Team owner Chip Ganassi finds comfort in victory lane
Nate Ryan, USA Today
Chip Ganassi claims he's no philosopher. But when prodded, the multifaceted team owner can wax poetic about his life's work.
"Racing every year is like getting a puzzle in a can," Ganassi says. "You dump it out and find out who can put it together the fastest and the best. You've got a giant can and puzzle for the year, and each week you get cans with little puzzles."
All the pieces fit for the Pittsburgh native this year, regardless of the racing series. His teams won championships in the Izod IndyCar (with Dario Franchitti) and Grand-Am Rolex (Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas) series, and all six of his drivers reached victory lane, combining for a team-record 19 wins (five more than the previous best) across NASCAR, Grand-Am and IndyCar.
In his crowning achievement Ganassi became the first car owner to field winners in the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and Indianapolis 500, and he turned the triple in the same season.
"I'm lucky," said Ganassi, whose Cup team joined Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing as the only organizations with multiple winners this year. "It's just another record for someone to go after and break. That's all it is. And I hope somebody does it someday. Just not too soon."
Over a 90-minute breakfast with USA TODAY last week near his vacation home in Scottsdale, Ariz., Ganassi discussed his historic season, the accompanying vindication and the importance of automakers in auto racing:
What will you treasure most about this season?
Everybody wants to talk about how we won the Daytona 500, the Indy 500, the Brickyard 400. The sports car championship, IndyCar championship. What's most gratifying to me, and you're going to think I'm nuts, is that every one of our drivers won races. You've got all your different personalities and cars and people. Yet somehow, every one of our guys found victory lane. That's the best barometer of success for me. Granted, if we did all that and didn't win the Daytona 500, Indy 500 and Brickyard 400, it wouldn't have been as great a year. You wouldn't dare dream about the kind of year we've had. I sit there and look at how many great teams and drivers in the Chase that barely have been mentioned all year. The last time they got a mention is when they got in the Chase. I'd much rather have the races we won. I'm not bad-mouthing NASCAR or the Chase, but I'll take the Daytona 500 win any day over not winning the Chase. It's also rewarding to get the monkey off our back about, 'You guys should be winning in NASCAR like you do in all these other series.'
So there's vindication, too, about matching some of your past success in IndyCar?
I'd be lying if I didn't say there's a little bit of that. I've taken my shots pretty well from the media — some fair, some unfair — and kept my focus on what was important for the team and my business and partners. But at the end of the day, this sport should always be about winning and being at the front and passing cars. It's called racing. It's not Little League where everybody gets a trophy. I always remember a great bumper sticker inside the transporter of the team I drove for that said, "This is no dress rehearsal. We are professionals, and this is the big time." I always thought that was a great line.
The hardest thing in this business is to stay on your plan. The easiest thing to do is to change your plan. It's hard when you're not winning to stay on plan. I've had my naysayers. Drivers and people on my team that have left. So yeah, it's a little bit of vindication.
When you presided over the Motorsports Hall of Fame proceedings in Detroit in August, you gave a passionate speech about more manufacturer involvement in racing. Why?
We have to get these sanctioning bodies to go back and embrace the car companies, not chase them away. Because they're the growth fuel. Look at every example of a run-up in motor sports, and it's clearly on the tail of a massive investment in Detroit, Tokyo or Germany. It's about the cars. This whole thing about mileage, the car companies refuse to talk about the two things that make the biggest difference in the mileage of these cars. It's weight and aerodynamics. It's something we've known in racing all along. It's almost better to have a car that weighs more if you look at the laws today. Until they start looking at weight and aerodynamics … we're out there trying to push barn doors through the air that weigh a ton. It doesn't need to be that way. There's nothing I would love more than to see the biggest, baddest, 1959 Cadillac with big wings. Nothing would make me happier than to see that built of carbon fiber. Because you could make a demonstration that these cars that once weighed 9,000 pounds can weigh 2,000 pounds.
People don't get in the car and go for a drive anymore on Sundays with their family and drive to the mountains and look at the foliage or drive somewhere and have a nice brunch. All this talk about fuel economy, the government has made cars like the lightning rod of what's wrong with this world, instead of it being a way out and a solution. The push is on to make cars simply for transportation from point A to point B as opposed to something that's fun to drive and an extension of your life. I think that's a real issue. The cars used to be exciting.
We still should be able to say cars are fun to drive. They can still be green and get the mileage and emissions but still be something fun to drive as opposed to a vehicle that doesn't do anything well. We need to educate young people today— not that every young person needs to be driving a Lamborghini. But at the same time, we need to show them they can have a vehicle that's fun to drive, whether it's a Chevrolet or a Honda or a BMW. We're not doing a good job of that because of the government. The car companies are down a little bit. When I was with Toyota, they'd get in trouble for just showing a car that someone looks like they're having fun driving it. You never see a commercial with a car that gets sideways. I think we need to do a better job of saying you can still have all mileage, the green, the recyclables and renewables and still have a car that's fun to drive and cool. It can be an extension of your personality. I'm sorry, but everybody's personality in the United States is not a Smart Car. Or a Ferrari.
So how do the sanctioning bodies reach out to the manufacturers?
Dare I say, they need to be a little more open. If you accept the fact the car companies can be the drivers of the sport, then you say, "We need to do what they need to do to sell cars." We need to adapt our sport to that type of vehicle. We need to move in the direction they're moving. We need to stick with our core values but do what the car companies want to see happening. No one spends more money than the car companies understanding their consumer. I think the days of, "This is how we do it" are gone. I have as much interest in motor sports doing as well as anybody. I'm not complaining. Motor sports has provided a great livelihood for me. I don't want to come out like I'm sour grapes. I just want to make sure they're looking to the future.