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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Chip Ganassi on the 2015 season

by Gordon Kirby
This has been a good year for Chip Ganassi's race teams. Scott Dixon scooped the IndyCar championship away from Juan Pablo Montoya and Team Penske at the final race of the season, thus recording Ganassi's 100th IndyCar victory and eleventh championship, while his United SportsCar team won the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona for a record sixth time and is flat-out right now testing the new Ford GT Le Mans car in preparation for its debut at Daytona in January. And Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson have been running well, if not winning races in NASCAR.

Ganassi was particularly delighted with Dixon's unexpected IndyCar title. To steal the championship from the grasp of his great rival Roger Penske and Montoya, who spent nine years with Ganassi in CART and NASCAR, was doubly satisfying.

"This championship was a little sweeter than others for reasons that I'm sure are obvious to everybody on the inside, if not the outside," Chip remarked. "For one, it was the last race and we came from behind to beat Montoya, not only with Scott, but with Kimball and Kanaan who were right in there in third and fourth. Everybody did what they had to do to make this championship a reality. All the pieces came together.

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"We couldn't control what the Penske team did but we could control our own destiny. That's what we tried to do and Charlie and Tony stepped up. They did their jobs and their teams called great races. To get the results, you've still got to have great strategy and we haven't done the best that way over the years at Sonoma. We've had some success over the years there but not a super amount, so I was happy to see how it turned out.

"We just sorta hung in there all year. We had some strong races and we had some races were we messed up. After Iowa I was pretty deflated. I thought there was a real opportunity there to make up some points.

"Indianapolis was a huge heartbreak. We just weren't prepared for the situation that happened at the end of the race. Scott was on the pole and led a bunch of laps in the race. We had a really fast car and it just overheated at the end so we couldn't do what we had been doing."

At 35, Dixon has been with Ganassi for fifteen years--most of his professional career. Dixon has now won four IndyCar championships while Ganassi's team has won six of IndyCar's last eight championships (three with Dixon and three with Dario Franchitti), losing only in 2012 to Hunter-Reay and Michael Andretti's team, and last year to Will Power and Team Penske.

With Dario Franchitti's enforced retirement his friend Dixon has emerged as the top IndyCar driver of the modern era. He's now won 38 races and is ranked fifth on IndyCar's all-time winners list behind A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti and Al Unser Sr., and ahead of Bobby Unser and Al Jr. One more win and Dixon will equal Al Sr.

Dixon believes he has many competitive seasons ahead of him. He's happily married to Emma, a former world class athlete, with two young daughters and is an all 'round gentleman. Scott is a quiet, humble fellow with a keen sense of humor--everything a sporting hero should be--as well as being a very technically-minded driver and team player who works openly and closely with his teammates.

"Scott just continues to solidify his iconic nature in the sport," Ganassi observed. "I don't know how else to say it or what more I can say about the guy. He's the winningest active IndyCar driver and he's got himself up there with the truly great drivers of the sport in overall wins, championships and Indy 500s.

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"He's really amazing because he just seems to keep getting better with age and you couldn't have a better team leader than Scott. You couldn't have a better guy on the track, or off the track."

Jim McGee retired eight years ago but has worked on the weekends for the past two years as a strategist for Ganassi's team. Over the years McGee has worked with the best in the business, including Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi, Bobby Rahal and Nigel Mansell, and he rates Dixon in their company.

"As Chip has said, Scott is the driver of the ages for today's era," McGee remarks. "He's so calculating and so calm. He does not make mistakes and never let's anything rattle him. I've never seen the guy upset.

"He's so laid back in the engineering meetings. He's always got an up, happy face. You never see him down and you never see him out of control or act like he's upset. He's just such a calm person and that resonates all through the team. It keeps everyone calm and under control because you have so much confidence in him.

"It's also something that rubs off on the other drivers. Scott brings the whole team together. He's a role model within the team as far as the work ethic and everything it takes to keep a team motivated and working together.

"Dixon is a key to all that and Mike Hull and Chip are the ones who trigger all of it because they put the people in the positions they're in and there's also a lot of staying power there. Dixon has been with the team for fifteen years and there are a lot of people, the nucleus of the team, who have been there a long time. They've seen a lot of ups and downs and nobody gets real excited when something happens, whether it's good or bad.

"I enjoy the people in Chip's team because there's no negativity. It's a nice group of professional, talented, first class people. They know that the more they can help each other, the better the team's going to be."

Ganassi believes his team of drivers proved more productive than Penske's four stars in 2015.

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"At the beginning of the year, when you stacked my four cars up against Penske's four cars, I didn't think we had a shot at the championship," Chip remarked. "It just goes to show you. An argument can be made that when you have four top drivers on your team there's a certain amount of losses you can get rather than gains. You can end up beating yourself.

"At the end of the year, it always comes down to who does the best job as a team, and maybe having a couple of up-and-comers rather than having a team of all gunslingers is a good thing."

Ganassi doesn't like the double points IndyCar paid for this year's season finale. He says he would like to see IndyCar adopt some version of NASCAR's 'Chase for the Cup' play-off system.

"I'm not a fan of double points," he stressed. "I don't think one race should be worth twice as much as any other. I would like to see IndyCar look at developing some sort of play-off system. I'm a fan of what NASCAR's doing with 'The Chase' and I think IndyCar should be doing something like it. I'd prefer to see something more along those lines rather than double points for the last race.

"Having said that, we were losers to double points at Indianapolis and we were winners to double points at Sonoma. So I guess we fell in the middle of all that. But again, I'm not a fan of double points. I think some sort of play-off system would be much better."

