Riding with the Legend
Recently, we shared the story of one of Jimmie’s lifelong racing heroes, Rick Mears (here if you missed it). As Jimmie is set to race for his fifth Brickyard 400 win, we take a look at what Indianapolis means to Mears and Johnson and what they have accomplished at the storied oval, and even take a ride around the track with the two legends of the Speedway.
While in the first article it was established the Indy 500 and Brickyard 400 are two totally different events, we begin by comparing the duo’s career at the Speedway.
The two are rather similar in the stat column. Where Mears’ numbers get amazing are when you only look at the races he finished, which take the number down to nine. Notice how many top five’s he claims: nine. Racecars didn’t used to be as reliable as they are today, and five of Rick’s six DNF’s were due to a mechanical failure. But when Mears finished a race, he finished at the front. When looking only at the nine he finished, his win rate jumps to a staggering 44% and his average finish hops up to 2.4%. Johnson has a similar consistency. He did not finish in three events (due to mechanical failure and crashes), and finished every lap in the 11 other races. His win rate in these 11 is an impressive 36% and his average finish moves up to 9.4.
Another number that might stand out is Mears’ 6 poles, which is an Indy record. He also sat on the front row for the ‘500’ a record six years in a row, and a total of (yet another record) 11.
A primary topic within the first article (again, here if you missed it) was how similar Mears and Johnson are. Well, add another thing to that list: they both count their fourth win as their favorite. For Jimmie, it was family that made it special. You can see him talk about it here in this week’s Race Week video from our friends at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.
For Rick, it was a number of factors that made number four so special: “The first one was special because it was the first. But the fourth one…I never dreamed of winning one, let alone four. And as years go between each win, you realize the number of people who never got the opportunity to win it period. The odds are pretty slim of winning it more than once. And with each win the odds of doing it again are even slimmer. Plus you’re getting toward the end of your career and you don’t know how much longer you’re going to be running. Also, it was the 75th running of the race that year, qualifying on the pole after my first time I’d ever spun a car or touched the fence there, and then to have Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt - two of my heroes - on the front row with me. And then to win the race by having that shootout (with Michael Andretti) that you always plan for. I never went into a race without planning for that shootout, but that’s the only one of the four wins where it actually happened. That to me made it a much more satisfying win.”
It was always a dream of Johnson’s to one day compete in the Indianapolis 500. "I wanted to be here and race in an open wheel car," Johnson said. "NASCAR, just with the television package and media coverage then, it wasn't all that popular, especially in the '70s and '80s when I was coming up. My whole direction and kind of guidance from Chevrolet was to move from off road trucks, to Trans Am, to Indy Lights to IndyCar…my whole world was the Indy 500.”
About eight or nine years ago, Jimmie made a serious effort to make his dream come true. He approached none other than Roger Penske, the man who Rick Mears drove for his entire career. Penske was enthusiastic, and even arranged to have Mears as Johnson’s personal driving coach for the whole month of May. Due to a number of factors, primarily the birth of his daughter Genevieve in 2010, the dream will never come to pass. But Jimmie will always appreciate the opportunity he was given. "The fact that he had confidence in me to do it -- I mean, it's a fantasy. I daydreamed about it constantly, the chance to go to Indy with Penske, and Rick as coach, that whole fantasy. And I was floating on cloud nine the entire time thinking about it. For me, my path, Rick Mears as my hero, the whole thing. To have that come together with the potential to actually happen, to be there with the best team, I was completely awestruck."
While Johnson never sat in a car as a crowd of a quarter million sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” or got to take the green in a field of 33 open wheel rocketships, he did get a little taste of having Mears as a driving coach. Back in 2010 Johnson and his hero took some laps around the Speedway to discuss their experiences around the hallowed grounds.
Johnson had trouble fathoming flicking an IndyCar around the flat turns at well over 200 MPH, “It’s just amazing to me to look, like as we come off of two, to look all the way down that damn straightaway and know that you’re not supposed to lift when you get to the end. It’s just outside of my realm of thought, you know?”
Equally, Jimmie used a unique analogy to describe to Mears what driving a bulky stock car around Indy felt like: “It’s like driving a Suburban. You know you just have to get that mindset. It’ll run a lap. I mean there’s plenty of motor, there’s more motor than you really need. But you just have to drive it through the corner like a Suburban in a way. And once you get that right front howling at you, pushing, and the car’s just like nope, not gonna do it.”
Enjoy the video, laugh along, and watch and listen as you see the already seasoned NASCAR veteran in the passenger doing, and you will be sure to learn something just as Jimmie Johnson did from the legendary Rick Mears, master of Indianapolis.