Chip Ganassi Racing owner Chip Ganassi recently met with the media to discuss the upcoming 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, which starts Sunday, April 18 with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst at Barber Motorsports Park.
Here’s the conversation:
Question: Perseverance was key last year. Perhaps no one did that better than Chip Ganassi Racing. Chip, it was a year really unlike any other. Do you feel the series helped teams kind of weather the storm in 2020?
Chip Ganassi: Yeah, no question. I think -- you know, remember, the whole series and Indianapolis, of course, went through a change -- the whole change of ownership just prior to 2020.
I mean, when you look at what was in the on-deck circle, if you will, as we approached 2020, we were all filled with excitement and anticipation.
Obviously, the biggest curve ball ever thrown at us with the pandemic, and like Mark (Miles) and Jay (Frye) said, could not have been stronger relationships with all the stakeholders from the sanctioning body, and that is just paramount, that I think all sports could probably learn from.
I think that motor racing and INDYCAR, in particular, led the way there, that made us in an otherwise year where we were changing -- seems like we were changing directions and changing plans by the hour. Could not have been better.
I think it just shows, again, the product is compelling. To weather what it did you have to have a compelling product. As so many people have seen there were a lot of products nobody is interested in anymore for 2020, and that's certainly not the case with INDYCAR.
Q: Chip, Jimmie Johnson is making his INDYCAR debut in a car that you own this weekend; Tony Kanaan returns to the team, as does Marcus Ericsson, Alex Palou. Do you allow your mind so think ahead to perhaps the legacy of Scott (Dixon), to maybe a seventh championship? Certainly a lot going on with your race team heading into 2021.
Ganassi: One of the things before we go too far into Scott, the team distributed these rings the other day. I don't know if you can see it here. My screen is -- got that the other day courtesy of Scott and the team and PNC. Really, with his fast start to the season, it's going to be a fast start for our team, as well.
Obviously building on 2020, we had a pretty good start for 2020. If we can do that in '21, I'll be stunned, having such a great start as we did during the pandemic.
You know, obviously fingers crossed. The team, like I said, returns with Scott and Marcus and Alex and some familiar names, and then obviously when you throw a Jimmie Johnson and Tony Kanaan into that mix, it really makes for a great, great team, a great group of guys.
That's what I'm most excited about, is growing and learning with that group of people that we have, being prepared for six weekends in eight weeks or something.
It's going to be exciting. I think it's something that bodes well for our team. I think we react well to things like that, and I'm looking forward to it.
Q: Chip, just to ask you about Jimmie because you were asked about him earlier. We spoke to him last week and he said he wanted to persuade you to allow him to have an oval test to see if he'd be interested in doing that in the future. Is that something you'd be willing to do, to give him a test on an oval to see how he gets on?
Ganassi: Absolutely. What owner wouldn't want to have the opportunity, first of all, to have Jimmie Johnson on your team, but second of all, say he wants to test your car on an oval? Of course. Yeah, the answer is an easy yes.
Q: What do you expect from Jimmie? What would you consider good results, a good season?
Ganassi: Yeah, I think just any first season for an INDYCAR driver. I think there's no question some podiums would be considered a success, and maybe squeak a win out. It's certainly not impossible. He has the talent. He has the racecraft. I know he can do it.
It's just a matter of him getting comfortable in the environment, with cars on the track now. Obviously, testing has been fine, so once we get out there with some traffic, with some cars he can pass, I think the racer will come out in him very easily.
Q: When I spoke to him, he's noted that he's not passed a car, he's not been in practice, he's not had an in-lap, he's not had an out-lap, all the things he hasn't done. Might there be a few rocky first days for him?
Ganassi: I mean, if there's a rocky day, am I going to be surprised? Probably not. But I'm certainly -- like I said, he has all the talent that you need, and certainly has the racecraft and the experience of knowing what to do, when to do it.
That's half the game in motor racing, is what I like to say doing the obvious things right. I'm sure Jimmie has got plenty of practice at that. It doesn't matter what kind of car you're in.
Q: Chip, working with Jimmie to this point, what's one thing you've learned about him that you didn't know beforehand?
Ganassi: He's a damn hard worker. I'll tell you what, he set a new -- he set the bar at a new level for the amount of work a driver puts in. My hat's off to him.
Q: How so? Can you explain?
Ganassi: Well, he's always in the simulator, on the computer, on the phone, making calls, asking questions, working out, talking to sponsors, talking to the team. I mean, the guy doesn't slow down. It's no wonder -- I had no idea what I was up against when racing against him in NASCAR, and now I've got a little feel for it. Yeah, he's a hard worker.
Q: Last year Scott (Dixon) said that one of the reasons that (Josef) Newgarden has become so difficult to beat is they've adopted very similar tactics to the No. 9 team in terms of making sure that those top fives are guarded together and they aren't kind of like win or bust. I think we saw Colton Herta and Pato O'Ward show similar kind of maturity. As a team owner, do you feel that everyone is kind of following your template and therefore it's getting tougher and tougher for you guys to win? The stats would say it isn't getting tougher because you keep winning, but do you feel it's getting harder for you?
Ganassi: Well, I don't think it ever gets any easier. That's the one thing about sports teams: People can go around and count your people and count your assets, pretty much laying out all your things every weekend. It's not hard to understand what you have to do to win a race. I think doing it is another story.
You know, I think the good news is we don't win races the same way week in and week out. Fortunately, at our team we have alternate ways of winning races, so there's not just one way to do it.
You know, these drivers are maturing, and with maturation in the process comes some speed and racecraft. I think it's just a natural progression of their careers more than anything, as opposed to copying another team.
Q: I also wanted to ask you a question about Alex Palou, about what you identified he would bring to the team, and how you feel he's performed so far in testing.
Ganassi: Well, I think the jury is out about what he'll bring to the team. I can tell you this: At two tests over the winter, he was the fastest car of our group of cars. We have high hopes for Alex.
Q: Chip, obviously you've got Jimmie joining the team this season. How much depth does that give you as a team owner like converting to a four-car team again this year? Obviously, he's very knowledgeable from the NASCAR side, so he's coming in almost blind into INDYCAR, but he's not really a rookie in that regard because he's going to be able to bring in so much information from his time in NASCAR.
Ganassi: Yeah, I think anytime you can add a championship-winning driver to your team it says something. These are not -- you know, NASCAR championships or INDYCAR championships, they're tough battles. It doesn't always mean you're only talking about the car. Drivers bring a lot with them.
Championship-winning drivers, I've always said, there are guys who can drive cars fast, there are guys who can win races, and there are guys who can win championships, OK, and that's three different kinds of drivers. Each one of those brings a certain thing to the team.
Obviously when you bring a championship driver in, it could be a Super Bowl champion like Joe Montana. I can't tell you the intangibles he brought to our team over a two- or three-year period back in the late '90s and early 2000s.
Any time you have access to that book of knowledge, and in this instance racecraft and what I would consider just tools that you bring along that get downloaded to the rest of the team, it's invaluable. It's invaluable.
It's hard to put a finger on -- when you say what Jimmie brings to the team. Look, I just talked to him on the phone an hour ago. A little something rubs off every time he talks to you. You see what kind of guy he is, what kind of person he is. I'm big on that kind of thing.