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That Way It Is/ What makes Chip Ganassi tick?

by Gordon Kirby
What are the key elements that have made Chip Ganassi one of the USA's most successful team owners? His IndyCar team--Target/Chip Ganassi Racing--has won three straight championships with Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon. His Grand-Am team in partnership with Felix Sabates has won four of the last six sportscar titles with Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas. And his NASCAR team--Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing--won both this year's Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 stock car classics plus Charlotte this month with Jamie McMurrary.

To try to get an understanding of what drives Ganassi and what makes his race teams so successful I talked in recent weeks to his drivers and top management guys. Mike Hull is the managing director of Ganassi's IndyCar and Grand-Am teams which are run out of the same shop in Indianapolis. Hull is assisted in the IndyCar side by Barry Wanzer and Scott Harner while the Grand-Am operation is run by Tim Keene.

"I think Chip's expectation is to get the most out of today," Hull said. "That's what he expects everybody who works for him to do. It's to prioritize what you're all about today, to tackle the hardest jobs first, every day, and get the most of every day. That clearly defines who we are as a team. I think over time that's what we've done a really good job of no matter what kind of race car we've raced, whether it's been a CART car, IRL car, or Grand-Am car.

"Whatever series we've been in it's been about winning today," Hull added. "That's the whole idea. Today is the most important day in our lives, whether it's every Monday in the raceshop, or the first day of practice at any racetrack, or raceday itself, or going to test anywhere."

Hull believes Ganassi makes sure his teams have the right equipment and technical support but he's convinced the key element is communication.

"Chip gives you everything you need from a resource standpoint and it's up to you to get it done," Hull commented. "But I think it goes a lot deeper than that. If you can manage with that MO to have your expectations and results intersect every day then you've done a really good job of it for Chip.

"Interaction and communication is the key to success. Those things are really important for him and they're important for us. We've adopted that philosophy because of Chip. He wants people to talk to each other. He wants there to be an equal interchange of ideas. He not only wants to know what's going on but he wants to know how you're working together to make your program better and to solve your problems so you're better the next time you go on the racetrack.

"I think we are very much a blue collar group. There isn't anybody in the room who is more important than anybody else. We all push hard in our respective areas and I think that's the key to our longterm success. That's the way we operate our business. It's not the same as somebody else's business or some other people in the racing business. But that philosophy works extremely well for us."

Hull also believes the IndyCar and Grand-Am teams benefit from working under the same roof in Indianapolis.

"It is absolutely a plus," Hull declared. "I think what it does first of all is it provides motivation and momentum. When the Grand-Am guys see the IRL guys have a successful weekend they play off that, and when the IndyCar guys see the Grand-Am guys have a successful weekend they play off it too.

"But the reason it works so well is the systems that are in place and the way that people work and the resources they utilize both from the engineering group and the R&D group and the business group is identical. So if we have to tweak something in the system we tweak it all the way across the board. We prove continuously that by continuing to modify our product across the board it makes a big difference in terms of results. I think having them under one roof is an advantage."

Of course, Ganassi's NASCAR team is an entirely separate operation based in North Carolina but Hull thinks there's a motivational push between the teams.

"I think it has some value, like I just said. The NASCAR team won two big races this year and when we see the Cup guys have a good day or a good result it motivates our guys in Indy. There is a cross-over. We interchange ideas and talk to each other and look at the ways that each of us race. There's a lot of similarity in what we do, but at the same time there's individualism in the kind of racing that each of us do.

"I went to Daytona this year with the NASCAR guys and had a great time. Ilearned a lot by being there and watching what they do and how they work together and watching how they race. For the Saturday night 'Bud Shoot-out' I went up to the top of the grandstands with the spotters and listened to them and watched the race from up there. I learned a heck of a lot about how they race and their racecraft and the intensity of what they do to achieve success. I can say personally that was a big thing. It was a big learning experience for me."

Nor does Hull have any doubts that the Delta Wing project has been a compliment to Ganassi's success.

"The R&D group that designed the Delta Wing works for Chip Ganassi Racing because they work on the Delta Wing project but they also continue to work on R&D projects for us," Hull said. "A lot of the things they learned as a result of working on the Delta Wing program are making us better as a race team. A lot of the computer-driven side of what they did for the Delta Wing will help us as we go down the road for our race teams.

"It certainly hasn't been a hindrance or distraction in any way whatsoever. I think it's been a positive for us. As we move forward and as technology changes in Indy car racing a lot the things that they've worked on will help make a difference for us."

