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.