Is Chip Ganassi Really A Talent Guru?

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Undoubtedly, the biggest story of the early IndyCar offseason is the rampant speculation on who will fill the fourth seat at Chip Ganassi Racing. Regardless of whether or not Tony Kanaan slides over to the No.10 Target car, or if a newcomer takes over the car vacated by Dario Franchitti – everyone, including yours truly, has a theory as to who it may be.

Some are now thinking that instead of going the predictable route of Ryan Briscoe or Alex Tagliani, Ganassi may play a wild card from an overseas developmental series, something he has been known to do before.

During this guessing game, Chip Ganassi has been labeled by experts as having a keen eye for talent. He is credited with pulling little-known drivers from overseas and turning them into champions. The Ganassi tenures of Alex Zanardi (1996-1998), Juan Montoya (1999-2000) and even Dario Franchitti (2009-2013) help make the case for those that have bestowed the accolades on Ganassi for seemingly plucking drivers out of nowhere and turning them into stars.

Granted, those three driver examples brought Ganassi six open-wheel championships and three Indianapolis 500 victories. But before we anoint Ganassi as having the last word on evaluating talent, let’s remember that he has had several drivers that didn’t work out so well. Not only has he had his share of busts compared with, oh…let’s say, Roger Penske – he had a greater number in about half the amount of time.

Now I will throw out my disclaimer that I am a Roger Penske fan and a lifelong follower of his racing team. But regardless of my allegiance – facts are facts.

Since Roger Penske’s team first showed up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1969, just how many busts has he had that he brought on as an up-and-comer? First we must define what exactly is an up-and-comer, and what is a bust?

An up-an-comer has not won an IndyCar race before signing with one of the top teams. A bust, will fall way short of expectations and fail to win a race. For example; when James Hinchcliffe signed with Andretti Autosport, he was considered an up-and-comer. He had yet to win a race but had turned many heads in his time with Newman/Haas. He won three races this past season, so he is certainly not a bust. Also, we’re talking about full-time drivers – not one-offs or mid-season replacements. Obviously, these are not iron-clad rules – but you get the idea.

So getting back to Chip Ganassi, yes – he has made some good hires. I had heard of Zanardi from Formula One, but knew little of him. I had never heard of Juan Montoya when he was announced. So those two examples stand out as relatively obscure drivers who quickly became stars. They are the ones everyone remembers.

Does anyone remember Nicolas Minassian?

For those that don’t remember, he was the French driver from Formula 3000 that Ganassi tabbed to replace Jimmy Vasser in 2001. Most scratched their heads when they heard the Frenchmen’s name. The experts said that Ganassi had plucked another star in the making, just like he had with Zanardi and Montoya. It was not to be. After just six races, he was released by Ganassi and never drove in American open-wheel again.

Minassian was teamed with another newcomer that season named Bruno Junqueira. While Bruno won three races and an Indianapolis 500 pole for Ganassi, he didn’t meet expectations and was not invited back when the team moved over to the IRL full-time in 2003. But Bruno certainly doesn’t qualify as a bust – at least not in my book.

His replacement at Ganassi would be considered a bust, even though he had already won a race before joining Ganassi. Remember who it was? Tomas Scheckter.

Scheckter spent one season at Ganassi, in 2003. His teammate, Scott Dixon, won the championship that year, while Scheckter failed to win a race. When he wasn’t tearing up equipment, Scheckter did OK. He had one third place finish that lone season in the No.10 car, along with four other top-five finishes. But the repair bill was too much for Ganassi, so Scheckter was shown the door at the end of the season.

What star-in-the-making was next to drive the No.10? Another dud – Darren Manning. In a season and a half, Manning could do no better than three fourth place finishes. After Milwaukee in the middle of the 2005 season, Ganassi had seen enough and pulled Manning out of the car.

If you go further back into the nineties, you’ll remember that Bryan Herta drove for Ganassi in 1995. Herta was considered an up-and-comer after posting decent results in a partial season with Foyt, before suffering a season-ending injury at Toronto. In fact, he was slated to be the only driver for Ganassi before Jimmy Vasser’s team closed shop just before the start of the season. Vasser had Jim Hayhoe’s STP sponsorship, so that led to Ganassi running two full-time cars for the first time. I’ve always been a Bryan Herta fan, but his season at Ganassi was a disaster – finishing twentieth in points. He did not return in 1996, and was replaced by Zanardi.

Go back to Ganassi’s first season as primary owner of the team. From 1990 through 1992, Eddie Cheever drove for Ganassi. While there were some decent runs, Cheever finished no better than ninth in his three years with Ganassi. In his last season with the team, Cheever had one of only three, full-time Ford Cosworth XB’s in the field, yet he finished no better than tenth. Cheever never won a race in CART, but did manage to win the 1998 Indianapolis 500 as well as a few other races in the very early IRL days, against fields of lesser talent.

So, in twenty-four seasons – that’s five busts and two stars of the drivers that Ganassi pulled from nowhere. Keep in mind that Arie Luyendyk, Michael Andretti, Scott Dixon, Dan Wheldon and Dario Franchitti had all won races for other teams before landing at Ganassi; so they can’t be counted as stars made at Ganassi.

In forty-five seasons, some of the up-and-coming drivers that became stars while driving for Roger Penske include Mark Donohue, Tom Sneva, Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan, Paul Tracy, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe. The only notable bust I can think of that drove for The Captain on a full-time basis is Kevin Cogan in 1982. He was a second-year driver best known for disrupting the start of the 1982 Indianapolis 500. He finished the year with Penske, but was not invited back. His career was lackluster from that point forward.

Some may point to Bill Alsup in 1981, but I will remind you that even though Alsup failed to win a race for Penske that one season – he finished second in points. Others might ask about Will Power, but he was a multi-race winner in Champ Car while driving for Derrick Walker, before joining Team Penske as a part-timer after a year at KV Racing.

