History of CGRT
(CONTINUED) Thus was formed one of the most celebrated partnerships in the annals of racing. Vasser and Zanardi quickly became fast friends, literally. After winning four of the season’s first six races, Vasser went on to capture the 1996 CART PPG Indy Car World Series – TCGR’s first title. Meanwhile, Zanardi blossomed into a winner and consummate showman, punctuating each of his three triumphs with tire-smoking “victory doughnuts” in front of the roaring crowds. Zanardi even managed to upstage Vasser’s championship-clinching fourth place finish in the season finale at Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway – bounding through the California countryside before re-emerging ahead of erstwhile leader Bryan Herta on the final lap to put an exclamation point on a Rookie of the Year season.
From that point forward, there was no stopping TCGR. The Italian force of nature stormed to consecutive CART titles on the strength of 15 wins in two seasons with Vasser adding four more victories for good measure. And when Zanardi succumbed to the lure of Formula One, the team didn’t miss a beat, hiring Formula 3000 front runner Juan Pablo Montoya in his stead. The jockey-sized Columbian with the Herculean talents drove to the winner’s circle in just his third start and added six more victories to claim the ’99 CART title, the team’s fourth consecutive championship.
Complacency has never been a word in Chip Ganassi’s vocabulary. Acutely aware of the pitfalls of standing pat, he again rocked the racing world by switching from Honda to Toyota-power, exchanging the dominant engine maker of the era for one that had yet to win a race. While he was at it, Ganassi doubled-down on the technical front by switching from Reynard to Lola chassis for Y2K.
Nor was he finished making waves . . .
Like many Indy car team owners, Ganassi had been frustrated by a schism between CART and the nascent Indy Racing League that had effectively prevented his team from competing in the Indianapolis 500 since 1995. So even as TCGR prepared to pursue a fifth straight CART title with a new technical package, Ganassi formed a parallel Indianapolis 500 program with a pair of Aurora-powered G-Forces for Montoya and Vasser.
If the switch to Lola-Toyota was a bridge too far in CART (Montoya and Vasser brought Toyota its first four wins but reliability issues blunted their title bids), the team’s return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was an unqualified success. After narrowly missing the pole position, Montoya led 167 of 200 laps to stamp his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy, bringing the team its first Indianapolis 500 win and Ganassi his second as a team owner.
The following seasons produced still more changes. Montoya and Vasser both parted company with TCGR to be replaced by Bruno Junqueira, Nicolas Minassian and, later, Kenny Brack even as the organization expanded what had been an Indianapolis 500-only program to a full Indy Racing League season featuring ex-motocross champion Jeff Ward as its driver.
Nor were the changes limited to Indy cars. Diversifying with a capital “D,” Chip Ganassi purchased the majority interest in NASCAR’s Team Sabco from owner Felix Sabates and formed a two-car team, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates (CGRFS), to compete in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS).
While hardly a return to the halcyon days of Vasser-Zanardi-Montoya, the next few seasons laid the foundations for many of the organization’s coming achievements. Sterling Marlin drove his Coors-sponsored Dodge to victories at Michigan and Charlotte in CGRFS’ first season of NASCAR operation, then led the NSCS point race for 22 weeks in 2002 before suffering a season-ending injury in a crash at Kansas Speedway – with a young Jamie McMurray scoring his first NSCS win in relief of his sidelined teammate. By that point, Target had entered the NASCAR fray emblazoned on the side of the CGRFS Dodge piloted by Jimmy Spencer.
On the Indy car front, both Junqueira and Brack won in CART and Ward scored the team’s first “regular” IRL win at Texas World Speedway and – amid all the drama on the NASCAR, CART and IRL fronts – the organization added a third CART entry at mid-season when a promising young New Zealander became available, a fellow named Scott Dixon . . .
Change was coming at a dizzying pace. First CGRFS added a third Dodge entry for Casey Mears in NSCS competition. Then, keenly aware the winds of change were blowing in Indy car racing, Ganassi and Toyota shifted their focus from CART to IRL for 2003. What to do with the resources formerly directed to CART? Ganassi and Sabates announced plans to enter the 2004 GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series with drivers Scott Pruett and Max Papis, at the helm of a CompUSA-sponsored Riley Daytona Prototype.
