CONCORD, N.C. – The celebration of Chip Ganassi’s success was supposed to be a surprise, an opportunity to gather his great champions and toast their remarkable runs.
He found about it, but the celebration will stay etched in Ganassi’s memory.
“It was one of the more special moments of my racing career,” Ganassi said Tuesday, searching for the words to adequately describe his emotions.
Longtime partner Target last week brought Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti together for a two-day event in Minneapolis honouring their title runs. Vasser gave Ganassi his first championship in 1996, Zanardi added two more in ’97-98, and Montoya made it four consecutive Ganassi titles in 1999.
Dixon started another four-year run for Ganassi in 2008, and Franchitti added the last three IndyCar championships to the incredible reign.
The core group had an enthusiastic reunion dinner on the first day, and a large luncheon with their Target partners the next. The luncheon included a tribute video to the late Dan Wheldon, who drove three seasons for Ganassi in IndyCar.
“So many years, and so many championships for Chip, and so many friendships,” Montoya said.
It was an emotional two days for almost everyone involved for various reasons. Vasser and Zanardi built an incredibly tight friendship during their time as teammates, and although Zanardi now lives in Italy, the two remain close even though they don’t see each other often.
“Other people could live 1,000 years and not experience the intensity or the emotions of the three years I spent with Jimmy driving for that race team,” Zanardi said. “It is by far the best memories of my racing career.”
For Dixon and Franchitti, it was a chance to sit back and watch the comedy routine of Vasser and Zanardi. While it was a walk down memory lane, it was yet another move toward getting on with business again after Wheldon’s fatal accident in the Oct. 16 season finale. Both were close friends with Wheldon, and his accident lingers over the championship, Franchitti’s third-straight and fourth overall, and the ninth for Ganassi’s open-wheel teams.
“We’ve reflected on the championship, and when I went to the Christmas party with the whole Target team, there was a lot of congratulating each other and all those sort of things,” Franchitti said. “But I don’t think we celebrated it. When we think about it, we are always going to be connected (with Wheldon). That’s just the way it’s going to be.
“So celebrating or not celebrating is not that important. We’re really just motivated to go out and win another.”
Motivation to win races and championships has always been what’s driven Ganassi, and he’s still searching for that formula in NASCAR. It’s the only series he’s yet to find consistent success, and last season was a black-eye for an otherwise banner Ganassi year.
Aside from Franchitti’s title in IndyCar, Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas combined to win their second consecutive Grand-Am title and were the anchors on yet another Ganassi victory in the prestigious 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race.
However, Ganassi’s NASCAR teams went winless. Montoya finished 21st in the final Sprint Cup standings, Jamie McMurray was 27th and Ganassi on Tuesday called the overall organization effort “just pathetic for a team with our ability and resources.”
“It certainly wasn’t the first year I’ve had success on one side and not on the other,” said Ganassi, who ordered sweeping organizational changes to his NASCAR operation. He released three top executives, hired industry veteran Max Jones as general manager, chose John Probst as technical director and lured Chris Heroy, a coveted employee at Hendrick Motorsports, to be Montoya’s crew chief.
Ganassi expects early and immediate improvement, and indicated he’s not done shaking things up if the results don’t turn around.
“It was obviously time to make a change and we had to do it, we had to fix it,” Ganassi said. “We took a big swipe at it, and I’m certainly happy with the people that we have now. But if more changes need to be done, we’ll do that as well.”
Nobody doubts he means it.
Franchitti called Ganassi one of the greatest motivators he’s had in his career.
“He’s the driving force. A lot of the success we have comes from Chip’s determination,” Franchitti said. “He hires the right people and then puts them in the right position and then gets on with it. He doesn’t micromanage. If you win and do well, he’s very appreciative. If you don’t win, he’s not shy, he pushes you to get on with it and pick it up.”
And Zanardi, who came to the U.S. with the hardened individualist mentality so prevalent in European racing, credits Ganassi for opening his mind to a team atmosphere,
“When I started to drive for him and win the races, I had picked up a big head, you know, think you are the best,” Zanardi said. “It was always clear he gave me a great opportunity, but I also thought I was helping him. I look at him now and realized he changed my life. Yes, we were winning and having great success, and at the time, I didn’t give much credit to Chip for having created all that.
“But it’s his perseverance, his dedication to what he does, he pours everything into his racing … he definitely changed my life completely for the better.”
Ganassi deflected all individual credit on Tuesday.
He instead praised his sales team, which on Tuesday announced partnerships with Banana Boat, Belkin products and LiftMaster garage doors and filled all the primary sponsorship for his two NASCAR teams. Everything is sold to the point that across all Ganassi’s organizations, the IndyCar races for Franchitti in Edmonton and China are the only opportunities for a potential new primary sponsor.
Try pinning Ganassi down on what he does to make his organizations successful on the race track and in the business world, and he defers.
“It’s like laying bricks. One brick would be me. Another brick would be Vasser. Another brick would be Zanardi. Another brick was the management team,” he said. “Those are all bricks that you build and one day you look up, you’ve added Montoya, Dixon and Franchitti, suddenly what started out as a brick is now a wall. A strong wall.
“That’s what it’s about. It’s not about me at all. I never drove the cars, I never changed a tire, I never installed the engine or rebuilt anything. I don’t do any of that stuff.”