LONG BEACH, Calif. — Jimmie Johnson donned a glove over the specially designed carbon fiber splint for his broken right hand. A piece of tape around two fingers on the outside of the glove was meant to prevent him from using his little finger – the number closest to the fracture – as he drove his car through the streets of downtown Long Beach.
But what was supposed to be a Saturday morning test to determine Johnson’s fitness a day after his injury ended in another accident, another trip to the medical center and another round of X-rays.
“I had no pain on track. I felt good. I was just trying to go too fast in Turn 1 and lock up the tires and pull away,” Johnson said outside the medical center. “I’m more disappointed that I made the mistake and ripped the car apart again, but injury-wise I feel really good.”
Johnson said he was ready to go Sunday at Long Beach, with the IndyCar stop considered his home race. He grew up a two-hour drive away in El Cajon, so Long Beach was an annual family trip for his childhood, and Johnson rented a suite for 40 friends to watch him begin his second IndyCar career there.
It’s been a whirlwind weekend, though. Johnson arrived in Long Beach after posting an IndyCar career-best sixth place finish on his oval debut at Texas Motor Speedway — a performance that suddenly propelled the seven-time NASCAR champion into the conversation of Indianapolis 500 contenders.
Johnson was among those hyped for his Indy 500 debut in Friday morning commentary. A few hours later, he hit a tire barrier and broke his hand. The injury showed immediately when Johnson’s on-board camera showed him shaking his right hand.
It appeared that Johnson had not taken his hands off the wheel, a common practice in open-wheel racing to protect the driver from the force of the impact. NASCAR drivers generally don’t take their hands off the wheel during an accident.
But Johnson clarified on Saturday that he took his hands off the wheel but did not move them far enough back to avoid injury.
“I let go. I didn’t get them far enough out of the way,” Johnson said. “But I let go, and then with the impact I guess my hands moved into the path of the spinning wheel and the bottom of the wheel grabbed it.”
X-rays taken on Friday showed the rupture, and his Chip Ganassi Racing team was tasked with building a brace that IndyCar would approve for use in the car. The small black patch was wrapped in duct tape along the crest of his right hand and had to be approved by IndyCar safety pioneer Dr. Terry Trammell.
It went on for several tense hours as CGR and Johnson worked frantically to get him back in the car on Saturday morning. Ganassi sports car driver Sebastien Bourdais, a four-time IndyCar champion, would likely be Johnson’s replacement if he can’t race on Sunday.
“We did all the right steps and then on the track it just faded in my mind and I was just doing laps,” said Johnson, who arrived at the track at 6 a.m. on Saturday to check out. acclimatize to the splint. “Dr. Trammell is amazing. He knew exactly what to build, how to build it, and where it needed to be positioned. Turns out the man knows what he’s doing.”
Saturday’s X-ray showed the break had lined up overnight, and apart from some repairs to his No. 48 and Johnson forgiving himself for his second crash, he was ready to get back in the car.
“I’m just mad at myself. I know where I need to improve in these cars and how to attack, and that’s in the braking and brake release areas,” he said. “I had a personal best the lap before, and I was in that rhythm of releasing the brake and allowing the car to roll faster at the top.
“And when I did, I lost my back and had to catch it and hit the tyres. I hate making mistakes, and I’ve made two now [at Long Beach].”