Just back from the Texas Motor Speedway, as our group traveled straight there after the Long Beach IndyCar race to test under the lights on Tuesday evening. The trucks should be into the building Wednesday afternoon for the Brazil load this Friday afternoon – now that's some calendar roulette!
It was a character-building start to the season for Chip Ganassi Racing's IndyCar team, but the progress made from the St. Petersburg Grand Prix, the opening round, to Barber and now Long Beach, rounds 2 and 3, shows the impressive strength in depth of our Target and Novo Teams.
Nonetheless, there's a high degree of internal frustration among IndyCar teams at how little track time we get, the fact that what we work on over the winter can so rarely be put into action. That determines what projects are developed away from the racetrack. You want to take what you think you've learned in the virtual world and apply it to the real world, but you don't want to find out too late – during qualifying or the race – that you've gone in the wrong direction. At Chip Ganassi Racing, the days are filled at our race shop with all kinds of projects, but that's not our preference.
We think IndyCar should move back in the direction of allowing us more time on the racetrack. The rule makers don't understand that if they did that, we wouldn't be able to afford the money we spend away from the racetrack – we'd start spending it on real on-track testing. I think everyone points fingers at teams like ours and says, “Ganassi has unlimited resources,” but it's not what you have but how you manage it that makes the difference.
You can also easily say that some of the other entrants had it pegged at the beginning, and we were in another time zone. We swung at some pitches, particularly at St. Petersburg, using information developed over the winter and thought it would really improve the 2012 direction, but it didn't. If we'd had two or three more test days perhaps the development would have been on-track – that's really where validation happens.
At Barber, Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball got our strongest results, with second and fourth places, but in fact Dario Franchitti also had a good racecar until he suffered a mechanical problem. We honestly feel that if his car had lasted, it would have been very near the front at the end. The No. 10 car was on the right strategy as it was up with the top-five finishers when his car failed.
Dario's pole position at Long Beach was further evidence that St. Pete taught us a valuable lesson, and it also showed off one of the great by-products of DF's experience: Dario is an ace at making his car better over the course of a race weekend. He works really hard at optimizing his car for the race. By comparison to the first street event at St. Pete, where Scott, Dario and Charlie had cars that were, until Sunday morning, “on top” of the track rather than compliant, Long Beach demonstrated that a group can get the most from the day if they commit to change quickly.
All Dario thinks about is the racecar, whether he's with his engineer Chris Simmons, debriefing with Scott and Charlie, or in his coach or hotel room. And we know that because when he returns the next day, he's full of questions, and has even drawn diagrams on dinner napkins. His passion for his job is reflected in not only what he does in the Target car but also what he does before and after; that's what continues to drive him. He's the complete package and puts it all together extremely well. His passion is greater for this sport today than when he first joined our IndyCar team in 2009. He's experienced the upside and downside of racing, so puts that into action. His unselfishness for teammates provides a reference point to start each day.
Scott applies the basic concept that in order to win races, you need to put yourself in a position to win races. Thus, it's the blend of the whole package. Thereafter, you're on one side or the other of fortune! You can't make up for a shortfall of any portion; you can't expect luck to help you over the finish line; and, there's no substitute if you're missing what it takes. So Scott has the mental aptitude, the physical conditioning and a team that has the resource to win. He dedicates every day to getting the most out of all of those attributes with the expectation of the same in return from all quarters.
SD carries it all on his shoulders, and when we don't win, he's the first to express disbelief or displeasure about it but that just reflects the attitude of everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing. Having been on the receiving end, it's a good motivator! And I think it's good that we immediately know what he thinks, and when he doesn't win, he'll say: “Guys, we could have got a lot more out of today than we did,” and the next morning he'll be ready to get the most out of the projects we have at hand to try and get the most out of the next race.
Long Beach is a good example for Scott. His lap times in the first segment of qualifying would have made the transfer, but he caused a red flag in the opinion of race control, so lost his two fastest laps. It put him 26th on the grid! The race began, he was hit twice from behind on the first lap, flattened a tire, damaged a nose and so he hit pit lane. After losing a lap, we're 26th but now one lap in arrears to the entire field!
