The End Of An Era
If there is one constant in the world of racing, it is change. For someone like me that lives by the credo of “Change is Bad”, that can be a tough pill to swallow at times. But change is inevitable, especially when you are talking about sponsorship.
Last week, IndyCar fans learned of a big change that is coming for next year. For the first time since the 1989 season, there will not be a Target-sponsored car on the grid when the cars line up in St. Petersburg (or wherever) to start the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
When Chip Ganassi parted ways with Pat Patrick for the 1990 season, he took over the original Patrick Racing and rebranded it as Target Chip Ganassi Racing, with Formula One veteran Eddie Cheever at the wheel of a white Penske chassis with a red target surrounding the center, making for an odd looking livery, to say the least.
By the next season, Cheever was driving a Lola in the more familiar red Target livery, with co-sponsorship from Scotch Video. For 1992, Ganassi switched to the Ford-Cosworth engine and expanded to two Target cars for the two 500-mile races at Indianapolis and Michigan, with Arie Luyendyk piloting the second car. By 1993, Cheever was out and Luyendyk drove the full season for Ganassi. It was not a match made in heaven and after one season, Luyendyk was out.
Michael Andretti had made an ill-fated attempt at Formula One in 1993 for McLaren, that didn’t turn out so well. In fact, he was released with three races remaining. With Nigel Mansell ensconced in his old seat at Newman/Haas, Michael needed a place to land for 1994. Ganassi already had the coveted Ford-Cosworth and had just signed to bring the new but promising Reynard chassis to CART. Michael Andretti took the Reynard to victory in his first race back in CART at Surfer’s Paradise – giving Chip Ganassi his first victory as a sole owner and Target their first victory as a sponsor. Michael gave Target Chip Ganassi another win later that season at Toronto before returning to his old seat at Newman/Haas, after Mansell returned to F1 and his famous father, Mario Andretti, retired at the end of the 1994 season.
Bryan Herta had shown great promise as a young driver in 1994, driving for AJ Foyt; that is until he broke his pelvis in a frightening practice crash at Toronto. Cheever had signed with Foyt, so Ganassi picked up Herta for the 1995 season. Also around this time, Jimmy Vasser was suddenly available after his Jim Hayhoe Racing announced they were folding just before the start of the season. Ganassi brought Vasser and his STP sponsorship into the fold and formed a full-time two-car team for the first time.
Vasser way outperformed Herta throughout the 1995 campaign and Herta was gone after one season. Vasser’s unexpected presence on the team in 1995 ended up setting the stage for a six-season run with Vasser at Ganassi. Jimmy Vasser gave Chip Ganassi and Target their first championship in 1996.
By this time, Target Chip Ganassi Racing had the much sought-after Reynard/Honda-Firestone package with Vasser and Alex Zanardi as their drivers. For as much as the team lacked chemistry with so many previous drivers, the Zanardi/Vasser combination at Ganassi was golden. From 1996 through the 1998 season, the pairing produced three straight championships and a lot of funny Target commercials.
Zanardi left for the greener pastures of Formula One, so Ganassi hired a young rookie that few had heard of – Columbian Juan Montoya – to drive the No.4 Target car alongside Jimmy Vasser in the No.12. Montoya won the championship as a rookie and the following year, dominated the 2000 Indianapolis 500 in the team’s return to the May classic since “The Split”.
After the 2000 season, Montoya left to pursue his Formula One dreams while Vasser and Ganassi parted ways. This was the beginning of a slight downturn for the Target team that won four straight championships in the late nineties.
Bruno Junqueira was an obscure choice for one of the vacant Target seats, but not near as curious a choice as was Nick Minassian. Junqueira won a race for Ganassi that season and went on to have a respectable American open-wheel career. Minassian wasn’t as fortunate. He stumbled through six races before Ganassi decided he had seen enough. Minassian was fired in favor of Memo Gidley, who finished out the 2001 season.
For 2002, Junqueira was retained and paired alongside Kenny Bräck in two Target cars, in another pairing that sounded great on paper, but didn’t work out so well in actuality. Like Vasser a few years earlier, fate stepped in when Pac West Racing suddenly ceased operations – leaving their promising young driver, Scott Dixon, on the sidelines. Three races into the 2002 season, Dixon was suddenly a third Ganassi driver in Target colors and the rest is history. Scott Dixon did not win a race for Ganassi in 2002, but he did have three top-five finishes, setting the stage for what was to come.
In 2003, many teams migrated from CART to the IndyCar series. Target Chip Ganassi was one of them. Scott Dixon was suddenly the lead driver for Ganassi, paired with the temperamental Tomas Scheckter. Dixon did not disappoint. He won the championship that season while Scheckter finished seventh.
Then Target Chip Ganassi hit another low point in 2004. Ganassi was running the Toyota engine, which had been rendered inept by Honda. They were also running the g-Force/Panoz chassis, which had fallen out of favor by most teams. Dixon did well to finish tenth in the standing; while his new teammate, Darren Manning, finished eleventh.