After a failed NASCAR experiment with Ganassi's team in 2008 Dario Franchitti returned to IndyCar with Ganassi's operation and has reached the zenith of his career, winning consecutive championships and a second Indy 500.

"For me, Chip's strength is putting the right people in the right positions and guiding them thoughtfully," Franchitti remarked. "He doesn't micromanage anyone or anything. Mike does his job, Barry Wanzer has got his area and Scott Harner has his area. Chip is definitely the boss but he lets those guys do their jobs. So it's that combined with the fact that we've got a pretty good budget from Target. But I think Chip's real talent is spotting the right people for the right jobs.

"He and I have talked about team ownership and I've said there's no way I'll ever be a team owner. I see the frustrations that he goes through sometimes and the frustrations that Michael (Andretti) went through as a team owner and Barry Green, too. There are so many things out of your control and I think Chip deals really well with that. Sometimes he'll jump in, but he very much lets people get on with it.

"Another thing is he won't take credit," Franchitti continued. "I would say he's quite elusive in taking credit. He doesn't want to blow his own trumpet. But for me there's no two ways about it. You don't build up the kind of success from when he first started his own team with Target twenty-odd years without being very, very smart. You look at his success in the last fifteen years and I think he's been the most successful IndyCar owner even compared to Roger, which is saying something.

"He went through a couple of bad years back in 2001 and I think 2004 and '05 were very tough too. But the team definitely learned from that and I think that's some of the foundation of our success today."

Scott Dixon won the 2003 and '08 IndyCar titles driving for Ganassi and finished second to Franchitti in '09 and third in this year's championship.

"I think it strictly comes down to Chip's competitiveness," Dixon observed. "He's a guy that doesn't rest. You've seen it before where many teams win championships and then get into a bit of a relaxed stage and are not on top as much the following year as they were the previous year. I think we suffered a little bit of that this year but still everybody dug deep and we were able to regain that.

"But Chip just doesn't give up. He's never extremely satisfied. Even though this has been a hell of a year for him across the board he doesn't dwell on things and I think that's where the team is very good too. They don't dwell on the championships they've won. They always look forward to the future and how they're going to better the cars and the team and the performance and go on and win more. I think that's a huge testament to how the whole team functions across the board and I don't see any of that changing.

"You've got to look back at Chip's record. He's had a hell of a run since he first started. He's had huge results and set records that possibly will never be touched."

Dixon adds that Ganassi is much more hands-on and knowledgeable than most team owners.

"I've been in teams before where the team owners were there, but to be honest, a lot of the time they didn't really know what's going on. Even though Chip lives in Pittsburgh and spends a lot of time in North Carolina, every Tuesday or Wednesday he's in Indianapolis walking around the shop, catching up on what's going on, and that says a lot. Some weekends you'll seem him at an IndyCar race, a Grand-Am race and a NASCAR race, and that takes a lot of energy and commitment."

Steve Hmiel is a veteran NASCAR crew chief and team manager who is one of the key men with Tony Glover at Earnhardt-Ganassi in North Carolina. Hmiel believes Ganassi's total focus on racing is his biggest strength.

"Chip apologizes to us all the time for not having a million car dealerships or a giant engineering or truck leasing firm," Hmiel observed. "He says that limits how much money he can spend to go racing. But the fact that he doesn't have that means he's focused on racing all the time. So the thing he apologizes to us for is actually the thing that brings us strength. I don't know that he understands the size of the impact that his commitment has on the people that work for him.

"Chip is a racer," Hmiel added. "His life is racing. We all call ourselves racers and we're all real proud that for most of us racing is all we've ever done. But we have an owner who all he's ever done is race and that gains respect in our eyes because we're kind of a hard-core group. It also allows him to think twenty-four hours a day about how to make this race team better and put better people together."

Hmiel agrees with Mike Hull and Franchitti that Ganassi has a rare ability to hire the right people and then stay out of their hair.

"The other thing that he does really well is he puts a group of people together and puts certain people in charge and allows those guys to put certain people underneath them," Hull remarked. "Then he doesn't mess with it. He'll ask you a few questions about how things are going but he's not in there dealing with the minutiae.

"He's looking at the global Ganassi Racing and making sure everything is going in the right direction. He doesn't wear you out about silly little things like hotel bills or why is this guy doing that. He just worries about performance. He always has the big picture in mind and I've never really been around an owner like that.

