Ingram: Ganassi Philosophy Prevails Again In 24
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
From the Monday Morning Crew Chief™:
Daytona Beach, Fla. – Earlier this year, driver Juan Pablo Montoya was asked if the tuft of gray he now carries on a head of otherwise dark hair resulted from the intensity of the NASCAR draft, where he makes a living as a driver for the team of Chip Ganassi.
“No,” he said with a pearly smile. “The gray hair comes from Chip.”
In the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Montoya turned the tables and surely added at least a touch of gray to the head of his team owner. By time it was over, the No. 02 Target entry driven by Montoya had a plain white nose on it because the ones carrying sponsor logos had been torn up by his aggressive driving.
All this was before the pass on teammate Memo Rojas. With the Ganassi team running first and second in the closing hours – and a “Chip Slam” in sight – Montoya sent all observers’ blood pressure higher by pressing the issue against Rojas on a re-start.
He pretty much ignored the advice of the team manager of his No. 02 Riley-BMW entry, which was offered shortly before the re-start with five hours remaining. “Take it easy,” said Mike Hull over the radio shortly before the green flew. Moments later, the Colombian, who drives the infield at Daytona
better than any other sports car chauffeur, slipped past Rojas in the East Horseshoe, feinting outside and then diving underneath.
“I thought we had a better car at the time,” said Montoya with a shrug. “We wanted to open a gap in case it stayed green.”
What was excellent racing for the fans was a cause for concern for the Ganassi team’s brain trust at the pit wall. As the duel continued nose-to-tail, Ganassi, Hull and Tim Keene, the No. 01 Telmex car’s team manager, practically banged heads at the pit box while huddling to consider how they might keep their two cars and drivers from running into one another. Afterward, Hull wryly noted, “The drivers are trained professionals.”
After a one-two finish and the Chip Slam had been secured by the No. 01 entry of Scott Pruett, Joey Hand, Graham Rahal and Rojas, Ganassi said there is only one team orders at his team: don’t hit each other. (Well, actually there’s two. The first rule is that Ganassi is the man in charge.)
America’s most successful racing team owner also acknowledged that winning and team spirit are contagious, about as close as he’ll come to talking directly about winning four of America’s biggest races in succession, a skein that started with the Daytona 500, Indy 500 and Brickyard 400 last year. The trick is not alienating the people who lose while another in-house team is winning. That remains one of Ganassi’s trade secrets.
“It’s great thing to be part of a group of people who want to be a team and want to excel,” said Ganassi, “whether it’s Grand-Am, IndyCar or NASCAR, they all work together. I can tell you that.”
It’s pretty clear that if you drive for Ganassi, you’re going to have a shot at winning in whatever series
he’s participating in. “Everything he does is to win,” said Montoya. “When I first talked to Chip about NASCAR, I thought we’d be really good. I knew that when he wants to win he’ll do everything it takes to get the job done.”
At the 24-hour, that meant a team capable of changing gear clusters on both cars to get the maximum out of the BMW engines on the straights – as well as fixing broken splitters and noses without getting too far behind or losing pace. In fairness to Montoya, one of the broken noses occurred at night when he ran over unseen carbon fiber debris entering the pits.
Such was Ganassi’s belief in his team’s organization and preparation, the team owner got five hours of sleep in the night, a departure from the methods of legendary hands-on team owners who stay in the pits for an entire race like Rheinhold Joest or the late Tom Walkinshaw.
The Ganassi strategy meant one team, the No. 02 car, getting caught out by No. 01 car topping off the fuel on the penultimate caution period following an unfortunate penalty for Hand, a GT driver who proved he’s got what it takes to win in prototypes. Topping off gave Pruett track position when he needed less fuel on the final stop. “We’re just here to freakin’ win,” said a disappointed Montoya, whose teammates Jamie McMurray, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti were also looking for Rolex watches and not Rolex Series points.
Working together was not the theme of this year’s 24-hour when it came to action on the track during the Grand-Am’s marquee event, now a contact sport. Whether the competition was between
teammates or not, whether it was in the Daytona Prototype class or among the GT entries, drivers pushed, shoved, jostled, bumped and banged toward the front. With new smooth, black pavement on the Daytona International Speedway’s high banks, some drivers ran out of talent long before they ran out of grip, particularly at the bus stop chicane.
We pause here for a word or two about the Daytona 500 and the new pavement: look out!
A 24-hour race that averaged one caution per hour ended with a green-white-checkered finish, which is a happenstance in sports car racing and not part of the rulebook.
All those yellows kept four contenders on the lead lap, including an almost trouble-free run by defending champions Action Express and a remarkable performance by newcomer United Autosports. After double-stinting for the entire race, 51-year-old Martin Brundle made a bid on the final re-start to take United Autosports to the podium, only to find himself three car widths off the line in Turn 1.
“I went for broke, because I had nothing to lose” said Brundle, who tried an outside move on Action Express driver Joao Barbosa, who also sailed wide in Turn 1, forcing Brundle even farther afield. The final flourish added a fitting finish to a very intense race. “I didn’t realize how competitive it would be,” said former F1 driver Brundle.
According to Ganassi, there’s everything to lose headed into NASCAR Speed Weeks one year after his
newly signed driver McMurray captured NASCAR’s crown jewel. The team owner never takes winning for granted. He even called out racing business partner Felix Sabates, who was laughing and smiling during the final 20 minutes of the 24-hour in the team’s pit compound. “Chip was hollering at me from the other side of the pit box,” said Sabates, who said he was joking around on a subject other than racing.
“The success we’ve had just fires up our competitors to come out and beat us,” said Ganassi. He acknowledges a repeat of last year’s season is unlikely, but as usual he’s taking it one event at a time – except when his teams all race on the same weekend.
Come to think of it, Ganassi also had a Weekend Slam, or “Chiple” last year when Montoya won at Watkins Glen in the Sprint Cup race, Pruett and Rojas won at the Glen in Grand-Am and Franchitti took IndyCar honors at Mid-Ohio.
Never one to gloat (to avoid stoking the fires of competitors), Ganassi’s acceptance speeches after victories are invariably short. “You know what,” he said while standing on the pit road in Daytona following an impressive one-two sweep that makes the coming year look a little like last year. “I just worry about the next race.”
Quote of the Week: “I though Jamie McMurray said it best. He said Juan had an exciting evening. He and Scott (Dixon) and Dario (Franchitti) were all asking for decals if they do this next year. They want to put decals on the back of the car so that other drivers know who’s driving.” – Chip Ganassi, when asked if he was going to make Juan Pablo Montoya help his Grand-Am team build new noses and front splitters after an adventurous 24-hour by the ever-quick Colombian driver
See ya! …At the races.
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgOne Comment