Ganassi Has Assembled An IndyCar Series Dream Team

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 29 2009
Target Chip Ganassi Racing drivers even share their cold beverages on a team which has come together nicely this season. (Photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

Target Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti even share their cold beverages on a team which has come together nicely this season. (Photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

For obvious reasons, race-team officials can be reticent to compare and contrast the drivers who have worked for them over the years. It’s a respect for feelings and friendships thing.

And being nothing if not respectful of the feelings and friendships he has developed during his 14 years as team managing director of Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s IndyCar operation, no way was Mike Hull going to be lured such a comparison.

But during a telephone conversation this week, Hull also proved incapable of hiding his positive feelings for TCGR’s current lineup of drivers.

A dream combination? he was asked.

“I don’t know what kind of statement it would be if I said it wasn’t,” Hull said. “It truly is. There’s no question about it.”

That current lineup consists of Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti.

Those two have been the dominant drivers in IndyCar the past couple of years.

Franchitti won the 2007 championship and the Indianapolis 500 that year as a driver for Andretti Green Racing. He won four races in ’07, giving him a total of eight when he arrived at Ganassi’s IndyCar shop this year after taking the 2008 season off to give NASCAR a whirl.

Dixon won the 2008 championship and the 500 that season. His championship last season was his second in the series as he also did it in 2003. In ’07, Dixon finished second to Franchitti in the standings. In all, the native of New Zealand had won 16 races since coming to the IndyCar series with Ganassi in 2003.

This season, each have added four more victories to their totals. Dixon’s victories moved him to top of the all-time list of race winners.

And both Ganassi will start Saturday night’s race at Chicagoland Speedway in position to move toward winning the 2009 championship as Franchitti is second in points (five behind leader Ryan Briscoe) and Dixon is third in points (21 points behind Briscoe).

Yes, life is good, if not comfortable, for Hull these days.

“Having two equal drivers like we have,” Hull said, “equal in every respect in terms of being able to get maximum value when they’re on the race track and then taking that value and helping each other, is really special to be around.”

Having two drivers who are so equal, who are so talented and have been so successful, is not always special in racing. Greed and egos can come between them and harmony, and the whole cake can collapse during the cooking process.

The Ganassi team had a pretty good driver lineup in 2007 and 2008 as Dixon was paired with Dan Wheldon, the fiery Brit who won 2005 championship when he was driving for Andretti Green and then won four races for TCGR.

But Wheldon decided to move to Panther Racing for the 2008 season and it was decision time for Hull and Ganassi – thought not super-hard decision time.

“Dario had ended his NASCAR foray so he was available,” Hull said. “He wasn’t under contract to us (contrary to what many had speculated because Franchitti had driven for Ganassi in NASCAR), there wasn’t an option (in a contract) with the situation like that.”

What Franchitti did have was a brother, Marino, who was racing in the American Le Mans Series. In Detroit last year, the ALMS was racing with the IndyCars and Dario showed up to watch Marino.

“He went out and watched IndyCar practice on Friday morning,” Hull said of Dario, “and he came back to the trailer and we were talking and he said, ‘You know, if I had to race against the Scott Dixon that I see today, it would be fun to race against the Scott Dixon I see today because he had matured even more as a race driver and I would really enjoy being able to do that.’

“I called Chip on the phone and I said Dario wants to drive the car. He said, ‘You’re kidding’ and I said no. He said let’s have dinner with him tonight and we did and that’s how simple it was. It was done on a napkin. What he (Franchitti) wanted to know was if Dixon would accept him as a teammate.”

No problem there.

“He,” Hull said of Dixon, “would get up and give you his chair. He’s that kind of guy.”

Also not a problem is the situation the team finds itself in this year – both drivers going for the championship and only separated from each other by 16 points with three races left to go.

Hull said he thinks that because both have won championships before, and each has a respect deal going on with the other, the situation is extremely healthy.

“If each of them hadn’t won races and major races like the Indianapolis 500, or championships, if one had not done all those things but was on the verge of doing that and had to prove themselves to themselves first, and everybody else around, then you’d have a problem.”

Plus, Hull said, “They are both kind of throw-back guys. They race cars because that is what they want to do. They don’t have big egos. They don’t need to constantly have their egos refreshed or fed. They just want to drive race cars.”

If a Ganassi driver is going to win this year’s championship, if Franchitti or Dixon is going to catch and pass Briscoe of uber-rival Team Penske over the next three races, there had better not be a problem with egos or anything else.

Briscoe, who will start from the pole at Chicagoland, is having a grand season too.

“You kind of hold your breath as the races progress and although we have good opportunities, guess what? We’ve got a tough opponent who is also trying to win the championship who is equal to our guys,” Hull said. “And he’s got a great teammate in Helio (Castroneves who is fourth in points). If Helio doesn’t make a run at the championship, it won’t be for a lack of effort and he will certainly be in full support of his teammate. What’s fascinating is, we have two parallel programs going on, not just one.”

Castroneves won last year’s race at Chicagoland while Franchitti won there the year before.

After that, the schedule moves to Japan for an event at Twin Ring Motegi on Sept. 19, and then on to the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Oct. 10.

IndyCar does not have Chase or playoff or anything like that. What it has this year is a beauty of a championship shaping up – when Briscoe took the points lead after the last race it marked the 13th time in 14 races that the lead changed hands – and a happy if not relaxed Mike Hull.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 29 2009