Johnson jump-starts IndyCar move with online auto retailer

Sports

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson needed funding for his move to IndyCar so the seven-time NASCAR champion transitioned into a salesman for the first time.

He’ll continue selling all next year as representative for the online auto retailer Carvana.

Johnson and Chip Ganassi Racing on Saturday announced Carvana — the company known for multistory car vending machines — as the sponsor for the No. 48 Honda that Johnson will drive in road and street course IndyCar races.

It’s a striking partnership in that Johnson has spent the last 19 seasons driving for Rick Hendrick, one of the largest car dealers in the country. Johnson sought Hendrick’s blessing before signing the deal.

“I’ve had him in the loop from the beginning,” Johnson told The Associated Press ahead of the announcement at the IndyCar season finale in St. Petersburg. “In typical Rick fashion he was great with it and he knows how hard it is to raise sponsorship money.”

Johnson will retire from full-time NASCAR competition following next month’s season finale. The 45-year-old driver is tied with Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt with a record seven Cup titles.

He grew up initially wanting to compete in the IndyCar Series, an opportunity Ganassi offered him for 2021 providing they could find the funding. Johnson and his own management team shopped for sponsorship, with Johnson personally engaging with 44 prospects.

It’s a far different scenario for Johnson, who was hired by Hendrick in 2001 at the height of NASCAR’s robust sponsorship landscape. Companies were signing multimillion-dollar deals to splash their logos on race cars and team owners had no problem funding full seasons.

Lowe’s signed on for a long-term deal with Hendrick Motorsports in 2001 for a new No. 48 entry piloted by a relatively unknown Johnson. The company was Johnson’s only sponsor for his first 17 seasons before Lowe’s left NASCAR.

Ally has sponsored Johnson the last two seasons and made the initial introduction between the driver and Carvana.

Carvana becomes just the third sponsor for Johnson in two decades. He had worried he’d have to sell his IndyCar schedule in batches of two and three races to multiple companies because of the economic challenges in finding sponsorship today, but Carvana agreed to fund all 13 races on Johnson’s IndyCar calendar.

Carvana has a light sponsorship portfolio — the company is currently on the front of the jersey for Phoenix Rising FC of the United Soccer League — and is new to motorsports.

Johnson used his large social media presence to sway Carvana, which is premised on online consumer shopping. Johnson has more than 2.6 million combined followers on Twitter and Instagram, a total he said surpasses the combined accounts of every current IndyCar driver and the league itself.

“As I engaged with Carvana I have realized how important my digital footprint is and that was one big tool that we had to use to help sell,” Johnson said. “Carvana is a digital company and interested in digital content.

“We feel like we have a great responsibility to help them understand the loyalty sports fans have. If we tap that the right way, there will be a return on their investment for Carvana. I feel confident we will be able to do that, especially a car company being on a race car showing what (Carvana) can do for them.”

Carvana launched in 2012 and has steadily grown its brand. In partnering with Johnson, it saw an opportunity to widen its visibility with an established superstar and one of the most successful teams in IndyCar.

The company also found value in aiding Johnson’s career change, said Ryan Keeton, the chief brand officer of Carvana.

“I think it is really rare to see someone who is a pure champion of his sport moving into another sport and almost starting from scratch,” Keeton told the AP. “I think our ability to help him fulfill his childhood dream was a great fit. It was not just ‘Hey, lets get some impressions and awareness and a logo out there.’

“Jimmie is an amazing person and an unbelievably successful driver and there’s this mission and desire to tackle something new that is compelling. It’s not like Michael Jordan going to baseball, but you don’t typically see a champion start anew. We are super, super excited to help him achieve this dream.”

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