INDIANAPOLIS — We both have to-do lists. There’s the one everyone’s talking about, that rundown of experiences we hope to complete before tossing the proverbial bucket. Then there’s the second bucket list, the one no one likes to mention. The surrender list. Those life goals that end up being scratched off the menu and tossed in a bucket labeled “Well, fuck, I’ll never do that.”
Why not? Because we are getting old. We fall in love. We fall in love. We procreate. We move. Our hearts and bodies become more fragile. Our list of people we are responsible for extends from ourselves to rooms full of people, from corporate boardrooms to family dining rooms. Staying alive and paying your bills becomes more important than fulfilling your fantasies. The pages of the calendar turn. Life goes on. Nearing windows of opportunity.
But sometimes, just when we’ve passed one of these potential milestones and have our arm ready to throw it in the trash, someone unexpectedly opens that window and offers to help you climb.
That’s what happened to Jimmie Johnson, who will make his Indianapolis 500 debut on Sunday. A 46-year-old rookie. He has been married for 18 years. He has two young daughters. Oh, and he also has a year and a half into his post-NASCAR life, where he left at the end of the 2020 season as arguably the greatest of all time and unquestionably the greatest of his generation.
His seven championships are matched only by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. His 83 victories are only topped by five others. His five consecutive Cup titles alone are the most incredible record in NASCAR’s modern era after 1972. He’s won two Daytona 500s, four Coca-Cola 600s, four NASCAR All-Star races and boasts four wins at Indianapolis. Motor Speedway, not in the eternally epic Indianapolis 500, but in the once mighty Brickyard 400.
Johnson will start 12th, outside row 4 and alongside two former Indy 500 winners. He qualified with a four-lap average speed of 231.264 mph and is still kicking himself for a kiss from the wall that kept him from “really showing something to everyone”. Keep in mind that a year ago he was a part-time Indy car driver and swore to everyone who listened to him that he was perfectly happy to get into open-wheel road racing and sports car racing. Now, in only his second IndyCar oval event (he finished sixth at the super-fast Texas Motor Speedway in March), he’s not talking about a solid finish. He talks about winning the biggest racing show.
Worst retiree on earth.
“I always dreamed of racing here,” Johnson said Thursday at the Indy 500 media day. “But when I was a kid, I thought it would be May. Then, as an adult, May is became an impossible idea. I had a job as a race car driver, and that job meant I was in Indianapolis in a stock car in the summer. People asked me if I wanted to race in the Indy 500 and I said No. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to yet. It was because I didn’t think I could.
He stopped and smiled. “Now here we are. And I feel like that kid again.”
This kid knew, and the man still knows, all about dreams and a whole lot about challenges. Johnson grew up in El Cajon, Calif., a decidedly unglamorous corner of Southern California. The box-shaped valley just east of San Diego has always been a nest for desert rats, from racers slicing their way through sand and rock on motorcycles and off-road vehicles . A world of dirt roads, trails through wilderness and overturned pickup trucks tossed around the Baja Peninsula like tumbleweeds.
It’s a place where kids are educated in the stories of 1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones, as the rest of us learned about George Washington and Abe Lincoln. Four-time Indy 500 champion Rick Mears came from this wilderness, as did his brother Roger, who won four Baja 1000s, four Pikes Peak Hill Climbs and made two Indy 500 starts. Johnson grew up in off-road racing with the Roger’s son, Casey. Casey moved through the open-wheel Indy car pipeline. When Johnson started winning off-road races in groups driving a Chevy truck, the automaker earmarked the 20-year-old for greatness.
It was the late 1990s and American open-wheel racing had split in half. Chevy put Johnson in stock cars and put him on the radar of their world-conquering superstar, Jeff Gordon. Gordon, too, was a Californian who grew up dreaming of racing in Indy, but never had the financial backing to make it happen and landed in NASCAR because of it. He saw himself in Johnson a lot and signed him up to drive for Gordon’s new co-owned team.
The rest is racing history. Stock car racing history. History was also where Johnson’s childhood Indy 500 dreams seemed resigned to live on. But a handshake partnership and shared ride in 2021 with friend and Indy folk hero Tony Kanaan didn’t just whet his appetite. It made him hungry. Especially when he signed on as a TV analyst for last year’s race and saw the 33-car field take the green flag, flashing under his trackside broadcast perch, flying at 30 mph faster than he’d ever done that same narrow front stretch in a stock car.
It was his first time attending the Indianapolis 500. He will watch his second strap-on in the cockpit of a 750-hp Honda Chip Ganassi Racing.
This movement took some conviction at home. Alright, a lot of conviction. Asked about those conversations with his wife Chandra, he admits those discussions weren’t easy and they still aren’t. Wednesday night when Jimmy Fallon asked, “What’s your wife saying?” Johnson replied, purposely vague, “Uh, yeah…”
All races are dangerous, but Indy cars with their open wheels and open cockpits have always been particularly dangerous. However, modifications to these cockpits have helped its case, with the 2020 debut of the aeroscreen, a de facto fighter jet cocoon that wraps around the once exposed bodies of pilots, except for an opening directly above.
The most recent death in the series, Justin Wilson at Pocono Raceway in 2015, occurred due to flying debris hitting the Briton’s helmet. Indy traditionalists rolled their eyes at the shield aesthetic. Former Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso, who made a pair of Indy 500 starts, said last week the closed cockpit was a deterrent to his return. But a year ago, with Johnson on the mic, a loose racing tire hit Conor Daly’s car and a blow that could have been fatal in years past was repelled by the titanium-framed screen.
Racing, especially racing at Indy, will never be safe. But it certainly seemed safer.
“There were different moments along the way that took his breath away,” Johnson said of his wife watching the races this season, especially Texas and Indy practice and qualifying sessions. 500 from last weekend. “But I can see his competitive spirit coming out now.”
We can all see Johnson’s competitive spirit coming out. He started May with a measured and respectful litany of “I’m just happy to have this opportunity”. As the 106th – and his first race of the Indianapolis 500 drew closer, he looked more and more like the politely ruthless winning machine that flipped over in the Baja desert, used his pickup to shove his rivals come a long way in stadium racing and after never driving a stock car in his life, he ended up completely rewriting entire chapters of the NASCAR record books.
Since 1911, only nine drivers have won the Indy 500 on their first try, and most of them were entrants in the event’s early years when most drivers were rookies. Since Indianapolis Motor Speedway reopened after World War II, this has only happened four times.
Johnson feels like a long shot. But then again, he always did. That’s why among his endless collection of accolades, he’s always coveted his Rookie of the Year trophies as much as anyone else, won in four different off-road series at the American Stock Car Association. And that’s why it’s still smart to have lost the ROY Cup Series to Ryan Newman over two decades ago.
Maybe he’ll add another rookie of the year accolade, this time from the race he’d long since taken off his bucket list and tossed in this bucket “Well, fuck, I’ll never do that”. A 46-year-old rookie.
“Hey, trophies are trophies,” he said Thursday, laughing but also serious. “I’ll take all the trophies I can by Sunday.”