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Three Legends, One Series: Meet IndyCar's Class of 2021 Rookies

“This was a wild dream that I wasn't sure would come through,” NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson said.


That’s all New Zealand native Scott McLaughlin could see as he rapidly neared the hill in Turn 5 during his NTT IndyCar Series debut during the season opener at Barber Motorsports Park. In a split second decision as he crested the hill, the rookie veered right, sticking with his original gameplan. It happened to be one of his smartest decisions of the day.

Moments before, two-time series champion Josef Newgarden made an uncharacteristic mistake that led him to spinning out in the middle of the pack. He thought he had the car, but once it hit the grass on the left, Newgarden was pitched sideways.

McLaughlin’s first instinct was to ask on the radio if everyone was alright as the reality of what he saw set in.

“That is quite confronting when you know how fast you've gone past the accident, and you know that you've seen in the mirror that someone's hit someone, especially when it's your teammate,” McLaughlin says. “It's certainly not a great feeling.

“But that's what the thrill of being a racecar driver is, you know, that little danger feel. That's the difference between the good ones and the bad ones because you either pick up where you sort of say, ‘Alright, well gotta shake that off and get on with it,’ or you sort of dwell on it, let it affect your performance.”

Jimmie Johnson, who started 21st in his IndyCar debut, quickly slammed on the brakes, managing to escape the accident that collected five cars.

“When we left Turn 1, there was a car in the grass. There's a bunch of dust and smoke, and I overreacted in that instance,” Johnson says about the first-lap wreck. “Then as we came around a turn, it happened again, in the back of my mind I thought, ‘Okay, don't overreact this time.’ And then I realized there were six to eight cars spinning and launching into the air and it was time to overreact.”

The NASCAR legend, however, did cause a single-car spin of his own on Turn 13 on Lap 9, emerging unscathed. But he says he was afraid initially about being “center punched by another car.”

As for Formula One veteran Romain Grosjean, he was closer to the action when Newgarden lost control right in front of him. His immediate reaction, albeit an understandably selfish one, was to make sure he was OK. Less than six months ago, Grosjean narrowly escaped a fiery wreck in the Bahrain Grand Prix. But the next lap, the third member of the rookie class saw the damaged cars, and had a similar response as McLaughlin, asking his engineer if everyone was okay.

“It is part of racing, it happens,” Grosjean says. “We know the risk. Cars are as safe as they've ever been. But, still, there’s always something that we haven't quite calculated that can happen. That was the case in my accident.”

Grosjean finished the highest out of the three rookies on Sunday, April 18, taking home 10th place, with McLaughlin in 14th and Johnson 19th. But he was just happy to not finish last.

With an average age of 35, McLaughlin, Johnson and Grosjean make up one of the most highly decorated (and celebrated) rookie classes in IndyCar history. Between the three, they have a combined 38 years in top-tier motorsports series—the Australian Supercars Series, NASCAR and Formula One, respectively.

Now, they’re tackling being a rookie again in the NTT IndyCar Series, bringing a heightened level of star power and personality to the league, with many wondering why, given their highly decorated pasts.

“This was a wild dream that I wasn't sure would come through,” Johnson says.

Grosejean, McLaughlin and Johnson (from left) come from varying backgrounds.

Grosejean, McLaughlin and Johnson (from left) come from varying backgrounds.

McLaughlin is one of the most accomplished racers in the history of the Australian Supercars Series. During his four seasons with DJR Team Penske, the native of Christchurch tallied 48 victories and 59 poles while winning three driver’s titles and leading DJRTP to three team championships.

He is entering the 2021 IndyCar season ranked third on Team Penske’s all-time wins list, trailing only NASCAR star Brad Keselowski (66 wins) and open-wheel legend Mark Donohue (59 wins).

But it’s not surprising considering that both of his parents raced go karts as a hobby. McLaughlin remembers going to a car show with his dad once, and he saw a go kart stand. The next day, he got to drive one, and he caught the bug immediately.

However, McLaughlin’s father loved American muscle cars and the country itself, and McLaughlin followed. Part of the reason why he joined DJRTP in 2017 was because of the potential of moving across if the opportunity ever presented itself.

“It's a big place with a lot of opportunity, right? So I've always wanted to do the American thing,” McLaughlin says.

Once they accomplished everything they could in Australia, McLaughlin said he wanted to challenge himself in this next chapter, and the competitive environment in IndyCar was appealing to him.

“When I was offered that chance to drive an IndyCar, which I didn't think they would consider me for,” McLaughlin says, “I had to jump at it.”

But, don’t let the trophy case fool you. McLaughlin enjoys the little things in life, and he credits his parents for keeping him grounded and grateful for whatever comes his way. He says, “My dad would kick me in the butt if he knew that I was becoming a prima donna.”