"Owners have different ways of doing things but most of them have all got a pet peeve and they all get involved in those things. But Chip doesn't have pet peeves. He doesn't harass you about anything. He just wants you to run fast and he gives you the tools to run fast. In the process sometimes when you ask for more than we can do he'll apologize for being a hard-core racer. But there's no apology necessary. We're just glad to have him."

Juan-Pablo Montoya has had an up and down year in NASCAR but he's loving life in stock car racing with Earnhardt-Ganassi after turning his back on F1.

"Absolutely, it was the right move for me," Montoya remarked. "I have zero regrets about it and I really enjoy what I'm doing. It's great!"

Montoya has great respect for Ganassi.

"I think Chip really knows how to get the most out of people," Montoya said. "I think that's definitely one of the keys to why he's so good at what he does. He really understands people and what they need and that really makes a hell of a difference. He just knows where to go and what to do. He's done it for a long time and he really understands the business. I think understanding what it takes to get the job done is a key thing.

"I think his experience as a driver helps but I don't think that's the reason why he's succeeded as a team owner. I think he puts the right people in the right places and that makes a really big difference in the results."

Montoya enjoys a very direct relationship with Ganassi.

"I think the biggest thing with Chip is he's a guy who if I have a problem I know I can go straight to him and solve the issue. It makes a big difference for a driver to be comfortable. I think there's no magic, no secrets. At the end of the day, that's what it is. Chip hires you to perform and he knows what you're capable of doing and he pushes the envelope."

Montoya's teammate Jamie McMurray clearly has demonstarted his ability this year. McMurray agrees that Ganassi responds to each individual's personality.

"I think Chip is really good at adapting to different drivers or team guys' behaviors," McMurray said. "I think he's a really good reader of a person's personality. For me, he understands the things that bother me and understands that if things aren't going well that yelling is not the solution for me. When I left here (to go to Roush) that was the one thing that I missed. My other owner didn't do a very good job of that and I think that's part of what makes Chip so successful."

McMurray agrees with Hull, Hmiel and Franchitti that Ganassi has a great ability to put people in the right jobs and let them operate without micromanagement.

"I think the other thing Chip does a really good job at is if you look at any successful company in racing or anywhere in life, when you have a good leader he hires the right people around him and trusts their decisions. Chip does a really good job of that. He doesn't try to come and tell us what kind of shocks we're supposed to run. He leaves that up to whoever the team leader or team manager is in that department and I think that goes a long way. It's very hard to do."

Multiple Grand-Am champion Scott Pruett provided further perspective on Ganassi's broad-based success.

"As a team we're fortunate because we can pull resources from NASCAR and IndyCar at whatever level we need," Pruett observed. "But the thing that I see continually with Chip is he's very integrated with all the teams. He's not an absentee owner. He's passionate and he's in the middle of it all the time. It's no surprise to see him at a Grand-Am race, an IndyCar race and a NASCAR race all on the same weekend at different locations and I think that love and commitment really shines down on the rest of the team.

"He's either able to attract or find great people," Pruett added. "Within the organization because of the success we've had we're able to bring people up from a very young or entry age. Quite a few of Chip's employees are fifteen or twenty-year employees and I think that says a lot about the organization and what they do and how they do it.

"The bottom line is that Chip wants to win. He wants to win all the time and he loves racing, without a doubt. He doesn't do anything else besides racing. Racing is what he does. I can't think of any other team owner that I've worked for over the years that has that. Most of them their main business is something else. But with Chip it's one thing and I think that in itself is the key."

Pruett says Ganassi's uncomplicated approach may be his biggest strength.

"He doesn't know anything less than success and he drives that. He has no problem getting into somebody's face if he doesn't think they're giving 110 percent and I think that's good. If he doesn't think you're carrying your weight he'll tell you. It's not like he'll mix his words. He's very clear. He comes right to the point, which is good.

"Whether you're a mechanic or an engineer or a driver, you know when you're giving 110 percent and you know when you're giving less than 110 percent. There's so much peer pressure within the team where everybody's giving 110 percent that if there's a little dead wood they get cut out pretty quick."

At 52 (the same age as Ganassi), Pruett has driven for many owners in numerous categories but he couldn't be happier with Ganassi's team.

"This will be my eighth year with Chip and his organization. We've won four championships and if we don't win the championship we finish second. So it's a great home for me."

And, so it is for most everyone who drives or works for Chip Ganassi. He's a much smarter and more subtle individual than some people may think. With three distinct teams and the Delta Wing lurking in the background Ganassi's legacy is far from its final definition.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2010 ~ All Rights Reserved

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