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Ganassi on IndyCar, guaranteed Indy slots, sportscars, and more

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Ganassi on IndyCar, guaranteed Indy slots, sportscars, and more
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Apr 18, 2019, 6:34 PM

Chip Ganassi spoke to a group of eight media personnel at Long Beach last weekend, on the topics of resident champion Scott Dixon (he’s not slowing down), rookie Felix Rosenqvist (he should slow down), international races, guaranteed Indy 500 berths, running more cars (including Indy Lights), sportscars, and more. David Malsher reports.

A half-hour with Chip Ganassi is always an enlightening experience, as you’d expect, bearing in mind he owns and runs one of the greatest Indy car teams of all time, enjoys regular success in sportscars and fairly regular success in NASCAR. You don’t build and maintain a racing empire like this without having far more smarts than the average team owner.

Some disgruntled ex-employees may not regard Chip as ‘an understanding boss’, but he surely fits that term’s literal meaning: Chip most certainly understands. Hell yes. It’s how he then reacts that may not be to everyone’s liking. But what few could dispute is that he makes decisions based on what he believes is good for his team in the short-, medium- or long-term. Chip usually picks the right people, and when he doesn’t, they aren’t around for long.

Chatting to an ex-Chip Ganassi Racing man just a few years ago, I asked him if the team had been what it appears from the outside – a tough-love regime. He snorted and rolled his eyes.

“Tough? Yeah. Love? Not so much… But don’t write that, in case I can go back some day!”

Errr… OK. So you’d still be willing to return?

“F*** yeah. They’re amazing.”

And that’s the allure of working for the best. For every person who flinches in the Ganassi environment, there are many more who flourish, which is why several key members have been there for a great many years. They will happily tell you, on or off the record, that their proprietor is actually the most straightforward and least political team owner to deal with. Rather than subtly fishing for information or passing comment with some ulterior motive in mind, he will ask hard questions, make appraisals based on his experience, instinct and some advice from others, and then make tough decisions. In other words, his employees always know where they stand.

And so here we are, at Long Beach on Sunday morning, turning the tables just a tad. Chip is fielding questions from eight media members whose agendas differ in some aspects, overlap in others, and although he knows none of us are going to do a hatchet job with his answers, our host looks ill at ease. Maybe he’s suspicious that the media is seeking controversial clickbait material where there is none. Maybe he doesn’t realize that we aren’t realistically expecting facts, but we still value his opinions. Maybe he feels we’re too damn nosey… which is a fair assessment.

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Circuit of The Americas, 2019.

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Circuit of The Americas, 2019.

Photo by: Rip Shaub / LAT Images

Yet I reckon the reason for his discomfiture today is more simple than any of those explanations. It’s not tension, nor suspicion, nor defensiveness; he can adequately handle our queries. I suspect he’s feeling somewhat exposed by not having his team director Mike Hull by his side, as he usually does on these occasions, doing their bad cop/good cop routine – or more accurately, curt cop/verbose cop. Mike can deliver complex, almost recondite answers that help smother the effects of Chip’s verbal grenades. Today, presiding alone, Chip may struggle to couch his sharp observations and blunt answers in polite PR-speak. Behind that occasionally puzzled demeanor is a smart man resisting the urge to come out with a smart putdown.

Such resistance is futile on some occasions, as when quizzed about his IndyCar priorities:

Chip: “We enter each year with two goals in mind: win the Indianapolis 500 and win the championship."

Reporter: “In that order?”

Chip: “Well Indy’s first. Look at the calendar, it’s usually first…”

And he balks at one inquisitor who dares to verify the duration of Dixon’s latest contract with the team, Ganassi replying with that famous smiling scowl that said journalist needs to hang around racing more, so he knows such information is not divulged. As the chuckles subside, he answers the first part of the query - How much longer will Dixon keep going? - with a fairly straight response.

“I think he’s got a lot in him,” he says of the five-time and reigning IndyCar champion, with whom he has scored 43 race wins in 18 years. “I guess when he starts to slow down you’ll look at that, but until he starts to slow down, I’m not looking at it. He’s not slowed down [so] it’s not on our radar.”

