There’s very little overlap between the cities on the IndyCar schedule and the locales NASCAR com-petes in.
So even though the transition from a stock car to open-wheel racing has proven challenging for seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, experiencing new parts of the country and the cultures that come with them has been overwhelmingly positive for the 45-year-old IndyCar rookie.
“It’s been a fun new twist,” Johnson said before his track testing day at Portland International Raceway last week.
While every driver in the paddock is seeing a new racing atmosphere at this weekend’s inaugural Music City Grand Prix in Nashville, Tenn., Johnson will be among the few drivers making their PIR debuts when the series comes to Portland on Sept. 12.
For Johnson, it will be his first time racing in the Pacific Northwest since the mid-1990s, when he competed in an offroad race at the Kingdome.
Beyond the race fans themselves — which Johnson said are “more wine and cheese; NASCAR is burgers and beer” — the culture in the garages are massively different too.
NASCAR competes 36 weeks in a calendar year; IndyCar will race just 17 times this season.
“There’s such a casualness to it. IndyCar is so approachable,” Johnson explained. “With a much smaller schedule, too, the environment in the garage area is more relaxed. And everyone is generally happier because they’re not working every weekend.”
Despite frustrating results — Johnson has yet to finish on the lead lap of a race — Johnson is a happy man as he takes on this new challenge.
“I really do enjoy driving race cars,” Johnson said. “Growing up I’d race anything I could. I always wanted to race other cars, but the schedule of NASCAR is such that it was just too busy for me.”
He also gets to spend more time with his wife and two children, ages 11 and 8, during what is a 12-race schedule for Johnson.
He will not compete on any of IndyCar’s ovals this season.
“We feel like with the success I’ve had, the kids had an idea of me being a successful race car driver. Now I’m reinventing myself,” Johnson said. “The successes seem small compared to the NASCAR ones, but the failures are more obvious.”
Those failures and overcoming them, “seeing it through,” Johnson said, are important lessons for his children to witness.
Johnson is starting to get a hang of the speed and performance of the car. Soon success will start getting defined differently for Johnson.
“The performance of the car is three to four times what I experienced in aa NASCAR vehicle,” Johnson said. “I feel like I’m going fast — and I am compared to NASCAR — but I’m still under the potential of the car.”
Nashville, where every driver is new to the street circuit that centers around the Tennessee Titans’ stadium, is another opportunity for Johnson to showcase his improvements.
The race is broadcast on NBCSN starting at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets for the Grand Prix of Portland, which Johnson will compete at on Sept. 12, are available for sale at portlandgp.com/tickets.