He didn't give up, while doing something that's not easy on a street course: he unlapped himself on his way to finishing 11th. If you do the math, it means that with smoke and mirrors, he passed the entire field one and half times!
The reason we go racing is to watch guys like Scott Dixon drive Indy cars, so whether you personally like him or not, you have to appreciate his ability to drive an Indy car better than most people have ever driven one. Tiger Woods once said, “You don't really get remembered for the number of wins in a career. It's the number of major wins in major championships,” and I think the same applies in IndyCar; the number of IndyCar championships and the number of Indy 500 victories is the measuring stick for race drivers and teams, too.
But even if Scott was to retire today, he'd deserve to be remembered as one of the greats. Drivers should be judged by two things: their records, and how they fared with their peer group. If you beat the best with long-term consistency, it sets you apart.
Charlie has had a fine start to the season. If it was put down to one thing, it's the confidence that comes from experience, but behind that simplistic comment are many factors. His ability to drive an IndyCar has started to cross-over with maturity. He can now drive a car that's a bit more neutral in terms of setup, more in the style of his teammates. As a result, he can look at the overlay and compare with Scott and Dario to find improvement. It's a big advantage for him. That's something he couldn't have done two years ago as a rookie.
IndyCar rookies today learn their craft on race weekends without the benefit of private testing. It's sink or swim, so requires committed ownership combined with a great partner like NOVO. As an example, the years that Zanardi and Montoya were each rookies with us, they had 20 days apiece in their cars prior to their first CART IndyCar race. Quite a difference to the present driver development format where it's virtually zero.
What Charlie and his engineer Brad Goldberg did over the winter was analyze that how he practices relates to where he qualifies, races, and finishes. They figured out that what Charlie needed to do was practice faster, so then he was confident when he needed to push ultra-hard in qualifying. They worked with the entire team to build confidence quicker and also how what a car felt like when the tires were old at the end of a practice session corresponded to how it would feel and what needed to be done to the car when it was on a set of brand new alternate-compound tires for qualifying.
That analysis has started to pay dividends. Charlie loves numbers and stats. Sometimes that leads to paralysis, but instead it's helping him. And the fact that it's taken until his third season to feel so confident is not a reflection on Charlie; it's more to the point made earlier. These young guys aren't getting track time away from the race weekend, so they're doing all their learning in practice, qualifying and the races. Rookies make errors and always will, but currently they do it when it really matters, so they're punished hard and judged harshly, and you have to hope that doesn't stymie the mental side and leave them lacking in confidence or packing-up with unrealized potential. At Chip Ganassi Racing, we understand that patience is required now that it's tougher for rookies than ever before, and Charlie is proving that our patience has paid off.
Turning to the Grand-Am Rolex Series, we fully support the long-term goals of the sanctioning body and believe they have the best interests of the sport in mind. Do they treat everyone fairly? Not always. But I like the fact that Grand-Am's goal is to create the best racing. And they certainly make it work: it is fierce competition! Its on-track product is real wheel-to-wheel stuff.
In terms of where we stand with our TELMEX BMW-Riley package, I'd like to see some of the other teams' race our car and try to figure out what they think our advantage is. That would be fun for all the teams to swap packages for the weekend and see who won. If you believe that everything is equalized by the sanctioning body, then it wouldn't matter. Of course it would never happen, but it might quiet those who think we have – or have been allowed – an advantage in terms of equipment.
If you look at the Daytona 24 Hours, there were great teams and driver combinations. You certainly couldn't say we dominated. The keys to our No. 01 car's victory, apart from being very well prepared, were that 1) Juan Pablo Montoya raced well within himself; 2) Both our cars were really good at crucial segments of the track; 60 percent of that track is high-speed, but our cars were really good through the entire infield, and in how deep we continued to carry speed into the braking zones. And 3) we weren't afraid to tune our cars according to varied track conditions at each stop, nor were we afraid to put in the car those who we considered the best drivers for the appropriate times of the race.