McLaughlin hates fine dining, and he feels bad when he asks others to do things for him. In his opinion, two of the most underrated things in the world are gardening, specifically mowing and pulling weeds, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. He says he probably visits the store every week and a half.

“I had a garden when I was back in my old house, and mowing the lawn is another thing that's very underrated,” McLaughlin says with a chuckle. “It's very good for the mind… That is therapeutic, and no one can say any different, I reckon.”

Johnson is a household name in the United States with his record-breaking NASCAR Cup Series career stretching across two decades. He recorded 83 wins, 232 top-five, 374 top-10 finishes and 36 pole positions en route to seven championships, including five in a row from 2006–10.

Not to mention he’s the only race car driver ever to be named Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year.

But when talking with Johnson, you don’t see the driver who shares a place in the history books with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Instead, you get the individual who grew up in a trailer park in El Cajon, Calif. and is now living “a second dream” as an IndyCar driver.

“My mom was a school bus driver out there and my dad was a heavy equipment operator so I grew up with the simplest of means and lifestyle,” Johnson says. “So to end up with these opportunities in life, it really has been a dream.”

Johnson finished 19th behind first-time winner Alex Palou.

Johnson finished 19th behind first-time winner Alex Palou.

As he sat in his car parked outside of his barn, sporting a hat with the word ROOKIE written across the front while he recalled highlights of his career, Johnson’s two daughters would appear in the background every so often as they rode their horses. Even though he is a two-time Daytona 500 winner and a four-time Brickyard 400 winner, ten-year-old Genevieve Marie and seven-year-old Lydia Norriss are arguably his greatest accomplishments, his pride and joy.

“I'm really excited to teach them in many ways but through my actions and how I carry myself and the work ethic that I have the time that I put in,” Johnson says. “I'm glad they get to see me do these things and learn from my actions more than just me preaching to them about what to do.”

But the biggest lesson he hopes his daughters will learn from him and his extensive career is to find something they are passionate about and to chase it.

“I think that a lot of kids today, based on social media and a variety of other ways to consume media, everybody wants to be famous, and I really don't want that to be a priority for my kids,” Johnson says. “I want the process to be something they're passionate about. I want them to find things that they're really into and can dedicate their lives to. And it doesn't have to equal fame or success in the way that's portrayed in a lot of ways.”

With switching from NASCAR to IndyCar, Johnson says he’s able to be home more often, especially considering that he is not doing oval races this season. After the St. Petersburg race on Sunday, he’s off for two weeks, something that’s incredibly rare in the racing community during the season.

His life has become more balanced since switching to IndyCar. Johnson says his wife isn’t as big of a morning person as him, so he takes the morning shift of getting the kids ready and off to school. He’s able to help take them to their extracurricular activities, like their tap, ballet and jazz lessons, and then he and his wife will cook dinner together. While his daughters enjoy dancing and horseback riding, they do love riding their dirt bikes and go karts, and hitting the track with their dad, something Johnson takes a lot of pride in.

“To be a girl dad means that I have a deeper responsibility to help fight for equality, and it's something that I really didn't have the forethought for growing up,” Johnson says. “As a father of two daughters and just understanding the differences that exist in the world and realizing how unfair that is, I feel like I was supposed to be a girl dad for many reasons, and now that I am a girl dad, this point that I'm talking about now has surfaced and has much more meaning to me and is something that I'm advocating for.

“Something that I'm trying to instill in my daughters that they deserve any and every opportunity just as a boy does.”

Grosjean very easily could have not been here today, racing in the NTT IndyCar Series or raising three kids with his wife, Marion Grosjean.

On Nov. 29, 2020, the Formula One driver’s car hit a metal barrier while going 119 mph, causing an explosive fireball at the Bahrain Grand Prix. A crash report estimated the impact was at 67 Gs, a force equivalent to 67 times his body weight. Heavy braking in an F1 car typically produces approximately six Gs.

Grosjean’s car was split in two after colliding into the barrier, quickly catching fire. He was caught in the cockpit for approximately 27 seconds, according to the report, before he scrambled out.

“I try to go up a bit more on the right, it doesn’t work, go on the left, doesn’t work so I sit back down and thought about Niki Lauda, his accident, thought it couldn’t end like this, it couldn’t be my last race, it couldn’t finish like this, no way, so I try again,” Grosjean said to F1 less than a week after the accident. “Then there’s the less pleasant moment where my body start to relax, I’m in peace with myself and I’m going to die.

