INDIANAPOLIS – We all have two bucket lists. There’s one everyone talks about, that rundown of experiences we hope to complete before kicking 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 crossed off the menu and thrown into a bucket labeled, “Well, damn, I’m never gonna do that.”
Why not? Because we get older. We fall in love. We fall out of love. We procreate. We move. Our hearts and our bodies become more fragile. Our list of people for whom we are responsible expands from just ourselves to rooms full of folks, whether they are corporate boardrooms or family dining rooms. Staying alive and paying bills becomes more important than fulfilling fantasies. Calendar pages turn. Life goes on. Windows of opportunity close.
But sometimes, just as we’ve wadded up one of those would-be milestones and have our arm cocked to toss it into the trash bucket, someone unexpectedly pries that window open and offers to help you climb through.
That’s what’s happened to Jimmie Johnson, who will make his Indianapolis 500 debut Sunday. A 46-year-old rookie. He’s been married for 18 years. He has two young daughters. Oh, and he’s also a year and a half into his post-NASCAR life, where he departed at the end of the 2020 season as arguably the greatest of all time and inarguably the greatest of his generation.
His seven championships are matched only by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. His 83 wins are topped by only five others. His five consecutive Cup titles stand alone as the most incredible record of NASCAR’s post-1972 modern era. He won two Daytona 500s, four Coca-Cola 600s, four NASCAR All-Star races and owns four wins at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, not in the eternally-epic Indianapolis 500, but in the once-mighty Brickyard 400.
Johnson will start 12th, on the outside of Row 4 and alongside a pair of former Indy 500 winners. He qualified with a four-lap average speed of 231,264 mph and is still kicking himself for a kiss of the wall that prevented him from “really showing everyone something.” Keep in mind that one year ago he was a part-time Indy car racer and swearing to everyone who would listen that he was perfectly happy dabbling in open wheel road courses and sports car racing. Now, in only his second IndyCar oval event (he finished sixth at uber-fast Texas Motor Speedway in March), he isn’t talking about a solid finish. He’s talking about winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
Earth’s worst retiree.
“I had always dreamed of racing here,” Johnson said Thursday during the Indy 500 media day. “But when I was a kid, I thought that would be in May. Then, as an adult, May became an impossible idea. I had a job as a race car driver, and that job meant that I was at Indianapolis in a stock car in the summertime. People would ask if I wanted to race in the Indy 500 and I would say no. It wasn’t because I didn’t still want to. It’s because I didn’t think I could. “
He paused and grinned. “Now, here we are. And I feel like that kid again.”
That kid knew, and the man still knows, all about dreaming and plenty about challenges. Johnson grew up in El Cajon, California, a decidedly nonglamorous corner of Southern California. The box-shaped valley just east of San Diego has always been a nest for desert rats, racers who churn their way through the sand and rocks riding motorcycles and driving off-road vehicles. A world of stadium dirt courses, paths cut through the wilderness and upside-down-on-fire pickup trucks tossed around the Baja peninsula like tumbleweeds.
It’s a place where kids are educated on tales of off-roader-turned-1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones like the rest of us were taught about George Washington and Abe Lincoln. Rick Mears, a four-time Indy 500 champion, came from that desert, as did his brother Roger, who won four Baja 1000s, four Pikes Peak Hill Climbs and made a pair of Indy 500 starts. Johnson grew up off-road racing with Roger’s son, Casey. Casey moved on into the open wheel Indy car pipeline. When Johnson started winning off-road races in bunches driving a Chevy truck, the auto manufacturer earmarked the 20-year-old for greatness.
It was the late 1990’s and American open wheel racing had ripped itself in two. Chevy put Johnson into stock cars and got him onto the radar of their world-conquering superstar, Jeff Gordon. Gordon, too, was a Californian who had grown up dreaming of racing at Indy, but never had the financial backing to make it happen and landed in NASCAR because of it. He saw a lot of himself in Johnson and signed him 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. But a handshake partnership and shared 2021 ride with friend and Indy folk hero Tony Kanaan didn’t merely whet his appetite. It made him hungry. Especially when he signed on as a TV analyst for last year’s race and saw the field of 33 cars take the green flag, flashing beneath his trackside broadcast perch, flying a full 30 mph faster than he had ever traveled down that same narrow front stretch in a stock car.
That was the first time he had ever attended the Indianapolis 500. He will attend his second strapped into the cockpit of a 750-horsepower Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
That move took some convincing at home. Okay, a lot of convincing. When asked about those conversations with wife Chandra, he concedes that those talks weren’t easy and that they still aren’t. On Wednesday night when Jimmy Fallon asked, “What does your wife say?” Johnson replied, purposely vague, “Um, yeah …”
All racing is dangerous, but Indy cars with their open wheels and open cockpits have always been particularly perilous. However, changes to those cockpits helped his case, with the 2020 debut of the aeroscreen, a de facto fighter jet cocoon that wraps around the drivers’ once-exposed bodies except for an opening directly overhead.
The series’ most recent death, Justin Wilson at Pocono Raceway in 2015, came via flying debris that struck Brit’s helmet. Indy traditionalists have rolled their eyes at the aesthetics of the shield. Former Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso, who has made a pair of Indy 500 starts, said just last week that the enclosed cockpit was a deterrent to his ever returning. But one year ago, with Johnson on the microphone, a loose race tire struck Conor Daly’s car and a blow that could have been fatal in years past was turned away by the titanium-framed screen.
Racing, particularly racing at Indy, will never be safe. But it has certainly looked safer.
“There have been different moments along the way that have caught her breath,” Johnson said of his wife’s watching this season’s races, particularly Texas and last weekend’s Indy 500 practice and qualifying sessions. “But I can see her competitive spirit coming out now.”
We can all see Johnson’s competitive spirit coming out. He started May with a measured, respectful litany of “I’m just happy to have this opportunity.” As the 106th – and his first running of the Indianapolis 500 has grown closer, he has sounded more and more like the politely ruthless winning machine who turned himself upside down in the Baja desert, used his pickup to push rivals out of the way in stadium races and after never having driven a stock car in his life wound up completely rewriting entire chapters of the NASCAR record book.
Since 1911, only nine drivers have won the Indy 500 in their first try, and most of those were participants in the earliest years of the event when most of the field were rookies. Since Indianapolis Motor Speedway was reopened following World War II, it 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 awards, he has always coveted his Rookie of the Year trophies as much as any, won in four different series from off-road to the American Stock Car Association. And it’s why he still smarts over losing the Cup Series ROY to Ryan Newman more than two decades ago.
Perhaps he’ll add another Rookie of the Year accolade, this time from the race he’d long ago removed from his bucket list and thrown into that “Well, damn, I’m never gonna do that” bucket. A 46-year-old rookie.
“Hey, trophies are trophies,” he said Thursday, laughing but also serious. “I’ll take any trophies I can out of here on Sunday.”