I think that a lack of selfishness also won us that race because Scott Pruett, although he was really fast, told Timmy Keene [No. 01 team manager] that we should have Juan in the car at the end of the race because he was in better condition. Scott's feet and ankles were bothering him, legacy of that huge shunt back in 1990. A lot of race drivers wouldn't have been that unselfish, and Scott's sector times were so good that I think we could have won anyway. But that race-smart thinking with a complete lack of ego, meant Scott wanted to give the team what he felt was its best option. It certainly demonstrates the team spirit that pervades TELMEX Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
I'd also like to counteract the accusation that we deliberately caused a full-course yellow period with the No. 02 car in order to benefit the 01 car for its scheduled brake change. I think it's pretty hard to determine at exactly what point on the racetrack the bolts that hold the output flange from the transmission to the driveshaft assembly are going to shear and precisely where! But eight of the 12 bolts sheared, so the car no longer had drive. Where were we supposed to go when it stopped?
With five hours to go in the race and only two laps down, No. 02 was trying to get back on the lead lap and hopefully score a 1-2 TELMEX/Target Team finish. We didn't want to drop the car further back; actually, it was faster than the No. 01 car at that point. Having two strong entries has given us a terrific opportunity at Daytona over the years. Who would have ever thought that a bunch of open-wheel guys would get that chance?
Looking at NASCAR, I think the team has strong cars; the Gen6 Chevrolet is a good racing machine. There's been a bit of a transition in terms of people on our team, but they're good quality people, and the cars have shown good speed. The Chevy engine program is now really, really good and I think Max Jones is doing a fine job of making that blend work, between new cars, new staff.
I think there will be effectively two seasons of NASCAR, because as teams learn the Gen6 car, they will make big steps, and that will result in a transformation from what we're seeing at the moment. That's when we will see our capability. Juan has been strong at every event this year, while Jamie McMurray with the same equipment and support is in the top 10 in the points standings.
NASCAR is like any other form of racing: each driver is unique, each car is unique, and each setup is unique. It's how you manage the process, the integration of the human elements and mechanical elements that defines your success or failure. What Penske proved last year is that the team concept in NASCAR works extremely well, where each person unselfishly supports the next. You then have a baseline to work through the process, and that's more important than the number of cars on a team.
Don't get me wrong, having more than two cars on a team can be a benefit if you have every single part of that third or fourth crew working well and working well within the team structure, but having a third car with a less than complete budget, or with a less than great driver or with a crew that isn't functioning to 100 percent of its capability, would be more harmful than beneficial. So what Roger has and what Chip has is a two-car team that functions as well or better than a less cohesive three or four car team.
Now, the Indy 500 is approaching. It's unique as we're granted seven full on-track practice days prior to the qualifying weekend. It does allow the non full-season entries an equal opportunity to be ready for race day, so let's welcome Ryan Briscoe back to Chip Ganassi Racing for the Indianapolis 500.
Several weeks prior to doing actually getting it done, we thought we had a sponsor to do Indianapolis, so talked to Ryan, but it didn't happen. Everything does happen for a reason, and not long ago, Chip said: “Is Ryan still available?” I said, “I don't know, but I can find out.” When we discovered he was still available, Chip said, “Let's do it.” So now we have a great driver in Ryan, a great sponsor in NTT DATA, with a great engine partner in Honda. Firestone is equally excited about having the Indy pole-sitter from last year back on track.
Ryan has experience, he's a proven race winner; knows how to read the racetrack; understands how to work in a team atmosphere; and, so it's very exciting to have him once again driving for us. The team itself represents internal partnership also as, due to a non-conflicting Grand-Am schedule, our entire Rolex Series team will support the car. Andy Brown, who works for us with our R&D group, will be Ryan's chief engineer – a position where he has a lot of quality experience. All done in-house, which we think, defines our brand.
First of all, though, our IndyCar group wants to catch up with the TELMEX's wins at Daytona and Road Atlanta with a win of their own at Sao Paulo. Looking forward to the race there: if you ever have the chance to see global passion and electricity in person from the IndyCar fan base in the Southern Hemisphere, it's worth the trip.
Thanks for reading.