Swapping With The Enemy
What if your favorite football team swapped jerseys with their arch rivals? Imagine if the Green Bay Packer players were suddenly playing for the Chicago Bears and that Bear players were donning the green jerseys of the Packers. Would you root for the players or the jerseys?
Some younger fans of the Indianapolis Colts probably don’t realize a bit of trivia; that their franchise went through a type of swap of their own, while it was still in Baltimore. The players didn’t swap, but the organizations did.
In 1972, the Los Angeles Rams were in the process of being bought by a group led by Robert Irsay. Part of the deal was that once the deal went through, they would then trade the Rams to Baltimore Colts owner Carrol Rosenbloom – who had gotten fed up with stadium problems and political issues within the City of Baltimore. Twelve years later, Irsay would move the Colts to Indianapolis. In the meantime, Rosenbloom drowned in 1979. Majority ownership went to his second wife, Georgia Frontiere, who later moved the team to St. Louis in 1995. Imagine the fates of the four cities involved, had that historic swap never taken place, but I digress…
No team swaps have taken place in IndyCar – at least, none that I’m aware of. But Chip Ganassi Racing is going to have an almost completely new look and personality for 2014. For years, this fan of Team Penske has considered the Target cars to be representative of The Evil Empire. While I consider Alex Zanardi to be one of the finest humans on earth, I grew a strong dislike for him in the late nineties when he was racking up wins at the expense of Team Penske drivers Al Unser, Jr., Paul Tracy and André Ribeiro. Zanardi was definitely the enemy.
Over time, it became almost impossible for me to cheer for anyone driving a Target car. If they were winning, which was quite often, it meant that my team was not. Zanardi, or Jimmy Vasser, it didn’t matter. They were winning and my guys weren’t. Scott Dixon was very likeable when he came over to Ganassi’s team after his Pac-West team folded mid-season in 2002. That is, he was likeable until he won the 2003 IndyCar championship. He barely beat out Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves, who both happened to drive for my team – Team Penske. Chalk him up as another enemy.
No Target driver was easier to hate than Juan Montoya. He represented everything that was evil about Target Chip Ganassi Racing. He was young and brash, a menace on the track, and he won a lot – again at the expense of drivers I was pulling for. The tie-breaker to determine the 1999 season was agonizing. My guy was Dario Franchitti, who earned 212 points – the same as Montoya. Franchitti had three wins compared to seven for Montoya. The nod went to Montoya for the championship. My hatred for Montoya as the enemy, grew even more.
Fast forward ten years later to 2009. Franchitti is now driving a Target car, while Team Penske is gunning for its second IndyCar Series championship with driver Ryan Briscoe. Briscoe is who I’m pulling for, and Franchitti is the enemy. He had silenced his critics a year earlier by winning three races, including the non-points paying race at Surfer’s Paradise, in the second half of the season while under fire to perform in his first year in a Penske car.
Briscoe won the first race of the 2009 season and led the points for most of the year. While leading the points in the next-to-last race at Motegi – Briscoe had a self-inflicted shunt leaving the pits. He finished eighteenth in the race, setting up a three car showdown for the championship – between Briscoe, Dixon and Franchitti. Briscoe finished second in the race, behind Franchitti who also walked away with his second championship – but the first of three consecutive championships he would win in the dreaded Target car. Now, Franchitti was the enemy.
When Dixon won his second and third championships, while driving a Target car in 2008 and 2013 – it was hard to pull against him. Unlike Montoya, he wasn’t brash – yet he spoke his mind. He was refreshing by not spouting the corporate lines in every interview. Still, for every one of his three championships, his nearest competitor was Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves – one of my all-time favorites. Dixon was someone who I liked and respected, but he was still the enemy, nonetheless.
Suddenly, for 2014 – things have a whole new look. The Target cars from Chip Ganassi’s stable will still make me wince at first glance; but I’ll find myself in the strange position of cheering for them, while cheering against a Penske, for the first time in quite a while.
Juan Montoya makes his return to IndyCar since the 2000 season, when he won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He will be driving the same Team Penske car that Ryan Briscoe vacated after the 2012 season. I’m not sure who will be sponsoring the car, but chances are – it’ll look similar to the way it and other Penske cars have looked since 2010.
Meanwhile, another all-time favorite – Tony Kanaan – will officially drive the No.10 Target car that Dario Franchitti drove. The car that I pulled against so many times will now have one of my favorite drivers in it – probably in the exact livery that I have grown to loathe. It makes it all very confusing.
To add to the confusion, Ryan Briscoe will now be driving another Ganassi car – the No.8 NTT Data car that had originally been slated for Kanaan, before Franchitti announced his retirement. When you also consider that the other two cars in the Ganassi camp will be driven by Dixon and very likeable up-and-comer Charlie Kimball – suddenly, there isn’t much to hate at Chip Ganassi Racing.
Oh, Chip Ganassi is still his bombastic self. But even he is more comical than really unlikeable. I think he actually enjoys the role of a villain and sometimes fuels that fire on purpose. Roger Penske, on the other hand, does not embrace the villain role. He never found the humor in Paul Tracy’s antics and I doubt that he will enjoy some of the behavior that Montoya has displayed in the past. It will be interesting to see how these two strong personalities mesh in the coming season. As vocal and opinionated as Montoya seems to be, my money is on Roger Penske having the final word.
So next season will be very confusing to me. I’ll still pull for Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Tim Cindric and Roger Penske. But for once, I might smile when I see a Penske car stumble, if Montoya struggles in the pits. On the other hand, with the new faces at Chip Ganassi Racing and the likeable remaining ones – I may find myself in the odd position of cheering for a Ganassi-owned car, especially a red Target car, to beat a Penske-owned car.
Swapping with the enemy will cause some strange times, indeed.