Making pithy observations is one of Chip’s fortes. Of rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who outqualified Dixon at the opening two races but currently sits only 12th in the championship, he comments: “He’s doing really well. But like my old friend Roger Penske said one time – and he’s right – ‘It’s easier to slow them down than speed them up.’ And he needs to be slowed down just a tick. But he’s fine.”

Expanding on the subject of a driver who has won in almost every series in which he has participated, Ganassi adds: “If he didn’t impress me, he wouldn’t be here. I think he’s got a win or two in him this year. It wouldn’t surprise me. Being in the ballpark’s not his problem. It’s obvious if the guy’s in the run-off a couple of times a weekend, then… you need to slow him down a little bit.”

Asked if Rosenqvist is comparable to any of Ganassi’s previous super-rookies, such as Alex Zanardi or Juan Pablo Montoya, Chip comes up with a reply that I’m still not sure is a positive or negative reflection on the 28-year-old Swede who Dixon believes has the ability to be the next Robert Wickens.

“I can tell you this, Zanardi and Montoya hit a lot of fences and a lot of walls with this team,” says Chip earnestly. “Everybody forgets that.

“Zanardi… I love him like a brother, but he hit every wall there was to hit at every oval! Thank God I was the Reynard importer at the time so I had no parts issues. It’s the truth. He hit every fence – some harder than others, mostly light.”

Felix Rosenqvist, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Barber Motorsports Park 2019.

Felix Rosenqvist, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Barber Motorsports Park 2019.

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

Nonetheless he cherished the talent, brio and fight of a Zanardi, Montoya, Dario Franchitti and Dixon, and was therefore immensely supportive, which is why it’s no surprise to hear how he feels about Kyle Larson and his current struggles. Chip remains loyal to those who help bring value and glory to the company: Franchitti, who earned Ganassi three straight IndyCar championships and two Indy 500 wins, has told me how reassuring Chip was in the gloomy days, weeks and months immediately after his career-ending shunt at Houston in 2013.

I can also say that on the few occasions in the past when I’ve needed to talk to Chip about some aspect of his team’s extraordinary history, I’ve found him capable of reflectiveness, sincere gratitude to the employees who helped him raise and maintain the team’s current level, and modesty. Of course, being an ex-racecar driver, he has a healthy ego and racer’s instinct, but it’s hardly breaking new ground to observe that this is fundamental to his achievements as a team owner. Being just one of the guys was never going to be enough for Chip. He had an insatiable desire to be a success, to be someone who made a difference.

“I think you have to bring something to the party if you want to be an owner in any sport,” he comments at one point. “I was involved in baseball for a while and I like baseball, but I don’t know that I had anything to bring to it. Everything I brought to it was a different perspective other than being a baseball player. Took me a while to understand that. So any time you’re an owner, it helps if you have something to bring to the party other than money.”

So it’s plain to see that Mr. Ganassi was never destined to be merely the owner of a franchise, but instead a hands-on boss, albeit one who’s smart enough to delegate. And while there are differences aplenty between he and fierce rival Roger Penske, there are some striking similarities too; the hunger for success is, of course, one; the wisdom to entrust the trustworthy is another; the desire to remain primary decision maker in the company is yet another. Last year I dared to ask The Captain about his thoughts on retirement, and he said with a chuckle, “They’ll be carrying me out of here in a box!” A similar enquiry of Ganassi would surely evoke a similar reaction; unlike RP, who of course has several huge business ventures outside of racing, Chip’s only business is racing.

Because of this absolute immersion in the sport, his huge success and his often unintentionally engaging manner, I confess it’s difficult not to be in awe of Ganassi. That’s why he can state something that I’m convinced is wrong, and I won’t call him on it, merely quote him. Don’t get me wrong, Chip’s waspishness can irritate, especially when you’ve personally felt the barb once or twice, but he’s entitled to his opinions, especially when he puts so much skin in the game. Regarding the vexed and vexatious question of whether full-time IndyCar entries should be guaranteed slots on the grid of the Indianapolis 500, Ganassi admits he advocates the idea almost as strongly as does Penske.

