In the first part of this TUSEN interview series with Jimmie Johnson, we discussed a lot and discussed whether there is any truth to the rumors that he may be returning to NASCAR from IndyCar, his Chip Ganassi Racing partner Scott Dixon, whether Indy cars are more dangerous than stock cars, why he was so aggressive at the Iowa IndyCar race last month and finished fifth, his seven cup championships, and whether he will still be racing at age 50. Here we discuss what racing was like during COVID-19, Johnson’s impressions of the great Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr., advice he has for young people wanting to get into motorsport, what he fears and how Indy racing is different from racing cars. Below are edited excerpts from a longer telephone conversation.
Jim Clash: The only other NASCAR racers with seven Cup Championships are Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and Richard Petty. Your take on those two legends.
Jimmy Johnson: I mean, gosh, as a kid looking at those guys and adoring them, I can’t believe I’m in the same conversation. It’s great to be here with seven Cup Championships and to be with them at Mount Rushmore. I met Dale a few times but didn’t know him. I have come to know Richard over the years and he has been a good friend who has been a great support to me. The night I won my seventh championship, he came up to the cars after I buckled up and said, “You know what to do, make it happen” [laughs].
To collide: You raced during part of the pandemic. It must have been different without the fans there?
johnson: Yes, it was different. We were proud to be one of the first sports to come back, and it was nice to have some normalcy after being in lockdown, how weird the world felt for a handful of months. That said, the sporting events are not the same without fans. We lacked the energy, everything the fans brought to the table. But by the end of that year, the fans were slowly coming back to the stands.
To collide: Broadly compare racing an Indy car to racing a stock car.
johnson: Ultimately, the performance of an Indy car is much higher due to the lighter weight of the car and the aerodynamic design. This gives the vehicle double or even triple braking and cornering power. NASCAR is known for having a lot of horsepower, but getting the car to stop and change direction is a bit tricky because of the weight and such. With the Indy car, you drive this little bullet around the track, and it stops and spins very differently than in the world where I grew up racing.
To collide: Jimmie, what are you afraid of, and how do you deal with fear?
johnson: I hate spiders, snakes and sharks [laughs]. I’m not very good at heights either. I discovered this together with my wife on top of the Eiffel Tower. I had to go down, and fast. I’m okay in airplanes and I race dirt bikes, but something happened at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Anxiety is part of my decision-making process and I think I deal with it better than most. That’s what race car drivers do. But there are definitely times when I’m scared in the car, worried about things.
To collide: Of all your racing victories and championships, which one stands out as the most special?
johnson: In general, I’ve always said the first – my first win, championship, whatever – just because that’s really the hardest. There’s so much emotional involved, especially as a young driver trying to stay on the job [laughs]. But when I look back on my legacy, I think my seventh [Cup] championship comes to my mind like that moment. That’s all everyone is talking about right now, the fact that I was able to bond Dale and Richard.
To collide: What advice would you give children who want to become professional race car drivers?
johnson: Just do it. It’s like anything on a professional level, you have to be fully committed, all in. I was one of the few who survived as a driver. But I love this industry so much that if my dream of driving a car didn’t come true, I’d still be in motorsport and working somewhere. So I would suggest that young people somehow get themselves into this industry and see where it takes them. I think they will enjoy it wherever they land.