But first there was the little matter of 2003, a year that saw Target Chip Ganassi Racing triumphantly segue into IRL competition with Dixon scoring three wins en route to the series championship even as McMurray earned NSCS Rookie of the Year honors – joining Cheever, Zanardi and Montoya as the Ganassi drivers to be named a series’ top rookie.
Operating in so many different arenas, Ganassi effectively guaranteed a weekend seldom passed without a major success. Although Dixon and teammates Ryan Briscoe and Darren Manning did not figure in the IRL championship reckoning the next few seasons, McMurray earned the team’s first win in NASCAR Nationwide Series (NNS) competition while Mears, Reed Sorenson and, later, Scott Lagasse added several ARCA wins to the record. As for the new sports car program, Pruett and Papis stormed to the 2004 GRAND-AM title before the team captured its first Rolex 24 At Daytona triumph the following January.
A switch to Dallara chassis and a return to Honda power on the Indy car front – coupled with the addition of defending series champion Dan Wheldon to the team – produced a return to form in 2006 with Wheldon and Dixon scoring two wins apiece. And speaking of returns, Ganassi pulled another shocker with his mid-season announcement that Montoya was returning to the organization – to spearhead the NASCAR program.
As usual, Montoya wasted little time producing the desired results, as he drove to his first NSCS victory at Sonoma in the middle of a 2007 that had already seen him join Pruett and Salvador Duran in taking the team’s second straight Rolex 24 At Daytona victory, this time in a TELMEX-sponsored Riley. Although Pruett went on to become GRAND-AM’s winningest driver later that summer (and was destined to bring that total to a mind-numbing 39 wins in the coming seasons), Dixon was robbed of a second IRL title when he ran out of fuel on the final turn of the final lap of the season finale.
Ironically, the man who edged Dixon for the title – Dario Franchitti – opened the ’08 campaign driving for Ganassi. Seldom one to go the conventional route, however, Ganassi hired Franchitti to join Montoya in NASCAR while Dixon and Wheldon continued carrying the TCGR standard in the IRL and Pruett teamed with Memo Rojas in GRAND-AM.
Franchitti got his association with Ganassi off to a torrid start, partnering with Pruett, Rojas and Montoya to win the team’s third Rolex 24 At Daytona to kick-off a season that would produce five more wins and a third GRAND-AM title and also see Dixon capture the team’s second Indianapolis 500 win en route to the INDYCAR title – his second and the team’s sixth.
And while Franchitti’s NASCAR experiment did not work as hoped, he seamlessly segued into the TCGR Indy car program for the ’09 season even as the NASCAR program made another dramatic move when CGRFS joined forces with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. to form Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates (EGR) and switched to Chevrolet in the NSCS.
Given the drivers’ reserved personalities, the Franchitti and Dixon Show was never going to match the rollicking bravura of Zanardi & Vasser. But Franchitti and Dixon were destined to be as formidable a pairing as TCGR – or any race team for that matter – has ever enjoyed. They teamed for five wins apiece in ’09 en route to a one-two finish in the INDYCAR points and Franchitti’s second title even as Montoya claimed the organization’s first spot in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
What to do for an encore? Unleash a 2010 season that rivals any in motorsports history. McMurray got the ball rolling by scoring a dramatic victory in the Daytona 500, EGR’s first NSCS win. Not to be outdone, Franchitti drove to victory in the Indianapolis 500 (his second and TCGR’s third) only for McMurray to cement the season’s place in history with a win in the Brickyard 400, making the Ganassi organization the first to win the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in a single season.
Things were just getting started. Montoya drove the EGR Chevrolet to victory at Watkins Glen, bringing Target its first NSCS win. Meanwhile, having switched to BMW power for the ’10 season, CGRFS saw Pruett and Rojas reel-off a GRAND-AM record nine wins in a dozen starts to claim a fourth title. And on Oct. 16 the organization scored yet another “double” when McMurray won at Charlotte hours before Franchitti captured the INDYCAR finale at Homestead to clinch the team’s eighth I title. All told, the most successful season in team history produced two titles (INDYCAR and GRAND-AM), victory in the Daytona 500, two wins at Indianapolis (the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400) and a total of 19 wins in Indy cars, stock cars and sports cars . . . in a single season. Small wonder December found Chip Ganassi in London proudly accepting the John Bolster Lifetime Achievement Award at the Autosport Awards banquet.