“He’s still in front of me on this… but not far,” he says, slightly falteringly at first, knowing that his perspective may leave him in the minority. “[Roger] knows what it’s like not to be in that race. Thank God I don’t know what that’s like. But I would say I agree with him. I mean, when you’re making the commitment all year for the [IndyCar] Series, I think a commitment is just that – a commitment.”

On whether the other full-time team owners share that view, he states: “I'll be honest with you, I hope they do. I haven’t gone around taking a poll on that particular question, but I think they would.”

And how about the traditionalists who will see this as a blow to the myth and mystique of the race, a move that deflates the drama of qualifying and alleviates the pressure on all but a dozen drivers?

“I can appreciate that; I can appreciate fans who want it to be open. I think there should be some space to enter if you show up, to have a real shot at entering the race. But having said that, I can make an argument that, certainly at Indy, you have that opportunity with 33 spots and [only] 24 or 25 full-time entries. I would think that’s plenty of room.”

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, 2018 Indy 500.

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, 2018 Indy 500.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / LAT Images

Hmmm. That starts to look a far less accommodating theory if, for instance, Penske decides one day that he has enough sponsorship funding and personnel to expand from three to four full-timers, as was the case as recently as 2017, and if Ganassi decides to double his permanent entries to four.

That latter circumstance, at least, looks unlikely for now. In 2011 and ’12 there were four CGR cars on the grid at each race; that reduced to three in ’13, then grew to four again from 2014 through ’17. Maybe/probably/surely it worked for Ganassi from a financial point of view, but the increased car count added just one victory to the team’s tally – the result of an inspired drive by Charlie Kimball at Mid-Ohio in 2013. Chip had no qualms about halving his entries for 2018, and for now expresses little interest in re-expansion.

“If an opportunity came along I would look at it,” he concedes. “[But] it’s easy to find sponsors who want to go racing, it’s hard to find sponsors who want to enter an arms race like we seem to be in at the front of the pack.

“Between Michael [Andretti], Roger and I, we’re in this ‘Katy bar the door’-type fight, week in and week out, and I think those guys will agree there’s a certain high level of competition going on there. We’re the first to call each other on mistakes, pitlane mistakes or an infraction of some sort. Having said that, we all have relatively good relationships off the track – but it’s a fight.

“So it’s hard to find a sponsor who understands that and understands what it takes at a high level… It’s not expensive to be in IndyCar racing; it’s a little expensive to be running at the front.”

Later he adds, “It’s not about the quantity of cars, it’s about the quality of the cars, or rather, of the teams and the drivers. I’m not going to take anybody for the sake of taking somebody. Been there, done that. You just end up with mad fathers!”

Chip is similarly ambivalent about participation in the Indy Lights series which has struggled to hit double-figure entries over the past couple of years. Earlier in Long Beach weekend, Michael Andretti expressed his annoyance that he is currently the only full-time IndyCar team owner who also runs cars in the junior formulas. He said: “It's a really good training ground for our drivers. I think we all should get behind it. I do get really pissed off that [IndyCar team owners] don't get more involved because in the end it's good for all of us if we make the ladder series strong. It's going to bring more talent – not just the drivers, but the mechanics you can train, you can train engineers…”

Giving him the gist of Michael’s quote, I ask Chip what it would take to see a CGR car in Lights.

“Probably someone coming along and saying they want to do it,” he says not wholly convincingly. “I mean, I’m not out there trying to sell it, but I’d take a look at it if the right opportunity came along.”

#67 Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT, GTLM: Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook.

#67 Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT, GTLM: Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook.

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

That “right opportunity came along” in sportscars seven years ago, when Ford decided to go sportscar racing in IMSA with the EcoBoost-powered Riley Prototype, an effort which evolved into the Ford GT program in both IMSA and the FIA World Endurance Championship. Across both platforms over the last five-and-a-bit seasons together, Ford and Ganassi have won at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans – the big ones – and at several other tracks, too.