2005 was even worse for the Target cars. Ganassi had expanded to a three-car team by adding Ryan Briscoe to the mix, but the Panoz/Toyota package remained the same. Dixon finished thirteenth in the championship standings, Manning was fired midway through the season and Briscoe was injured in a horrifying crash with three races to go in the season.
Seeking a turnaround in 2006, Ganassi acquired the favored Dallara chassis and the services of defending champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, Dan Wheldon. Wheldon drove three seasons at Ganassi in the Target car, winning a total of six races. His first season, he lost a tie-breaker for the championship to Sam Hornish. The following two seasons, Wheldon finished fourth while winning two races each season. The results with Wheldon were good, but I always had the feeling that Wheldon just didn’t click at Ganassi, although he and teammate Scott Dixon got along great. By the end of the 2008 season, Ganassi and Wheldon parted ways.
It was also in 2008 that Scott Dixon won the Indianapolis 500, putting Target back in Victory Lane at IMS for the first time since Montoya won in 2000. Dixon also won his second championship while driving for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
Wheldon’s departure set the stage for Dario Franchitti to return to IndyCar after a brief stint driving for Ganassi in NASCAR in 2008. For 2009, the two Target cars featured the last two IndyCar champions as well as the two previous Indianapolis 500 winners in Dixon and Franchitti. While the two Target cars placed sixth and seventh respectively in that year’s Indianapolis 500, Franchitti won the championship and Dixon finished second. It was the first of three straight IndyCar championships that Franchitti won for Target. Franchitti also won the 2010 and 2012 Indianapolis 500 for Target.
While Dario Franchitti’s driving career came to an abrupt halt following a scary crash at Houston in 2013, Scott Dixon went on to win the IndyCar championship for Target that season and added a fourth championship to his resume last year, while driving the Target car.
Two satellite teams were added to the Ganassi stable in 2011, with Charlie Kimball and Graham Rahal. What is significant is that these cars were supposed to remain separate and with no help from Target. Eventually they became more merged with the two Target cars, but never shared sponsorships.
Prior to Franchitti’s career-ending 2013 crash, reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan signed to drive the No.8 car with sponsorship from NTT Data. When Franchitti announced his retirement from racing, Kanaan was moved into the No.10 Target car for 2014 and Ryan Briscoe drove the No.8 NTT Data car.
In 2014, the Target Corporation was reeling from a massive debit/credit card security breach that occurred in December of 2013, along with the failure of Target’s expansion into Canada. The result was the forced resignation of longtime CEO and Chip Ganassi friend, Gregg Steinhafel on May 5, 2014. He was replaced by current CEO Brian Cornell, who had no relationship with Ganassi and no appreciation for open-wheel racing.
Close observers predicted that this would be the beginning of the end for Target at Chip Ganassi Racing. Fuel was added to that fire when Target announced they would be reducing their sponsorship to the No.9 car of Scott Dixon only, meaning that NTT Data would be moving to Tony Kanaan as had been originally planned. The team functioned this way for the past two seasons, but confirmation came last week that Target would leave IndyCar altogether at the end of this season, but would remain with Ganassi in NASCAR.
Nothing lasts forever. I get that. I never thought I would see the day when the famous Marlboro livery would not grace a single car in the paddock, but it happened – albeit for totally different reasons than what happened with Target.
But I don’t buy the spin that says that this is not an indictment on the business climate in IndyCar. Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t, but it certainly gives that perception and these ripples will be felt across the board when other sponsorships are being considered at this time of year.
Target was a mainstream brand. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in North America who did not know exactly who Target was and what they did. Along with Verizon and Steak ‘n Shake, Target was one of the very few primary sponsors in the series that you could say that about. Even with the other three Ganassi cars, not many people could explain what NTT Data, Tresiba and Gallagher do.
Some don’t think it’s important for cars to have recognizable sponsors, but I do. I think that’s one reason why NASCAR has been so successful. Fans can get behind sponsors like Budweiser, Mountain Dew, Mobil-1 and NAPA. Even if IndyCar fans want to, it’s hard to be able to directly support a sponsor like PPG, Mi-Jack and Arrow. I think that when name-brand sponsors look at a series, they want to see other sponsors of their caliber in the same arena. If Budweiser is there, Miller will feel as if they need to be there. Same with Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Not to sound ungrateful to those that do sponsor cars, but if Hydroxycut and Jonathan Byrd are some of the full-time primary sponsors – it doesn’t make many major corporations feel like they are missing out by not being primary sponsors in IndyCar.
Marlboro last appeared on an IndyCar sidepod in 2005. The famous Marlboro chevron disappeared altogether after the 2009 season. Now, it’s the end of an era with Target. Some are upset with them that they are leaving. I’m glad they hung around for twenty-seven years. Thanks, Target.