Ganassi says he doesn't spend time reflecting on the 100 wins and eleven championships his IndyCar team has won over the past twenty years.

"I'm sure some day I will reflect on it more than I do these days," he said. "But not now. You know, I just want to win the next race. I'm focused on what we're doing right now. We're into the fall and we've got the Ford sports car program coming on line and we're still fighting our way through 'The Chase' in NASCAR. The best we can be is fifth in points and we're working hard to do that. We're just plugging away.

"This is a sport that I love," Chip added. "I'm very passionate about it. I always have been and I'm still filled with passion."

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Indeed, he attends more than 50 races every year in IndyCar, NASCAR and United SportsCar. Other than Roger Penske, few team owners are as busy.

Needless to say, Chip is very excited with his team's new Ford GT Le Mans IMSA and WEC program.

"We've been working on this for over a year and Ford has been working on it for much longer than that," Ganassi said. "For us, it all started with putting the Ford engine into our DP car two years ago. Coming out of the blocks well and winning Sebring for Ford in 2014 and then winning Daytona this year, those are big feathers in any endurance team's caps, so it was great to win those races for Ford.

"Obviously, next June and in years to follow we have a much larger global goal to go after, but we're very pleased with what our sports car team has accomplished and we're looking forward to this new challenge.

"We're stepping up our interest level in sports car racing because we're going to have two full-time cars racing here in the United States and two full-time cars racing in the World Endurance Championship. So it's a large challenge. We're working closely with Multimatic. We'll have an alliance with them. They're going to help us with the WEC team.

"The WEC team will be based in the UK. We're talking about renting some space with Multimatic, but we haven't made any firm plans yet. We're looking forward to taking our brand over to Europe and racing in another series. It also opens us up a little bit to global sponsors. So I'm sure it will be interesting.

"I've been to Le Mans as a driver, so I have some idea of what it's all about, but I'm really looking forward to going back there as an owner in a partnership with Ford. It's exciting.

"It's a little bit of a challenge for us to go into the GT Le Mans category," he adds. "We've also raced in the prototype category so it will be a challenge to go into another class of racing. We have a lot to learn but we're certainly up for the challenge. It's a very competitive class with multiple manufacturers so we're very much looking forward to it."

Scott Pruett and Joey Hand are doing the initial testing of the new Ford GT.

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"We're looking to hire drivers for both series here and in Europe," said Ganassi's general manager Mike Hull. "We'll have a whole stable full of those guys before we're ready to shove off.

"Our first car arrived in Indianapolis at the end of September and we've got a test scheduled every two weeks pretty steadily all the way into December. We're going to be pretty aggressive with that program getting ready to race at Daytona at the end of January.

"People look at Chip as being a bit impulsive but in actual fact he's the opposite," Hull added. "His plan always is to get the current program right and then we'll add to it. We've probably turned some things down that people would ask why and that's because we didn't have our other programs in order.

"We've been in sports car racing for a long time and we now have a proper factory-backed program which we feel we're ready to do. We would like to be recognized as a company that can race productively in that category."

Ganassi is pleased with the performances this year of his NASCAR drivers Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson.

"We've arguably had our best year in a while in NASCAR," Chip remarked. "We were a little disappointed because we thought Larson would have had a better year than he's had. He's been quick in a lot of races but it hasn't come together many times. We had a strong race at Charlotte but we put ourselves in a box and took ourselves out of contention.

"But I'm happy with how the NASCAR team is going. Max Jones is doing a good job of running that program and constantly tuning on it to make it better."

The NASCAR team has used Hendrick motors for the past three years.

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"They do a good job and we like working with them," he added.

Ganassi employs almost 400 people at CGR's two shops in Indianapolis and Charlotte.

"It's a tall challenge," he remarks. "But I enjoy it."

Ganassi has also run a Global Rallycross team this year with Steve Arpin and Brian Deegan driving plus Jeff Ward doing some races.

"That seems to be a nice thing that's growing, so we're happy about that," Ganassi said.

After taking a look at running an Indy Lights team next year he's pretty much decided against the idea.

"We have looked at it but I don't know that it has any legs," Chip said. "If I wanted to go out and start an Indy Lights team and have a program for one year, I could do it. But I'm not looking for a one year program. I want to do something that we can repeat year after year. I'm not interested in doing a one-year deal."

He confirmed that he's trying to find the sponsorship to run four Indy cars next year most likely for Sage Karam.

"We'd certainly like to run four cars next year," he said. "I don't know whether we're going to get it done, but I'm working hard to do that."

And what are the primary challenges Chip sees for IndyCar?

"I'd like to see a strengthening and stabilizing of the team at Sixteenth Street to help grow the business," he commented. "I think that's important. It's not all negative about IndyCar like it used to be. There are a lot of positives. We're coming up to the 100th Indianapolis 500. That's going to be big. We're looking forward to it.

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"I think we also need to address the cockpit issue that came up as a result of Justin Wilson's accident. There was a flurry of discussion but that seems to have gone quiet. I know the FIA is working on it, but sooner rather than later I'd like to see some results of that work and some ideas going forward."

In closing, I asked Chip for his assessment of the state of the racing business as a whole these days.

"It's been better and it's been worse," he observed. "We live in a constantly evolving environment. Fans have a lot of other choices and sponsors have a lot of choices. These are all challenges we face as the business evolves and we need to approach these things with an open mind and a strong will."

Good advice for anyone attempting to achieve success in big-time motor racing.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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