When the chips are up

He had success behind the wheel, but Chip Ganassi has really won big as a team owner

In recent years Chip Ganassi has emerged as the only American team owner to rival the wide breadth of Roger Penske’s achievements in motor racing. That may be presumptuous to say because Penske has long set the standard for American racing, not only in preparation and presentation, but also by winning many races and championships in multiple categories. But 23 years into his career as a team owner, Ganassi has begun to approach the wide success that has defined Penske’s legendary career. At 52, Chip is 20 years younger than Roger but his race teams have won eight CART and IRL championships, including the past three in a row, and four of the past six Grand-Am titles with veteran Scott Pruett leading the sports car team. Ganassi’s NASCAR team also won the 2010 Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 with Jamie McMurray, plus the Indy 500 with three-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti. This sweep of three of America’s biggest races is a rare achievement that even Penske has not yet enjoyed.

Like many team owners Chip began his romance with racing as a driver. Ganassi’s father Floyd is an entirely self-made man who became one of Pittsburgh’s most successful businessmen, creating the FRG Group, a vast holding company engaged in everything from manufacturing to telecommunications. In college Chip was a ski and motocross racer before moving on with some success to Formula Ford and then Super Vee. “I was kind of prepared to take over my family’s business,” he says. “I could have easily slipped into that country club, family business kind of thing. But that just wasn’t me.”

Ganassi finished third in the FF1600 race at the Sports Car Club of America’s Run-Offs at Road Atlanta in 1980 and was a contender in Super Vee the following year, before making the move into Indycars. Chip made his Indycar debut in 1982, showing his talent by making the fastest qualifying run by a rookie for that year’s Indianapolis 500. But he also witnessed the deaths of two other young drivers, Gordon Smiley in qualifying at Indy and Jim Hickman at Milwaukee a few weeks later.

“People were getting killed and banged up on a regular basis,” he says. “If you look at the starting grid of the Indy 500 from 1982, my rookie year, to ’84 there were 11 guys — a third of the field — who were either dead or had broken legs or feet. It was like, ‘Holy shit! Those are some serious odds.’ It was a different time.”

Ganassi joined Patrick Racing in 1983 as a third-string driver for six races beside Indy champions Gordon Johncock and Johnny Rutherford. But both Johncock and Rutherford were injured that year so Chip ran all but two races. He finished third at Las Vegas and Laguna Seca and fifth at Phoenix in the year’s last three races, resulting in a full-time drive with Patrick for ’84.

But for most of the season Ganassi was consigned to an uncompetitive Wildcat while his team-mates joined the majority of the field aboard the latest March 84Cs. Patrick finally got a March for Ganassi, but Chip had a terrible accident in the Michigan 500 as he struggled with blistering tyres. He was unconscious for many days, suffering a closed head injury from which he was fortunate to recover. “I was lucky that day. The March’s carbon tub probably saved me. We were really fast but I was blistering tyres and they lit me on fire on one of the pitstops. Those were not the greatest days of Patrick Racing.”

Chip was back in action at the end of the year but quit Patrick in disgust following a disagreement with team manager Jim McGee. “I said to McGee that there was something wrong with the car and he said I wasn’t leaning on it hard enough. I said, ‘I just spun it down in turn one. How do you spin a car if you’re not leaning on it? If you’re going to say things like that to me, I’m out of here.”

In 1985 Ganassi drove one of AJ Foyt’s cars at Indianapolis and in the Michigan 500, and the following year he drove a couple of races for the Machinists’ Union team. He also ran some sports car races, including the Daytona 24 Hours, and won two Camel Lights races co-driving with David Sears, who became a close friend. In ’87 Ganassi drove for Peter Sauber at Le Mans, but that was the end of his driving career. “I was starting to feel the pull of my father’s business. I thought I’d better get into that and I did it for a while through ’86 and ’87. I made an honest attempt at it but I always had racing in the back of my head. Subconsciously, it was always back there.”
At the end of 1987 Pat Patrick decided to retire from racing and Ganassi stepped up to buy his team. “I was only 28 years old so I thought it was best if I laid low, listened and learned, and kept my mouth shut. They had Marlboro and Emerson Fittipaldi, a good sponsor and driver. So I laid low through ’88 and ’89 and just learned the business a little bit, then took it over at the end of ’89.”

In 1990 Marlboro and Fittipaldi moved to Roger Penske’s team while Ganassi sold Target Stores on sponsoring his outfit. The original Target deal was a modest one, but the company soon expanded its support, thus beginning one of the longest and most successful sponsorships in American racing, still going strong today.

“It would be fairly easy for me to pound my chest and say what a great manager or team principal I am,” says Ganassi. “But the fact of the matter is being able to stand on the solid ground that Target has provided for many years has enabled me to become good at my craft and my team to become good at their craft. When you have a solid foundation you have continuity with your people, your practices and policies, and that has all contributed to long-term success.

