LE MANS, France — Jimmie Johnson’s two-week engagement of fulfilling his childhood dreams is already off to a rollicking start.
He shared his memories during a Q&A with French media during Friday’s scrutineering session ahead of the 24 Hours of Le Mans (June 10-11), describing seeing the unique Le Mans-style starting procedures from years gone by.
“As a young boy watching racing with my father, he would show me this race where drivers would line up on the opposite side of the race track, run across the track and get in their cars to drive off. And as a kid, I said, ‘I need to do this. I’ve got to do that someday.’ I grew up with racing in my family and very much a part of it. I’ve always loved sports car racing, spent some time racing in IMSA over the years, been in a few Rolex 24s, so I feel like this day has been coming.”
Johnson added a chapter Saturday to what’s already been a legendary week, driving the Garage 56 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 through the streets of the city during the race’s centenary post-scrutineering parade — one week before the start of the French endurance racing classic. Throngs of fans lined the parade route, which began near the Place de la République square, and rolled past the hulking Cathedral of Saint Julian of Le Mans before ending through Tunnel Wilbur-Wright. The No. 24 Chevy was the anchor for the exclusive eight-car procession.
It’s still just the first weekend in Le Mans, but the vibrant buzz around the race and the embrace of the American stock-car visitors have been palpable.
“It was just an all-new experience, but really cool to see the fans continue to show up day after day,” Johnson said, taking in the sights under the historic arches near the medieval section of old town Le Mans. “They had to be five or six deep along the parade route, which was really impressive. And then a photo — I’ve seen this (tunnel) photo before. So now it all makes sense to me to be here and to have our car be a part of it, it’s really cool.”
The No. 24 Chevrolet will make its first on-track laps Sunday at the 8.467-mile Circuit de la Sarthe for the opening test sessions. It’s a moment that Johnson’s been waiting for since he was originally confirmed to the driver lineup — along with fellow veterans Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller — back in January at IMSA’s Rolex 24 at Daytona.
His arrival in France was delayed by dreadful weather during the NASCAR Cup Series’ most recent race weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, an occurrence that pushed back his rookie orientation. He underwent three hours-plus of multistage simulation work at AOTech outside Paris, which provided him with driving experiences in the rain, dry, night and day under the supervision of race organizers Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO). The simulator company stayed open later to accommodate the shift in schedules.
“It really worked out well,” Johnson said. “The ACO was able to create some time for me to get the simulator. I personally ended up here very early, except for the simulator that I was in on Wednesday, so they let me stay late after they closed and right and got in my (sim) hours and worked through some of the procedures that take place on the track. I’ve been here a couple days early. I was ahead of all these guys just kind of hanging out and getting acclimated and ready.”
One day later for the simulation and orientation, but one day closer to the car’s on-track debut at Le Mans.
“He would have had a little bit more rest in between the simulator time and Charlotte, but he did what he needed to do. He got here,” said Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports’ VP of Competition and his longtime collaborator in his days as a Cup Series crew chief. “He’s a little sleep-deprived, but as soon as he landed, he went straight to the simulator and used it for about three hours. Did a great job, so really, really happy that he did that, and he even said it was beneficial, so that was good.”