By any measure, 2010 has been a superb season for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Together, Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas have driven the TELMEX Riley-BMW to eight wins in 11 Grand-Am Rolex Series races. That set a new series record, clinched them the championship and, but for a 25-point penalty (more on that later…) following their Mid-Ohio win, the title would have been theirs even earlier.
This for a team that had already won the title in '06 and '08, but which won just two races last season. Why the turnaround? After all, except for Brad Goldberg replacing Mike O'Gara as race engineer, the team's personnel is unchanged from that of '09. Pruett and Rojas are in their fourth season and they're driving the same Riley MkXX chassis, albeit one now powered by a BMW after Lexus, which powered them to nearly two dozen wins in five seasons, pulled out.
Surely the BMW must be the difference…? Yes and no.
“We are very happy with the BMW,” says Rojas. “Reliability-wise it's been flawless, zero complaints. But what has really helped us is the drivability of this engine, the way it accelerates exiting corners. It puts the power down much smoother than the engine we had before. That's certainly made life easier.”
Case closed? Not so fast. While the BMW is a major factor in their success, those at CGR w/FS point to the team's relentless efforts in days gone by to keep their Lexus-powered Riley winning races in the face of Grand-Am's similarly energetic efforts to nullify performance advantages – perceived or otherwise – enjoyed by any engine maker.
“We ‘increased horsepower' by working on the other aspects of the car,” is the wry remark from Mike Hull, managing director of Ganassi Racing.
With a third Rolex title under his belt, Pruett elaborates:
“The reality was that Grand-Am had really tightly controlled the performance of the Lexus engine. So we, as a team, had to do whatever we could on the chassis side. There was a lot of development, from the shock side to the car side to the aero side, within the Ganassi organization. You need to make the car efficient where you can and there's a lot of transfer of technologies from the NASCAR side, the Indy car side – thank God we have all those teams we are able to pull from to help us out. So when we made this engine change it was, ‘Wow! Incredible!'”
Still, it's not as if installing a BMW in the business end of the TELMEX Riley instantly created an unfair advantage. This season's qualifying record is impressive, but Pruett and Rojas have hardly been the nearly unbeatable force they've been on race day. They've won their fair share of poles (three at time of going to press), true, but they've also taken the green flag from as far back as fifth on more than one occasion.
“By far, we have not had the fastest car at every race,” says Pruett. “But the thing we have done is maximize our racing skills. The other teams have just made more mistakes than usual. Look at the No. 10 car, the No. 99 car. For whatever reason, they're certainly not as consistent as us this year.
“When we've been at…let's call it a ‘deficit of speed'…on the racetrack, we've still been able to deliver results by either fast pit work, or racing smart, keeping our nose clean or any number of things that contribute to our race craft being equally as phenomenal as our on-track performance.”
“There are two components to the No. 01 car's success,” says Bob Stallings of GAINSCO/Stallings Racing, Ganassi's closest rival and reigning champions in the Rolex Series with Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney. “First is their own performance. Second is the performance of the competition. Since 2006, one of our two teams has won the Rolex Series, but even in the years we didn't win, we put up a pretty good fight. This year we have been a pretty weak team.
“We have had two engine failures and there was a third race where the engine went ‘off.' As a result we changed engine builders midway through the season. It's been just the opposite for the Ganassi team. Not only have they had no engine-related DNFs, they have the strongest engine. In addition, we have made four or five important mistakes and I can only think of one they've made.
“Take nothing away from them. Even if they didn't have the BMW, even if we hadn't made mistakes, they'd still have won the championship. They've just done a superior job.”
Along with the team's search for “alternative” horsepower, Hull cites Pruett as a major factor in the team's 2010 success. It's not that Grand-Am's winningest driver has finally blossomed at the age of 50; rather he has been the catalyst to Rojas' development into a bona fide front-line driver.
“When he joined the team three years ago, Memo was not ready to take on what he is today,” says Hull. “He's upped his game and become a better race driver. Practice, qualifying or racing, he's mistake-free and fast (and) Scott is a big reason Memo's the driver he is today.”