So, even though I am a Penske fan, this is not to crow or gloat over how my guy picks better talent than your guy. But before many of the mainstream media figures proclaim that Chip Ganassi is the end-all, be-all in evaluating future IndyCar talent, let’s keep an eye on the history books and realize that Chip Ganassi is not as infallible as some are making him out to be.

George Phillips

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13 Responses to “Is Chip Ganassi Really A Talent Guru?”

  1. Leigh O'Gorman Says:

    Interestingly George, much of the talk over this side of the pond is that of Paul di Resta (Dario’s cousin and Force Indi F1 driver) gunning for the seat. Whether there’s much push behind it though…

    • Savage Henry Says:

      I think diResta’s previous comments about being uncomfortable with the idea of running ovals are going to kill any chance he would have had. I don’t see Chip willing to wait and see if he ever develops a taste for them. He’ll let someone else pay for that.

      That said, I’d love to see diResta in the series

  2. Unfortunately, it seems that just being a very talented driver is no longer nearly enough to get hired these days by the top teams. Otherwise Justin Wilson would already be in that seat. He’s bust proof.

  3. Doug Gardner Says:

    Good piece George. I think Penske evaluates talent, but in general I think he makes talent. The organization is second to none at focusing on the prize and getting it. Ganassi has all the tools and this makes drivers look good. I believe Ganassi has maximized his talent and equipment better than Penske over the last few years because Penske has gotten to conservative in their Indycar efforts.

  4. I had to scratch my head and wonder about Chip’s thought process when he let Wheldon go.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    No mention of Jeff Ward? I think even he knew he was a placeholder for Ganassi’s IRL team in 2002, but he did score his only career victory that season.

    Minassian was a major bust, possibly because he didn’t brake for kitties (for those of you who watched Letterman back in 2001). Notice, though, that Chip has never put two total rookies in his cars since. Notice also how Junquiera improved after veteran Memo Gidley became his teammate. Minassian was probably not good enough to keep that Ganassi seat, but I think he would have been a solid driver given a little patience and an experienced teammate.
    To Penske’s credit, he has never tried an all-rookie team, and has not hired a rookie period in quite some time.

  6. I’ll tag right along with what billy was talking about above. If there’s one complaint that you could level at Chip (other than the whole “seems like kind of a sore loser sometimes” thing that I’ve lobbed at him once or twice) it’s that he can have an insanely quick hook when it comes to drivers.

    After the late-’90s heyday of Vasser-Zanard-Montoya, I guess Chip figured he could stick anybody in his cars and they’d win instantly. Enter Bruno and Nic Minassian. Those two guys dominated the 2000 F3000 series (7 combined wins out of 10 rounds), beating no less than Mark Webber, Fernando Alonso, Justin Wilson, Tomas Enge, Darren Manning, Sebastien Bourdais and Tomas Scheckter. Through their first seven starts for Chip (the first 6 races of the CART season, plus that year’s Indy 500), Bruno was definitely quicker and better (the pole for the 500 and 4 top-10s) than Nic (one top-10), but nothing that for most teams would have equalled “rookie fired before mid-season” (Memo Gidley, after all, only managed 6 more top-10s in the remaining 14 races, so it’s not like he was a quantum leap ahead of where Nic might have been by the end of the season). Minassian then went on to a more-than-respectable career in sports cars (including drives for the Peugeot factory team), so it’s not like he was totally out of his depth in CART.

    2002 was Kenny Brack’s single season running for Chip (6th in CART points) before he was given the hook, followed by the aforementioned 2003 season for Scheckter (7th in points), followed by the aforementioned season and a half for Manning (finishing one position behind Dixon in the points in 2004 with one less start, 8 top-10s to Dixon’s 10 top-10s, then four straight top-10s to start 2005 before getting shown out six races later for Jacques Lazier). 2006 was the start of some stability for the team with Dixon and Wheldon.

    Really, I started out a HUGE Ganassi fan back in 1995 (Vasser and Herta ranked among my top-5 or 10 favorite drivers worldwide at the time), but I got really, really tired of Ganassi firing drivers after a handful of starts, then firing the next guy after a few more starts. I guess you can’t really argue too much with the results (a bunch of 500 and championship wins, about a zillion races wins), but I can’t say that it’s the way I’d go about my business.

    • Savage Henry Says:

      Seconded here. I was thinking the same thing but without all those great stats.

      Also, can you count The Gasman as a Penske success? I thought The Captain fired him after a couple years of tearing up equipment and then he found his success after that.

      • Savage Henry Says:

        Ok, Gasman comment withdrawn. I just checked his record over those years and he did just fine, at least at Indy, with 2 poles and 2 2nd place finishes. Apologies Messers Sneva, Penske, and Phillips.

        • billytheskink Says:

          Not to mention Sneva’s 10 total poles, 3 race victories, and 2 national championships (1977 and 1978) in his 3 years with Penske.

    • I remember every one of these Ganassi drivers except Brack. He was with Rahal in CART then back to the IRL with Rahal, but Ganassi? I looked it up and you are totally correct, but man the number of guys that shuffled through the Ganassi cars around that time.

  7. George, this is the kind of article I enjoy most of yours. These were great times as a fan and I watched those changes closely. I enjoy getting refreshed on all the little things I have forgotten or never knew. It’s like Donald Davidson talking about stuff I actually remember and got to watch.

  8. TheAngryDwarf Says:

    Looks like the .1rl and the Leeeeeeeeeeeeege have broughten themselves another “legend” to try and fixer the day. At the end of it all it’s still going to be .1rl ratings with flying death wagons and pieces on the ground. FTG. Bunch of fat hillbilly Hoosier place fans.

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