new venue in Nashville, the Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda driver was asked if all his rivals’ unfamiliarity there would help to level the playing field for him.
“I do feel like it could be helpful for me,” he replied. “No one’s going to have a leg up on laps or experience of the track.
“I still am in a big hole trying to get experience in an IndyCar, though, so that’s something I’ll need to overcome. But I’ve studied up on the track, we have some virtual things to look at – how it might flow, what the roads might look like, renderings, a lot of pictures.
“During the SRX race [at Nashville Fairgrounds 10 days ago], my engineer went down there and literally drove around the track and took video and photos and sent them to me so I could get a better understanding of the track.
“And on the 5th [August] I’ll be down there and able to do a track walk and see it firsthand. There’s a lot of excitement in the IndyCar paddock about this course.”
Despite the preparation, Johnson admitted that he’d learned from his experience at Detroit’s Belle Isle that simulators can only reveal so much about the nature of a track.
“The thing about Detroit that was so tricky is that the track was about three seconds off from where the team expected it to be,” he observed. “We already know the tracks evolve a lot but to have it three seconds even further off than anticipated, through a wrinkle of experience… I feel like the simulator hurt me in a sense because I was used to a higher level of grip.
“But as we got to Day 2 and Race 2, the grip did start to match the simulator and things started to make sense. So it’s a tool and I’ve got to remember that and use it appropriately.”
Since just before the Detroit races, Johnson has acquired former IndyCar, IMSA, Trans-Am and NASCAR race winner Scott Pruett as his specific aide, while Dario Franchitti remains advisor for all four of the Ganassi drivers.
“There are so many things that he’s helpful with,” said Johnson of Pruett. “I guess to summarize, it’s his leadership. And that crosses over from the areas that I need help, to other areas. This is a young team with other rookies on it… We have a rookie engineer, some young guys on the car in various positions on the mechanical side.
“He really brings in a leadership role that is so different from Day 1 when he showed up. We’re definitely looking at more things relative to myself.
“Scott Pruett is someone who has done it all and really has an interest in all aspects of the sport and his knowledge has spilled over into many areas for us… He stands back and listens and lets myself and my engineers work through what we’re doing, and then he’s like the father that comes in at the end with this advice, and a 30,000ft perspective. It’s like, ‘I get where you are, but let’s think big picture, let’s look here, let’s think about this and not chase this little trick over here, let’s get the basics right.’
“He’s the voice of reason. He’s been very helpful trying to help me find the sweet spot for the car. To be truthful, Dixon and my teammates are very good at finding that very narrow sweet spot and in time I will get there but right now we need to focus on how to open that sweet spot for me.”
Photo by: Art Fleischmann
Johnson stated that he’s “on a circle of sorts, if you laid out all the challenges I have, and I kind of work my way back around. The pattern’s getting smaller and the deficit’s getting smaller as it goes on. I can say I feel much more confident with cold tires, bringing tires in, the exit of corners… Those were pretty fearful moments for me in the test sessions before the season. A lot of mistakes on cold tires – I was good for five spins per test session, it seemed like. Now, I’ve been able to pull that back and not spin on some weekends, which has been nice.
“But I think where I’m leaving the most time on the table is on the brakes. I’m finding that I’m getting in deep enough in the braking zone but I’m over-stopping the car, using a bit too much brake for a little too long. So as my senses start to adapt to this very short compact braking zone, I’m starting to develop a feel of how to release the brakes and when, and how much speed I can carry to the apex.
“It’s so much faster than what I did in a Cup car that finding that subtle touch… I mean, I’m probably a tenth to two-tenths off in these braking zones, and on 14 turns with say, seven big braking zones a lap, that’s the deficit.
“So again, I can see [the deficit] getting smaller, but it’s really getting down to those fine little nuances.”
Photo by: Art Fleischmann
Although the IMSA DPi Cadillac, in which Johnson has competed this year at Daytona, Sebring and Watkins Glen, is different again, Johnson says the techniques required for driving a sports prototype and an IndyCar are close enough for his experience in one to benefit his performance in the other.