“It’s impossible to write the story of Chip Ganassi’s race teams and leave out Target. It would be like writing a story about the United States government and not mentioning George Washington or the Founding Fathers or the Constitution. It’s nice for me to sit here 20 years down the road and be interviewed about the success we’ve been fortunate enough to achieve. But simply stated, I couldn’t have done it without Target.”

Ganassi hired Formula 1 refugee Eddie Cheever to drive his cars for three years, but Cheever was unable to win a race and Chip replaced him in 1992 with Robby Gordon, who in turn lost his seat in ’93 to Arie Luyendyk. The Dutchman finished second at Indianapolis that year behind Emerson Fittipaldi and ahead of Nigel Mansell, but like Cheever and Gordon he wasn’t able to break through and score any wins. For ’94 Chip signed Michael Andretti in place of Luyendyk and also did a deal with Adrian Reynard to be the American distributor of the new Reynard Indycar.

“I thought we had a good programme, but we had to put somebody in our car who was going to be a winner to find out if our way of operating could work. I went out on a limb and hired Michael and he validated our team. He won the first race he drove for us at Surfers Paradise and won again in Toronto later in the year.”

But Andretti returned to Newman/Haas in 1995 following his father Mario’s retirement and Chip hired relative newcomers Bryan Herta and Jimmy Vasser. Herta had been badly injured the previous year and despite some good runs he wasn’t 100 per cent fit. “Herta had driven for Foyt the year before and was in a bad accident in Toronto that broke his hip.

He still had a limp and I don’t think he really was ready to be back in a car. He also had a big crash at Indianapolis in ’95 which didn’t help.”

Ganassi made more changes for ’96, moving from Ford/Cosworth to Honda engines and hiring a little-known Italian named Alex Zanardi to replace Herta. It turned out that Chip had finally hit on the right combination. Vasser won four of the year’s first six races, including Long Beach and the US 500 at Michigan, and took the CART crown, while Zanardi won three races in the second half of the season and finished third in the points. Over the next two years Zanardi emerged as the man to beat in Indycars, sweeping to consecutive titles. Ten years into his career as a team owner Target/ Chip Ganassi Racing had arrived. “We had a hell of a period with Zanardi and Vasser in 1996-98,” Ganassi recalls. “They were at the top of their games and the sport was at the top of its game. A lot of good things were happening in those days. It was a great time. You could go on for days and days about those years.”

Zanardi then made an ill-fated decision to switch to F1 with the Williams team and Ganassi hired its promising young test driver Juan Pablo Montoya to race beside Vasser in 1999. The Colombian rookie won Ganassi’s fourth CART championship in a row after a fierce battle with Dario Franchitti in one of Barry Green’s cars. “We had a really welldeveloped car and Montoya got in and just picked up the ball where Zanardi left off. Montoya won his third race with us at Long Beach and just motored his way through 1999 and 2000. He was a dissimilar guy to Zanardi, and at the end of the day he was maybe faster than Alex.”

For 2000 Ganassi switched from Honda to Toyota power, which resulted in some teething problems, but Montoya was able to win three CART races with Vasser adding a fourth. That was also the year Chip’s operation became the first CART team to race at Indianapolis since 1995 and Montoya came through in style. “We went to Indy with Montoya and that just made our year. Juan dominated the race.”

At the end of the year Montoya rejoined Williams in F1, Vasser moved to Bobby Rahal’s team and Ganassi hired Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian. Junqueira won at Road America and was on pole at Indy, but Minassian crashed three cars in the first four races and was replaced by Memo Gidley for the rest of the year. Chip hired Kenny Brack to partner Junqueira in CART in ’02 and ran a full-time IRL team for Jeff Ward, who scored Ganassi’s first regular-season IRL victory in Texas.

In 2001-02 CART was beginning to implode and at the end of ’02 Ganassi joined Roger Penske, Barry Green and Bobby Rahal in switching to the IRL. Chip hired promising Indy Lights graduate Scott Dixon to lead his team and the Kiwi rewarded him by winning the championship. In 2008 Dixon added a second IRL title to Ganassi’s collection and finished second to new team-mate Franchitti in the ’09 series. “We were so fortunate to have a bunch of guys who were in the prime of their careers and could push the button and win races,” says Ganassi. “Dixon and Dario have done a great job for us. I couldn’t ask for a better pair of guys.”

After winning the 2007 Indy 500 and IRL title with Andretti-Green, Franchitti had experimented unsuccessfully with NASCAR in ’08 as part of Ganassi’s team. “Having to stop running Dario halfway through that season was a tough thing,” says Chip. “We were out looking for sponsors at probably the exact wrong time. I learned an expensive lesson there.”

