For most drivers, Formula One is the ultimate goal but few make it all the way, and many who do are forced out by the ruthless driver market in just a few years. Even after hopping around other series, most drivers are done by their late 30s: some, like Nigel Mansell, open car dealerships, while many stick around the paddock as TV pundits. But Stefan Johansson, who raced for Ferrari and McLaren in the 1980s before a five year stint in CART, has taken a truly unique path. After collecting 12 podiums in F1 and four in CART, Johansson raced sports cars, but he stayed busy out of the car as well, getting involved behind the scenes in CART while stimulating his creative side through art and design. I recently chatted with Stefan about his racing career as well as his off-track passions.
At the moment, you’re a driver manager, a watch designer, and an artist. How do you manage to split your time between so many pursuits?
There’s never a dull moment. I break the day down into many days. I do most of the admin work in the mornings. I start painting in the late afternoon when things are quiet. But there’s a lot of administration involved with the art too—the actual putting the brush to the canvas is a small part of it.
What drew you to become a driver manager?
It sort of just happened. I never really thought when I was racing myself that I’d become a driver manager. When I had my own team, Scott [Dixon] was one of my first drivers and we hit it off very well, so I’ve been his manager ever since. It’s a natural progression because having spent your whole life in motor racing, you get to learn that business quite well.
Did you gain any perspective running an Indy Lights team that changed how you reflected on your career as a driver?
When you’re a driver you just want to go faster and faster. As a driver, you might have a little spin and knock the front wing off. You come in the pits with five minutes left in qualifying and you’re like, “Hurry up! Put a new wing on!” As a team owner, you see the car coming down the pit lane with a broken front wing and you’re like, “Fuck, that’s another 50 grand.” [Laughs] You get a certain amount of appreciation for a different side of the spectrum. From a management point of view that’s been helpful—you appreciate the team owner’s concerns that you don’t think about as a driver. It helps when you negotiate too. You can sort of balance the argument and bring some light to everyone’s point of view.
After driving for Ferrari and McLaren, you raced for Ligier and Onyx, in cars that couldn’t even qualify for some races. How did you maintain motivation during those years? Did you ever doubt yourself as a driver or was it easy to separate your performance from the car’s?
That’s the bad part with motor racing. You are 100 percent dependent on the equipment. You’re never going to win a race if you don’t have the best car basically. There’s maybe two or three drivers in any category with the luxury to chose the team that will give them the best chance of winning the championship. The rest, to put in bluntly, are there to make up the show. Especially in F1, you sort of know within two or three grid positions where you will qualify and finish, unless there’s weird weather or something crazy at the start. But it’s a great space when you’re working with your team and you think you’ve found that little magic bullet that’s going to give you a few extra tenths. You go testing and try this and that and all of a sudden you discover something.
Did the podium in Portugal for Onyx, where you clung on without stopping for tires, boost your confidence?
Not really, because we knew what we were. It was a very tough year. It was a great team and everyone worked so hard, so more than boosting confidence it was just reaffirming the work we had done the whole year. To get a podium the first year for a new team and finish top ten in the championship and having to prequalify every race to do it—I don’t think anyone has repeated that. I always felt that if we had a top ten qualifying we could by some clever strategy get a podium. Once we got through prequalifying, which was really the battle back then, we knew we had a good shot.
Did it take a long time for you to stop missing racing once you finally stopped or did all these other parts of your life leave you busy and fulfilled?
I only really stopped three years ago. There was still a lot of travel with sports cars so I was as engaged with it as in IndyCar—driving with factory teams is quite time consuming. I finally decided to call it a day on the flight home from a race where I’d been taken out by a Bronze driver. With top level pro drivers you know what to expect, but Bronze drivers just don’t have the experience, and I got taken out in a corner where no normal driver would even attempt a pass. On the plane home I thought, “This is probably a good time to call it a day.” The weird thing is from that moment on I’ve had absolutely zero desire to get back in a race car, even for a track day. It just has no appeal to me anymore. You can’t get the same feeling in a road car. You could have the best sports car in the world on the road and it feels like a John Deere tractor compared to a race car.
In an interview with Motorsport you mentioned that you ran a brand development company during the 1990s, around a year after your time with AGS. How did you manage to work a job while racing in CART?
Me and about four other guys ran this company down in Monaco called Trademark Management. It didn’t take up an enormous amount of my time. I relied on the guys who were pro in that business and mainly utilized my contacts and connections. The racing paddock is a fantastic forum for networking—it’s different from meeting someone in the boardroom, all these CEOs and business people are there with their family, their guard is down, so you connect on a completely different level.
You write on your website that your passion for painting started more than 30 years ago. What inspired you to take up painting?
I’ve always been interested in art and design. When I started making money racing, I started collecting art during my travels. But it was really because of [fellow driver] Elio de Angelis. We were like brothers and when he got killed [in a crash], something stirred in me to buy canvases and paint and do something in his memory. It was definitely a way to deal with what I was going through. His death effected me pretty badly, painting was a way to get something out of my system. I got hooked on it and I’ve been painting ever since.
When did you first start seriously painting with the intention of exhibiting and selling your work?
In the last four of five years I’ve started to take it more seriously in terms of trying to make a business out of it and build some legacy around the art. It took me a long time to kind of buy my own style. Before it was okay but it wasn’t something I was 100 percent proud of showing, but now I’m comfortable with my own style, both with the abstracts and with the portraits. I’m trying to promote it on my own, in an organic way, rather than going through galleries.
Have you always been into watches? When did you decide to start designing your own?
Yeah, I was collecting a few watches as well when I was racing. I was approached by a Swiss company, while still in Formula 1, to become a spokesperson. But the watches weren’t that good looking, so I said, “Why don’t we do a design together?” It didn’t work out with those guys because they wanted to do low-end, high-volume, and I was into the high-end stuff, so amicably we went separate ways. But it taught me how the business worked and got me started on my own. I did all the design and sourced all the manufacturers, and that’s what I’ve been doing since.
You’re from Sweden, spent much of your career living in England, lived in Japan, and have lived in the US for over 20 years. Is there one place or culture that you’ve felt more drawn to?
More than anything, what made me really wake up to the difference in cultures was the two years in Japan when I did Formula 2 after my first year in F1 with Honda. I was quite young so I didn’t have much life experience back then. I was really having a hard time and this friend of mine said, “This is the only way you’re going to get by here: as soon as you get through passport control, just switch your brain off and go with the flow. Otherwise you’re going to drive yourself mad.” I did that and it worked quite well. They have a whole different logic of how to get from A to B or how to solve a problem, but it worked and in most cases it worked a lot better. That taught me to accept any culture, you just have to embrace it and enjoy the fact that you can learn something from everyone.
Japan was great. I have, I must admit, made trips there just to eat. The food is spectacular, there’s so much variety that we don’t even know about here. When I lived there we had communal bicycles in the hotel we stayed. There were a lot of drivers coming through there and we used to cycle around Tokyo. When you bicycle you find places you’ve never ever seen before, these tiny little side streets with super cool architecture and really cool clothing stores. It’s a really amazing experience, it was probably more formative than anything else in my life.
All photos courtesy of Stefan Johansson.