Developing A Whole New Mindset
With everything that went on last week with the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston and the aftermath of Dario Franchitti’s accident – I haven’t even had a chance to mention Tony Kanaan’s signing at Chip Ganassi Racing.
This is so good for Tony Kanaan and the IndyCar Series. The former series champion, defending Indianapolis 500 champion and all-around crowd favorite had flirted with the idea of running stock cars either in NASCAR or what I considered most likely – his home country of Brazil. Now the series gets to have one of its most popular drivers and the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion back for a few more years. This also gives Kanaan the opportunity to race until he no longer wants to and to go out on his terms – not because he could find no sponsorship. It’s a win-win for Kanaan and the series.
Selfishly, it will take some getting used to on my part. In football terms, it’s sort of like seeing Peyton Manning traded to the Patriots and still pulling for him. It’s going to be a whole new mindset for me.
I remember when Chip Ganassi first became a primary car-owner in 1990. He had been a co-owner with Pat Patrick in the late eighties. Patrick was to retire at season’s end and sell the team to Ganassi. But Patrick changed his mind about leaving racing, sold the team to Ganassi and started another team with Alfa-Romeo.
Target was Ganassi’s primary sponsor with a garish paint job that was white with a red bulls-eye where the driver’s cockpit is, with the surrounding outer circles on the sidepods. It was not a good look, but Eddie Cheever drove the year-old Penske chassis to a ninth place finish in the CART standings – not too shabby for a semi-new team.
For 1992, Ganassi became one of only two teams to run the new Ford-Cosworth XB, with Newman/Haas being the other. It was much more powerful than the Ilmor Chevrolet that had become the gold standard for the past few seasons. The new Ford was much smaller than the Chevy – so much so, that Lola designed a much more streamlined rear cowling for the Ford to take full advantage of the much smaller size; while the Lola Chevy cowling was still rather bulky and bulbous.
By 1993, Ganassi parted ways with Cheever in favor of Arie Luyendyk, who had driven for the team in a second Target-Scotch Video car at Indianapolis and Michigan the year before. That pairing barely lasted the season. When Michael Andretti returned from his unsuccessful venture with McLaren in Formula One, he signed with Ganassi to drive the only Reynard chassis in the field in the debut season for the chassis. In their first race together, Andretti gave Ganassi his first win ever. That’ll win you a beer in a trivia contest somewhere.
For 1995, Andretti moved back to Newman/Haas to replace his famous father, who had just retired. Ganassi hired Bryan Herta to drive what was to be a single entry – the No.4 Target-Scotch Video Reynard-Ford. Then, just before the start of the season, Jim Hayhoe decided to close the doors at his race shop. His driver, Jimmy Vasser, and sponsor STP moved over to a second car at Ganassi – the No. 12 Target/STP car.
By this time, Chip Ganassi was coming across as a brash upstart owner that went through a lot of drivers, changed equipment on almost a yearly basis and had little to show for it except for a couple of wins with Michael Andretti. He had brought in Joe Montana as a co-owner, who disappeared in less than one season. He seemed to be all blow and no go.
And then came 1996. Ganassi had jettisoned Herta in favor of Formula One refugee Alessandro Zanardi, but decided to keep Vasser. It was a wise move. While Zanardi, who Americanized his name to Alex, learned all the new tracks – Vasser was taking advantage of another equipment swap by his boss. This time, the move was to keep the Reynard chassis, but switch to Honda power and Firestone tires. This was the magic combination for years to come. Vasser won the 1996 CART championship – the first of many championships for Ganassi. Zanardi followed suit in 1997 and 1998 before moving back to Formula One. Then brash newcomer Juan Montoya won the championship as a rookie in 1999.
Suddenly, the Target cars were unbeatable. For four years, they dominated the CART circuit. Target Chip Ganassi Racing was on top, while Newman/Haas and Marlboro Team Penske were sliding backwards. The same guy who was so cocky and arrogant at the beginning of the nineties, backed up his words with four straight championships at the end of the decade.
It didn’t last. The next decade began with Ganassi switching back to Lola and to Toyota power, while Penske abandoned his own chassis, Mercedes power and Goodyear tires for the combination that Ganassi had given up. The result was two straight CART championships for Penske before they moved full-time over to the IRL side.
Chip Ganassi was still running through a slew of drivers in CART. Nicholas Minassian, Bruno Junqueira, Memo Gidley, Kenny Bräck and Scott Dixon all passed through Ganassi’s revolving door at CART between 2001 and 2002. In the meantime, Jeff Ward was running the full IRL schedule for Ganassi. When Ganassi decided to jump ship from CART and join the newly re-named IndyCar Series for the 2003 season, he brought Scott Dixon over to pair with Tomas Scheckter. Dixon won the championship that year driving a G-Force chassis with Toyota power.
This was not the start of another run for Ganassi, however. The Toyota engine was woefully outclassed by Honda in 2004 & 2005 and they were gone by 2006. Once Ganassi had Honda power again, they started winning again. But no championships came their way until 2008, when Scott Dixon won it again. While Dixon was, by this time, a mainstay at Ganassi in the No.9 Target car, the No.10 was still a revolving door. Tomas Schecker, Darren Manning and Dan Wheldon all took their turn in the No.10; while Ryan Briscoe had a stint in a third No.33 Target car in 2005. It wasn’t until Dario Franchitti took over the second car for 2009, that the No.10 team was stabilized. Target Chip Ganassi won four more championships from 2008 to 2011. Dixon won in 2008, while Franchitti won from 2009-11.
During this time, it was very hard for a lifelong fan of Team Penske to like anything about Target Chip Ganassi Racing. I saw Helio Castroneves lose the 2008 championship to Scott Dixon. I watched as Ryan Briscoe let a championship slip through his fingers in 2009 to Dario Franchitti. I grimaced while Will Power found ways to lose two championships to Franchitti in 2010 and 2011.
To a Penske fan, Target Chip Ganassi Racing was "the evil empire". They dominated races early and often. Just when you thought someone else had found a way to win a race, they would manage to steal another win. They were the Pittsburgh Steelers of the seventies or the New York Yankees of the late nineties. Their constant winning and smug arrogance made it very easy to dislike them – no matter how much you respected Dixon and Dario as drivers.
It was in 2011 that Ganassi expanded to a four-car team, with Graham Rahal and the likeable, but inexperienced Charlie Kimball joining forces with the two Target cars. They operated as two separate teams, much to the chagrin of Graham Rahal, who left after two seasons. After Rahal left, Charlie Kimball blossomed. Although he was related to the evil empire of Ganassi, the fact that his car looked different made it easier to pull for him. His resurgence continued throughout this season, culminating with his victory at Mid-Ohio in August.
Again, the championship battle has come down to Penske and Ganassi. As in years past – I am now expecting to see a Ganassi driver hoisting the Astor Challenge Trophy after the Fontana race next week. For a Penske fan, it is a sight that has become way too familiar.
So when Tony Kanaan steps into the cockpit of the (hopefully) No.11 NTT Data car with Chevy power next season, I am going to have to really change my mindset. Knowing that he is driving for the evil empire, it’s going to take all of my mental energy to overlook the fact that he is now driving a Ganassi car and still pull for him like I’ve always done.
Hopefully, you recognize that I am typing with tongue firmly implanted in cheek. Although I cheer for the other side, I recognize the greatness that Chip Ganassi brings to his teams and the IndyCar Series. This series is very fortunate to have him. And I am very grateful that he chose one of my favorites, Tony Kanaan, to drive his fourth car for 2014. I just have to change my mindset.