But Franchitti returned triumphantly to Indycar racing with Chip’s team in ’09, winning the championship. Last season Dario won the Indy 500 for a second time and beat Penske driver Will Power to another IndyCar title. “It worked out well in the end because we were able to bring Dario back to Indycars and resurrect his career,” says Ganassi. “He’s won two championships in a row and the Indy 500 again, so that was mission accomplished. Dario is a great driver and a really good guy, and it’s a tremendous pleasure to work with him. I’m still having to swallow the financial burden from two years ago, but I guess that’s part of life.”

As CART failed and the IRL struggled, Ganassi made a decision to expand in 2001 into NASCAR, partnering Felix Sabates’s Sabco team. “I guess I was beginning to believe the pundits who were asking what was going on in open-wheel racing?” he says. “NASCAR was beginning to get the headlines and gaining in popularity, so it seemed like a natural transition to me. It was obvious that if you were going to be a professional in racing in the United States you had to be in NASCAR.

“I knew I had a steep hill to climb, but Felix is a great guy and partner and I bought 80 per cent of his team. He’s become one of my closest confidants. My relationship with Felix couldn’t be better. I talk to him practically every day and we talk more about business than racing. It’s a very good and enjoyable relationship.”

In 2008 as the economy hit hard times Ganassi and Sabates merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc. “In the IndyCar series I had gotten so used to just plugging engines in, whether it was with Honda or Toyota. We rarely paid for engines in those days and suddenly we had to build the engines and pay for them. It was something that was outside my sweet spot but I knew we had to get better engines in our cars. That was one of the reasons we merged.
“The other thing was the economy was going south and we were basically one and a half cars and Earnhardt was one and a half cars. So we thought we would get together and make it a solid three-car team, and as the economy started tanking even further we became a twocar team. It was certainly a low point in our NASCAR history.”

The year before Ganassi shocked many people by hiring Juan Pablo Montoya to drive one of his stock cars. “Juan always said to me, ‘Save me a seat over there,” he explains. “What do you say when a driver says that to you? ‘Okay, sure.’ But you don’t think anything of it. One day I was flying from the Mid-Ohio Grand-Am race out to Infineon for the NASCAR race and my phone rang and it was Montoya. He said, ‘Hey, I hear you’re looking for a driver. Why didn’t you call me?’ I said, ‘I’m talking about NASCAR.’ And he said, ‘Yeah I know, the number 42.’

“So I said, ‘Yeah, that’s right. You want to drive that thing? Okay, you’re in.’ And he goes, ‘Done deal.’ I was taking off down the runway and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’ And I literally didn’t give it another thought. But the next day my phone rang and it was Juan. I said, ‘Did you come out of that drunken stupor you were in yesterday when you wanted to do NASCAR?’ And he goes, ‘What are you talking about? You told me I’ve got the drive.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ Then it hit me he was serious.

“Two weeks later I sat down with Juan and his father in Miami. We had lunch and we sat there for four hours. I gave him every reason why he didn’t want to do NASCAR and at the end of the conversation he said, ‘Okay, send me a contract.’ And the rest is history.”

Jamie McMurray drove for Ganassi in 200405 and then left to go to Jack Roush’s NASCAR team before rejoining Chip in 2010. “We’re happy to have Jamie and he’s happy to be back with us and things seem to be working out well,” he says. “He won Daytona and the Brickyard in 2010 and he’s doing a great job.”

All Ganassi’s drivers and team managers agree that Chip’s main strengths are that he lets people do their jobs without interference and also seems to understand what makes people tick. “I don’t look at my management style as anything special or anything anybody would like to write a book about. I like to think I’m a little bit hands-on. I try talking to everybody and seeing what’s going on. I read somewhere that it’s management by walking around.
“When I’m at the races I like to talk to people and when I’m in the race shop I like to talk to people. I like the sport, the business and the people in it. I think I’ve always had a good rapport with my drivers, but I also think I have a good rapport with the people who report directly to me. I kinda stay out of their way and let them do their thing.

“I don’t really think of it in terms of defining my management style. I just go to work every day. I think if you have a lot of passion about what you’re involved in the management comes easily. I’m busy every day but at the same time I feel like I’m not working. I feel like I’ve never worked a day in this business because I have a lot of passion for it.

“I’m not a philosopher,” continues Chip. “I’m a racer. You’re never going to see me write a book. It’s not about me. It’s about the team and the people I get to work with. It’s about being part of a team that’s exciting. It’s obviously a little more demanding when you’re not doing well. When you’re doing well it’s a lot easier to get out of bed in the morning. When you win races everything else takes care if itself.

“It’s when you don’t win that you’ve got to employ your management skills and your business acumen. You’ve got to dig deep in your soul and remind yourself why you’re in this sport, and that’s because I love it. It’s way better than working for a living.”