“Then I think about my kids, and I say 'No, they cannot lose their Dad today.’ So I don’t know why I did what I did, but I decided to turn my helmet on the left hand side and to go up like this and try and twist my shoulder. That sort of works, but then I realise my foot is stuck in the car so I sit back down, pull as hard as I can on my left leg. The shoe stayed where my foot was but my foot came out of the shoe, and then I do it again and the shoulders are going through and by the time the shoulder was through, I know I’m going to jump out.”

By doing so, Grosjean had to put both of his hands in fire, and he saw his gloves starting to melt as he felt the pain radiate. But he also felt relief that he was out of the vehicle. “I jump out, go on the barrier, feel [Dr.] Ian [Roberts] pulling on my overall so I know I am not on my own anymore and there is someone with me. I land and they touch on my back so I’m like, ‘I am a running fireball.’”

He managed to walk away with minor burns on the back of his hands and a sprained left ankle, and was discharged from the hospital fairly soon after the incident.

Now, less than six months later, Grosjean is back in the driver's seat, and things have changed for him since that terrifying moment. He says he enjoys life much more after it was almost taken away from him. But, he is still in pain.

“It is still not good looking, and they still require a lot of attention,” Grosjean says of his burns. “But I don't care. I can play with my kids. I can cuddle them. I can play with my daughter's hair. And I can race cars. The most important part is that I’m happy.”

When Grosjean made the decision to continue racing, his kids were part of the process to return. He got them as involved in his return as he could, like letting them choose the race suits, discuss which number he was going to choose and even let them draw a picture to put on his helmet.

“The helmet I've been racing now is the one I was supposed to raise for my last race in Formula One, and that one has been designed by my kids fully,” Grosjean says. “Sacha designed a superhero, then Simon drew the podium with a car and the guy standing in the top step of the podium, and my daughter, she took a princess and she colored it in purple and pink.”

During his nine years as a Formula One driver, he amassed 10 podium finishes. And as the French driver finished 10th last weekend during his IndyCar debut, it didn’t look like he missed a beat, as a technical issue in his car kept him from potentially being in the top five.

And even though he wants to continue to win and be competitive, Grosjean looks to the bigger picture for his next goals.

“I've lived my dream, which was getting Formula One. I wish I'd won a race title in Formula One, but I know it's just winning races,” Grosjean says. “The biggest goal for me going forward because personally, I've achieved pretty much what I wanted to, is that my kids do good, and they’re happy in life. I'm going to help them to do that, and for me, that's the next big goal.”

McLaughlin, Johnson and Grosjean essentially break the rookie mold with their different backgrounds, motivations and levels of expertise.

McLaughlin, 27, has minimal open-wheel single-seater experience, and likewise, Johnson has very little experience on street and road circuits, which constitute a majority of the 2021 IndyCar calendar. Throughout his 40 NASCAR road course starts, the veteran won just once and placed in the top five only nine times. Meanwhile, Grosjean has a leg up on the other two, Johnson says, since he has the Formula One experience.

But all three have had to adjust their workout routines upon joining the new league, focusing more on weight training than cardiovascular activity.

A road car vet, McLaughlin got a workout in his debut.

A road car vet, McLaughlin got a workout in his debut.

“For the Australian series, you know, you sit like you're in a road car. You drive like you do when you go to work, but with IndyCar, you’re like you're in bed. So you’re lying down,” McLaughlin says. “The muscles that you use—all three of your shoulder region and your neck muscles—you have to get them really strong. I've had to really up my training in terms of my weights and what I lift just because it's so much more physical muscle wise than the Supercar.”

The trio received various pieces of advice before last weekend’s race. McLaughlin was told to finish the race, and said he felt getting every lap under his belt put him into a better headspace to go into St. Petersburg this weekend. For Johnson, colleagues told him to “have fun and take away the expectations.” Grosjean echoed Johnson’s sentiment, saying that one of the many lessons he learned last weekend was to have fun and just do it.

“After the accident, I was like, ‘I want to have the choice to do something where I'm gonna have fun, and let's try IndyCar because it looks fun,’” Grosjean says. “And, you know, I'm convinced I can have fun, and I'm really enjoying my time here. Obviously, we want to be as competitive as we can. But also I want to be happy in what I do.”

At the end of the day, the three chose to pursue the NTT IndyCar Series because they love racing and cannot imagine doing anything else. They were all motivated to make the change by different factors, whether it was the next career step, a way to live a more balanced life or an avenue for them to have more fun. But Johnson’s advice for the younger generation echoes why these veterans are taking a step into rookie territory once again.

“Find something you love to do, find something to be passionate about. I feel like that's been my North Star throughout my entire life,” Johnson says. “I knew at a young age that I wanted to race. I wasn't sure what exactly I would be racing and if that would come together. But the passion I have for motorsport really created all these wonderful opportunities in my life for my profession and certainly my personal life, too.” 

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