“It’s the closest thing I can get right now to an IndyCar,” he said. “I ran an F3 and I’ve looked at some other formula style cars to drive, but the IMSA car with the brakes and the downforce that it has, really is the best thing I can be driving.
“Sadly, there is very little testing and very little practice time, which has led to me not having as much track time in the car that I want to really help me develop as a high-downforce racecar driver. But directionally it’s correct.
“I’m doing all the right things: I’m getting every lap that I can. I just envisioned the IMSA races being endurance races that I would have more seat time, but when you’re sharing a car with three to four other guys, the drive time really gets compressed.”
Johnson said his first oval IndyCar test would be held at Homestead in “late August”, and said that he and fellow-rookie Romain Grosjean – who is testing at World Wide Technology Raceway today – have discussed what they need to learn to drive IndyCars on an oval.
“I’m trying to find my comfort with the ovals. I think [Grosjean] is in a similar place. We’ve been chatting over the year about ovals and really the whole experience altogether.
“As I get more and more comfortable with ovals – hopefully the test when it happens late August will go well – and I’ll continue to work closer to the Indy 500 and ovals in general…
“I feel like there’s some carryover [from NASCAR]. Of all the types of tracks we run on, there should be some crossover on ovals. I spent some time talking with Juan Pablo [Montoya] and he felt like when he was able to return to IndyCar after his NASCAR experience, that there was a lot of knowledge of driving technique he could bring over and he felt like he could have a leg up on the traditional IndyCar drivers at that point.
“That’s the carrot hanging out in front of me. I’m running around at the back of the pack on street and road courses and I’m thinking, ‘Man, if I was on an oval, where would I be?’ That’s the balance I’m fighting with right now, of risk versus reward.”
On the topic of what he would regard as a good outcome for his Homestead test, Johnson replied: “Ultimately I’m trying to understand the safety level of IndyCar on the ovals. That’s really been my fear, from being a fan and watching from afar and watching my friends race on ovals. That’s the part that’s worried me.
“As a father of two and a deal I made with my wife a long time ago about the Indy 500, I’ve kind of watched the ovals and really never thought that I could be out there. But then anticipating this year as a television commentator, being around the sport all season like I have, seeing a few big crashes at the Brickyard and speaking to the drivers after, I’m becoming much more comfortable with the ovals and with the crash dynamics that take place, with softer walls, the halo, the aeroscreen, the top of the car…
“I’m at a point now where in a funny way I’m willing to go hit a wall, and in some ways it’s like, I’m not going to know unless I really hammer a wall how much it hurts, the difference between a Cup car and an IndyCar. The folks at Ganassi are going to hate to read this wherever it comes out, but yes, I need to go make laps and I need to understand what that experience is like.
“But ultimately I’m just trying to understand the safety level of the car, and as I get more comfortable with that, my participation on ovals will increase.”
Johnson admitted that seeing teammate Alex Palou walk away from a 220mph shunt during practice for the Indianapolis 500 has played a part in helping ease his safety concerns, as has the aerodynamic direction that IndyCar has taken in recent years, trying to shed downforce.
“Watching the Indy 500 this year and seeing Alex’s huge crash that he had in practice, he was fine: he walked away. That was a big check mark for me, like ‘OK, wall, car, that speed – that all worked well.’
“What’s tricky is climbing wheels… The less pack racing has been directionally correct for me in considering running on ovals.”
As well as Indy, Johnson made it clear that the 24 Hours of Le Mans is still “left on my to-do list or my wish list or bucket list.”
He went on: “That’s at the top. I’ve always had a great desire to race at Le Mans, and I ran a fair amount of Grand-Am races in like 2008 to 2010 just trying to get my foot in the door, trying to learn these cars, trying to be better at it, trying to keep my name out there.
“And now I’ve circled back around to that and trying to compete in IMSA. Of course I want to race in the IMSA events, but that’s all really teeing up a hopeful opportunity at Le Mans someday.”
Photo by: Art Fleischmann