With the GTs due to lose their official Ford works backing at season’s end, speculation is rife about the future for the Blue Oval – and for Ganassi – in sportscars. This Q&A is clearly not the environment for any big revelations from Chip, but it’s worth checking if his plans for sportscar racing in North America or beyond are tied to Ford. Preferably, but not necessarily seems to be the message.

“We’re standing by,” he comments. “We want to be with Ford, so if Ford’s in it, we want to be with them. There’s some talk going on about their involvement but has it really taken shape yet? Probably not. Whether they’ll be in it or not, there’s some question about that. But I feel confident that we’ll be in it one way or another.”

Interesting. In fact, very interesting in light of what Mark Rushbrook, Ford Performance Motorsports boss, told us last week about possible semi-works programs with the gorgeous GT and interest in the WEC’s revised hypercar proposals… Ganassi could be involved in either or both – not that he’s willing to be pinned down on the topic.

“I want to be involved in racing so it could be that. Or Formula E. It could be a lot of things. Racing is racing. Show me the rulebook and I [may] want to be involved.”

OK, how about running a team Down Under in Australia’s Supercars series, like Roger (DJR Team Penske) and Michael (Walkinshaw Andretti United)?

“We’re talking about it,” Ganassi says. “Everyone’s talking about it. I’m certainly not afraid of it. I think we’ve shown we can race at a high level.”

He smirks, we all smirk – much as we do at the sheer vagueness of his response to the idea of another engine manufacturer in IndyCar.

“I think more OEMs in the sport is a great thing. Look what it’s done for IMSA. They’ve got more OEMs than anybody… Did you see that aerial shot at Sebring [12 Hours]? Unbelievable. Biggest thing ever, in the middle of… nowhere!”

Honda's V6 2.2-liter twin turbo has been Ganassi's IndyCar engine of choice from 2012-’13 and from ’17 to present.

Honda's V6 2.2-liter twin turbo has been Ganassi's IndyCar engine of choice from 2012-’13 and from ’17 to present.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images

The questioner won’t be diverted and inquires if Chip Ganassi Racing’s IndyCar team is locked in with Honda, with whom it raced under the current engine formula from 2012-’13 and from ’17 to present. Chip leans back, takes a deep breath, flicks through a mental rolodex of mischievous answers, and slyly grins, “As far as you know I am!”

Back to the less frivolous moments of the meeting. Ganassi apparently isn’t averse to IndyCar venturing outside North America.

“I think in terms of going back to Surfers [Paradise, Australia] or Japan, one or two of those is fine,” he says. “I don’t know that I’d want to see any more than that. It’s a North American series.

“I think a little cachet is OK to go to Surfers, Japan… or the Bahamas! A little cachet is OK but I don’t think that you want to make it the first race of the year or the last race of the year, something important like that. I think a lot of sports in this country should stay in the time zones of the US. People want to access their racing on Saturday night, or Sunday afternoon or maybe Sunday night, but much past that they’re not interested.”

NTT Data, primary sponsor on Rosenqvist’s car, and a partner of Ganassi since 2013, would surely be interested in a Japanese race, I venture.

“I have no idea, I haven’t talked to them about it,” he shrugs. “Having said that, if they’re like most Japanese companies, they’d very much like to have those things in their country.”

Playing back the recording later, I’m struck by 1) how many light-hearted moments there were, and 2) how there were no questions Ganassi didn’t answer, in some manner.

“Yeah, but did you learn anything?” asks one reporter. Facts-wise, no, not really – but then we didn’t go in with expectations in that regard. What we did get was a whole bunch of opinions – and ones that mean something, coming from Chip. This was an acknowledged master of race team ownership holding court, passing judgment and entertaining.

He should do it more often. He’s pretty damn good at it.

Chip Ganassi with Kevin Lee of NBCSN, Sonoma 2018.

Chip Ganassi with Kevin Lee of NBCSN, Sonoma 2018.

Photo by: Jake Galstad / LAT Images

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