Never an organization to rest on its laurels, Chip Ganassi Racing Teams picked-up where it left off a month later when Pruett and Rojas teamed with Joey Hand and Graham Rahal to win the team’s fourth Rolex 24 At Daytona (creating what became known as the “Chip-slam” for winning America’s four premier races – the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, Brickyard 400 and Rolex 24 At Daytona – in a 12-month period). It was an auspicious start to a campaign that saw the organization add a sister two car effort for Rahal and Charlie Kimball to its INDYCARlineup, even as Franchitti and Dixon combined for half a dozen wins and the Scotsman racked-up his third straight INDYCAR title for TCGR – the first driver to score a three-fer in the team’s illustrious history. Meanwhile, the sports car beat continued with Pruett and Rojas claiming five wins and a fifth GRAND-AM championship.
2012 marked a new Indy car era with the debut of the Dallara DW12 chassis and what proved a challenging season for TCGR. However, “challenging” is not a euphemism for “disappointing,” not when Franchitti won his third Indianapolis 500 (and the team’s fourth) and Dixon added a pair of victories to the score; nor when Pruett and Rojas scored a pair of wins en route to their third straight GRAND-AM title, sixth overall. On the other hand, the team finished out of the running in the INDYCAR title picture and went winless in NASCAR competition.
Matters got off to a better start in 2013 as Pruett, Rojas, Montoya and Kimball combined to win the team’s fifth Rolex 24 At Daytona, only for Franchitti, Dixon and Kimball to struggle in the early part of the Indy Car season, mirroring the difficulties experienced by Montoya and McMurray in NASCAR. However a mid-season test session resulted in a dramatic INDYCAR turn-around, one that produced a one-two-three finish for Dixon, Kimball and Franchitti at Pocono followed in rapid succession by a pair of wins for Dixon in the Toronto double-header weekend and a popular maiden win for Kimball at Mid-Ohio. Nevertheless, the team had to overcome a roller-coaster couple of months – including a terrifying crash at Houston that left Franchitti with a concussion, fractured ankle and spinal injuries -- before Dixon clinched his third INDYCAR title in the season finale at Auto Club Speedway.
Meanwhile, Pruett and Rojas enjoyed a more serene if no less challenging season, parlaying a pair of wins and a series of top five finishes to cap a GRAND-AM Grand Slam – their fourth consecutive title and seventh overall -- before McMurray closed the year on a winning note, capturing the penultimate NSCS race of the season at Talladega Superspeedway.
Along with success, change has long been a constant at Chip Ganassi Racing Teams. That change took many forms before the start of the 2014 campaigns. On the advice of his doctors, Franchitti announced his retirement in November, bringing the curtain down on an illustrious career that includes four INDYCAR titles three Indianapolis 500 wins and a Rolex 24 At Daytona victory. But as Ganassi would be the first to tell you, when one door closes another opens. Thus Franchitti will transition into an advisory roll with a team TBD that, in addition to Dixon and Kimball, added Tony Kanaan and Ryan Briscoe to its INDYCAR lineup for 2014 even as TCGR switched from Honda to Chevrolet power.
More changes were in the offing on the NASCAR front as Ganassi and Montoya parted ways after a remarkable partnership that produced an INDYCAR title, 11 Indy car wins (including the Indianapolis 500), a NNS and two NSCS wins. His replacement is promising young Kyle Larson, who will take over the No. 42 Target Chevrolet while McMurray continues in their No. 1 McDonald’s/Cessna entry.
And last but hardly least, in a year when the rival GRAND-AM and American Le Mans Series merge to form the Tudor United SportsCar Championship, TELMEX Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates makes the switch from BMW to Ford power as Pruett and Rojas make a bid for an unprecedented fifth straight title.
By any measure, Chip Ganassi Racing Team’s first 24 seasons have produced a host of remarkable achievements including 17 major championships, four Indianapolis 500 wins, five wins in the Rolex 24 At Daytona and wins in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400, to say nothing of a monumentally successful 2010 season, the likes of which may well never be duplicated. But while it is altogether fitting to pause and reflect on those achievements, every member of the organization is keenly aware the most important race in the team’s history is the next one . . . as always.