IMSA Prototype Challenge Points Leader Assisted Jimmie Johnson’s IndyCar Transition
By Holly Cain
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dakota Dickerson still gets a kick recalling the scene in the Daytona International Speedway paddock this January as IMSA teams rolled in for the traditional Roar Before the Rolex 24 preseason test.
IMSA Prototype Challenge: Mid-Ohio Entry List
“We were just setting up our paddock and we were waiting for our trailer to come in, and all of a sudden an SUV came by and slammed on its brakes right next to us with tinted windows,’’ Dickerson recalled. “We were like, ‘What’s going on?’
“And it was Jimmie (Johnson) and Simon (Pagenaud), and Jimmie recognized me in the paddock and pulled over to talk to me. I was like, ‘Man, this guy is awesome. Super humble. Just like he’s ‘another’ racer.’
“He wasn’t some superstar that came in with an ego, he was just ‘another guy’ trying to improve himself and ultimately go fast and faster than everybody else. He was willing to put in the work and I think has fallen in love with the process.’’
It was an unintended lesson for Dickerson, but one that resonated.
The two San Diego natives – the 45-year-old Johnson and 24-year-old Dickerson – first met weeks earlier at the conclusion of the 2020 motorsports season, which was also the conclusion of Johnson’s legendary NASCAR career. Just after wrapping up his IMSA Prototype Challenge season, where he finished runner-up for the championship, Dickerson was asked to help guide this open-wheel newcomer in his transition from championship stock car driver.
Dickerson considered the opportunity to help the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion in his first bona fide experience in an open-wheel car, a genuine “chance of a lifetime.” They worked together as Johnson drove a smaller Formula 3 car in a “driving school” to get acquainted with the feel of the new type of race car, before Johnson tested more extensively in the more-powerful IndyCar as he prepared to embark on the 2021 season in that series.
As exciting as it was serving as Johnson’s “driver coach,” this was, not too surprisingly, a mutual education. Dickerson says he learned as much during the instruction as his high-profile “student” – lessons Dickerson is already using in his own burgeoning IMSA career.
As with Johnson, Dickerson has also transitioned fulltime from one form of motorsports to another.
“We all enjoy racing cars, but the biggest thing I took away from Jimmie was loving the process of self-improvement,’’ Dickerson said. “Being a perfect driver is nearly impossible in this sport, and for Jimmie, someone who is one of the most successful drivers ever in NASCAR, he still pursues perfection. Someone his age and what he’s trying to do, with a young driver like me just developing his career, it’s super awesome to see that career progress never stops.
“At the end of the day, you want to keep improving and keep winning. Seeing someone like that with that work ethic has really motivated me to continue that path. It was something I had to do transitioning (to sports cars) from formula cars. This is a whole new environment for me.
“It’s super challenging, but at the same time, some people see challenges and some see them as different opportunities. I think Jimmie is one of those people. He sees the challenge and actually looks forward to that. And that’s really cool. It’s definitely something I could apply to my own career.”
Johnson and Dickerson discovered more in common than their Southern California roots. They both share an unmistakable passion for competition and a willingness to veer into a new course in life.
As with Johnson, who moved from a Hall of Fame 20-year career in NASCAR to 2021 IndyCar rookie and IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup championship contender in the No. 48 Ally Racing Cadillac DPi, Dickerson recently established a new racing career path himself. He’s moved from single-seat junior formula cars and into IMSA’s sleek, high-performance sports car in the Prototype Challenge development series that uses the Le Mans Prototype 3 (LMP3) chassis.
With finishes of second (Daytona) and third place (Sebring) so far this season, Dickerson and co-driver Josh Sarchet will share the No. 54 MLT Motorsports Ligier JS P320 this weekend in the Prototype Challenge race during the Acura SportsCar Challenge Presented by the TLX Type S weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Dickerson is the two-time defending Mid-Ohio winner.
So far, the move to sports cars looks brilliant for Dickerson, who leads the 2021 championship standings along with Sarchet and is hopeful the hard work will result in a step up to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next year.
His fast pass up the ranks is of no surprise to those who worked with Dickerson early in his career. Dickerson isn’t only fast; he possesses the character qualities that have impressed people off track as well. The combination of being superbly fast behind the wheel and highly regarded out of the driver’s seat has propelled his career trajectory for years now.
In 2014, for example, a 16-year-old Dickerson was awarded the first Bryan Herta Career Enhancement Scholarship for his work in the Skip Barber Karts to Cars Shootout. The following year, Dickerson earned the prestigious Team USA Scholarship, putting him in prestigious company with previous recipients such as IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, NASCAR and IndyCar race winner A.J. Allmendinger and Herta.
That same year, he earned the 2015 Skip Barber USF2000 Shootout scholarship and answered in 2016 as the series rookie of the year runner-up.
“I have been impressed by Dakota since our first meeting,’’ said Team USA Scholarship founder Jeremy Shaw, who is also a longtime IMSA Radio broadcaster. “Dakota has a singular focus on establishing a career for himself and has never let anything hinder his progress. He works hard and drives fast. What more can one ask?”
The success he had along the way certainly has given Dickerson confidence in his choices. He proved himself competing in the top-line junior ranks. Now, all that winning and attention has set him up for a shot in IMSA’s premier series. None of his achievement is a surprise to the teams or series he has competed in.
“I think the world of Dakota,’’ said Gregg Borland, owner of ArmsUp Motorsports, which fielded a car for Dickerson in 2018. “I can’t say enough about his commitment and maturity as a driver. He’s always completely prepared for whatever event we are running. He is a great teammate. He always bends over backwards to help his teammates if they need any help during the course of a weekend.
“On top of that, he’s a great person and I love his dry sense of humor. It’s hard not to smile when you’re working with Dakota. He’s really fast and treats the cars well, too. Pretty much the perfect driver for me.”
The positive feedback and support as Dickerson has changed his career focus has been highly motivating. His team is hopeful to enter the season-ending Motul Petit Le Mans in the LMP3 class new this year to the WeatherTech Championship. It would be a real-time, preparatory step up in preparation for an anticipated full-season run in 2022.
“The team’s shop is basically located right behind (Michelin Raceway) Road Atlanta,’’ Dickerson said. “So, for us, logistically speaking, that’s kind of a good timeline for us. It’s a great opportunity for us to test the waters and get some experience before Daytona. Our last (Prototype Challenge) race of the year is there as well, so kind of double up, do a little double duty.
“I think it is a good opportunity to feel what the WeatherTech ranks are like before we really dive in the deep end for the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2022.”
Judging by his results to date, the water’s just fine for Dickerson.
“Honestly, I couldn’t be happier,’’ he said. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed racing and competing in IMSA, and I hope we can continue that on into the WeatherTech SportsCar series now.”
The Prototype Challenge takes to Mid-Ohio for practices at 2:35 p.m. ET Friday and 10:25 a.m. Saturday, ahead of qualifying at 2:10 p.m. Saturday. The one-hour, 45-minute race airs live on TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold and IMSA Radio beginning at 9:35 a.m. Sunday.