Johnson ‘building foundation’ in INDYCAR with help from 50-year racing veteran
(CGR Action photo)

Johnson ‘building foundation’ in INDYCAR with help from 50-year racing veteran

Chip Ganassi’s success as an NTT INDYCAR SERIES team owner includes finding the right people to put in place that will help his drivers achieve success.

In an attempt to help speed up American Legion driver Jimmie Johnson’s learning process, Ganassi added one of the greatest all-around Sports Car drivers to work with the driver on the No 48 Carvana/American Legion Chevrolet.

It’s Scott Pruett, who retired from 50 years in racing following the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona. Pruett’s career included two wins in CART; the 1989 Indianapolis 500 co-rookie of the year; SCCA Trans-Am Champion in 1987, 1994 and 2003; overall winner in the Rolex 24 at Daytona five times; 12-Hours of Sebring winner twice and 24 Hours of Le Mans Class winner in 2001.

Pruett also competed in 40 NASCAR Cup Series races in over eight years and 11 NASCAR Xfinity Series races over six years.

Although he retired from racing following the 24 Hours at Daytona three years ago, he is now imparting some of that knowledge and wisdom to Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and current INDYCAR rookie.

“My last 15-20 years of racing, I had teammates and I helped bring them along and do the same thing in IMSA,” Pruett said after Johnson’s best INDYCAR race of the season at Detroit on Sunday. “To have that opportunity to teach guys and help give them knowledge. I have been around a long time. The good Lord blessed me with having this long career that went further than I could have ever imagined. Giving some of that back now is awesome.

“Jimmie has been great to work with. He has been wide-open and wanting to learn everything that the team can bring him, what I can bring him as a driver. I’m looking forward to it.

“Next stop is Road America, and it’s a lot different than Detroit.”
Johnson had his best performance of the season, on one of the most difficult tracks on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule in Sunday’s second race of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

Johnson started the Sunday race 25th but spent most of the 70-lap race on the lead lap before a spin in Turn 1 on Lap 54 ultimately put him one lap down.

Johnson was able to finish 21st and show tangible progress on what he realizes is a difficult learning process, as the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion is making the career switch to INDYCAR.

“When we got on the track on Friday, Jimmie was struggling,” Pruett admitted. “This is a tough track. This is a big ask to bring a guy here for the first time, especially out of NASCAR. We made a lot of changes overnight, got a solid qualifying in Saturday morning. He did a great job on Saturday. We had a throttle issue, but he was racy, he was passing guys and running 17th when he had a problem in the first race.

“Same thing on Sunday, he was running top 20, making passes. His lap time was excellent. Unfortunately, he had a big slide going into Turn 1. He didn’t hit anything, he continued on to have a solid finish, but this is a big turnaround for Jimmie and I’m excited to be part of it.”

Johnson has taken a very methodical and realistic approach to his transition from NASCAR great to INDYCAR rookie. Although both series uses a car with four wheels and a steering wheel, the difference between the two is like comparing the NFL to the NHL.

By making progress on perhaps the most difficult street course on the schedule gave Johnson reason to smile after Sunday’s 70-lap battle at Belle Isle.

“I had an awesome day,” Johnson said. “I learned a lot out there today. It was a solid day. I really made a lot of improvements. I made one mistake and spun and cost myself a lead-lap finish and four or five spots on the track. But overall, so many lessons learned.

“I keep stacking these pennies and getting better and better and better.”

Johnson has two fantastic “driver coaches” working with him including the great Dario Franchitti, a four-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion, and Pruett, one of the best drivers in IMSA history.

The addition of Pruett helps free up Franchitti to work with the other three drivers on the team, including six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon; Alex Palou who currently is just a point off the lead in the INDYCAR points race; and Saturday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix race winner Marcus Ericsson.

Pruett will focus his efforts working with Johnson, including calling the race on the team’s radio from Johnson’s pit area.

“Scott is such a professional in motorsport,” Johnson said. “The many layers that he has educated himself in to continue his career is something that is really in line with where I’m at right now. He’s also one of the guys that has driven sports cars, has driven INDYCARs and driven NASCAR, so there is a lot of synergy there and shared experiences.

“Dario Franchitti and I have had a great connection, and I have been able to lean on him and the fact he has driven those cars as well. We are trying to put as many people around me that I can pull from and learn from as we can. Scott has been a great help. He came to the Road America test and was at my house in Charlotte for a few days working on training, hand-eye coordination, sim work, a lot of little things to make sure that I have everything buttoned up and ready for race time.

“I’m excited to have him on board and think he will be an asset in many ways.”

Pruett believes Johnson benefitted from the doubleheader format because he could take what he learned in Saturday’s contest and apply those lessons learned in Sunday’s race.

“It was a great opportunity for him to learn a lot, back-to-back and apply it in those races,” Pruett explained. “What he understands from car standpoint, a racing standpoint and reality of expectation, all of those things together. We have to build our foundation before we can build the floor. When we build the floor, we can build the walls.

“That is where we are at now. We are building that foundation. What we saw on Sunday is one of his best races to date and we will build on that as we head to Elkhart Lake in a few days.”