“As a rookie, it's a big challenge, a lot of pressure to be paired with the talented drivers Ganassi has – including Scott,” says Rojas. “The good side is that you learn so much from Scott, his being around the sport for so long as one of North America's top drivers. He's a great guy to work with and he's been an awesome teammate. In my rookie year, I raised my game and, right now, I believe I'm one of the strongest guys in the Grand-Am paddock, along with Scott. We are really hard to beat at any time.”
Meanwhile, Pruett is like the proverbial watch (not a Rolex) that “takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'.” Each win is like a trip to the Fountain of Youth.
“I absolutely love doing what I'm doing,” he says. “There is no downside; working with a great organization, having a lot of success – it makes going to the gym every day, not easy, but not as hard as it might otherwise be.”
Then there's the team. But for the engineering shuffle, the crew returned intact from last year – and with a point to prove. The Ganassi organization worked at making its car faster (with or without BMW), but the crew was equally dedicated to improving its own performance.
“This is a group with a single purpose,” says Hull, “and that's to make themselves and the team better every day. They're very purpose-driven, whether it's a test, a two-hour, a six-hour or a 24-hour race. And that represents the ethic of Chip Ganassi Racing, which starts with Chip. When we lose, we don't sulk very long. I'll say, ‘OK guys, see you at the shop at eight tomorrow morning' and they'll say, ‘How about seven?'”
And when, as happened after Pruett and Rojas won at Mid-Ohio, the team was penalized $15,000, docked 25 points and, along with the other BMW runners, assessed a whopping 75lb weight penalty?
“Look, I think Grand-Am does a very fair job officiating,” replies Hull. “That doesn't mean we were happy with the decision…if we were guilty of anything it's that we were winning by too much! But we just kept looking forward.”
Not too far forward, however. With eight wins in 11 races and with one event – at Miller Motorsports Park – remaining on the calendar, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates is on the verge of extending its Grand-Am record to a point where it will be nearly impossible to beat. However, setting records is nowhere on the team's radar of intent.
“We go to the next race with the same attitude we went to the first,” says Hull. “We want to be the best team on the first day, we want to be the best team on the second day and we want to be the best team on the third day.
“I know it's a cliché, but we try not to think around the corner. Today is the most important day of the season. Tomorrow will be the same. So with one race to go, what's our focus? Today.”
It's an attitude that has paid handsome dividends for this team and will likely continue to do so.
A GRAND-AM PLAN
Why CGR keeps the faith
Just one race organization comes close to mirroring Chip Ganassi Racing, and that's Penske Racing. Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske (BELOW) are fierce rivals, from the bricks of Indianapolis to the sands of Daytona, and are the only two team owners to have won the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. (Ganassi would doubtless be quick to note, his is the only team to have won them both in the same year!)
A year ago, they also competed against one another in the Grand-Am Rolex Series but Penske Racing has since shuttered its sports car program, reallocating those resources to a third Indy car effort. With the Rolex 24 at Daytona the only Grand-Am race in the series that generates significant media interest, one has to ask why Ganassi doesn't follow suit. For one of the answers, says team manager Mike Hull, look south of the border.
“We've had a great partnership with TELMEX since 2004,” he says. “We've helped develop Mexican drivers – first Luis Diaz, more recently Memo (Rojas), and we've also tested a number of others as part of TELMEX's driver development program. It's a terrific partnership.”
There are other reasons for Ganassi's Rolex Series participation.
“We race in the IZOD IndyCar Series where the Indy 500 is the most important race,” states Hull, “and
we race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series where the Daytona 500 is the dominant event. We've made a commitment to race in Grand-Am because we think it's important to support that brand of racing.
“Also, it's ‘pure racing.' Certainly the technical rules are tightly controlled, but they don't regulate the racing itself, and that's a breath of fresh air that everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing enjoys.”