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.