In Part 1 of this Forbes interview series with Jimmie Johnson, we’ve covered a lot, discussing whether there’s any truth to the rumors that NASCAR might be back in IndyCar, his Chip Ganassi Racing partner Scott Dixon, and whether Indy cars are more dangerous than IndyCars. Stocks, why he was so aggressive last month in the Iowa IndyCar that he finished fifth, the seven cup championships, and whether he’ll still be racing at the age of 50. Here, we cover what it’s been like to race during COVID-19, Johnson’s great impressions of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr., advice to young motorists, what to be afraid of, and how Indy racing cars differ from racing cars. Below are edited excerpts from a longer phone conversation.
Jim Clash: The only other NASCAR contestants to have won seven Cup Championships are Dale Earnhardt, Sr., and Richard Petty. Your thoughts on these two legends.
Jimmy Johnson: I mean, my gosh, being a kid watching and loving these guys, I can’t believe I’m in the same conversation. It’s amazing to be here with seven Cup Championships, and to be on Mount Rushmore with them. I met Dell several times, but I didn’t know him. I have been able to get to know Richard over the years, he has been a great friend and very supportive. The night I won my seventh championship, he got down to the cars after he slipped on me and said, “You know what you’re doing, just get it done” [laughs].
clash: I raced through part of the pandemic. It must have been different without the fans?
Johnson: Yes, it was different. We were a bit proud that we were one of the first sports to come back and it was nice to have some normalcy after we were in lockdown, how strange the world felt for a few months. However, sporting events are not the same without fans. We missed the energy, everything the fans brought to the table. But by the end of that year, fans were slowly making their way to the stands.
clash: In broad strokes, compare Indy car racing to regular car racing.
Johnson: Ultimately, the Indy’s performance is much higher due to the car’s lighter weight and aerodynamic design. This gives the vehicle double or even triple braking and cornering ability. NASCAR is known for having a lot of horsepower, but stopping the car and changing directions is a bit tricky due to weight etc. With an Indy car, you drive that little bullet around a racetrack, stopping and turning completely different from the world you grew up in racing.
clash: Jimmy, what are you afraid of, and how do you deal with fear?
Johnson: I hate spiders, snakes and sharks [laughs]. I’m not good at heights either. I discovered it on top of the Eiffel Tower with my wife. I had to get off quickly. I’m fine in airplanes, and I’m racing dirt bikes, but something happened at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Fear is part of my decision-making process, and I think I react to it better than most people. This is what race car drivers do. But there are definitely moments when I get scared in the car, and worry about things.
clash: Of all your racing victories and trophies, which one stands out as the most memorable?
Johnson: In general, I’ve always said the first thing – my first win, the championship, whatever – just because that’s really the hardest. There is a lot of emotional riding on first thing, especially as the young driver is trying to stay in business [laughs]. But when I look at my heritage, I think it’s the seventh [Cup] The tournament is soaring in my mind like that moment. That’s all anyone is talking about now, the fact that I was able to hook up Dale and Richard.
clash: What advice would you give to kids who want to become professional race car drivers?
Johnson: do it. It’s like anything on a professional level, you have to be fully committed, all of that. I was one of the few who made it as a driver. But I love this industry so much that if my dream of driving didn’t come true, I’d still be in motorsport, and work somewhere. So I would just suggest that young people put themselves in some way in this industry, and see where that takes them. I think they will enjoy it wherever they go.
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