Bull’s-Eye: A Conversation with Chip Ganassi

Patrick M. Hoey
#Ford, #Ford

I’m expecting the worst as I climb the stairs to Chip Ganassi’s motorhome during a brief break between practice sessions at Daytona International Speedway. Ganassi is one of the rare team owners who’s more recognizable than most of his drivers. He’s a fixture at nearly fifty IndyCar, Sprint Cup, and prototype sports car races a year—a stocky, formidable figure exuding a sense of self-confidence so robust that critics perceive it as arrogance. His characteristic expression, often captured on television broadcasts as he leans down from a timing stand to talk to a pit reporter, is a smile that comes perilously close to a smirk.

In racetrack settings, he tends to be terse and abrupt. “I haven’t had any long conversations with him,” says Kyle Larson, who’s starting his third season driving stock cars for Ganassi. Team managing director Mike Hull, who’s been with the team for twenty-one years, almost refused to go work for Ganassi because he had such a volatile temper, and Hull still describes his boss as “volcanic.” When I tell another longtime Ganassi acquaintance that I’m scheduled to interview Ganassi, he advises me, “Take a Valium.”

It’s early January, during the last official test weekend before the Rolex 24. I know time is limited, and the pressure to perfect his cars is building, especially since the brand-new Ford EcoBoost engines in Ganassi’s two prototypes have been suffering from worrisome teething problems. So I figure Ganassi will want to knock out this interview as quickly as possible, and I’m not expecting to get anything out of him other than the usual pabulum.

But Ganassi can’t be more pleasant when I walk in. “Have a seat,” he says. “Anywhere you want. Can I get you something to drink?” Much to my surprise, he’s refreshingly frank and unexpectedly talkative. Inevitably, the conversation turns to Alex Zanardi—the obscure Italian whom Ganassi famously plucked from Formula 1 purgatory and who rewarded Ganassi with two Indy-car championships and a swagger that the team never lost.

“Honda wanted an American driver,” Ganassi recalls. “I wanted a winning driver, and I didn’t care where he came from. There are two kinds of drivers. There are Friday/Saturday guys, who are great at setting the car up but who let you down on Sunday, and then there are Sunday guys, who couldn’t care less about setting the car up but who are great in the race. On Friday and Saturday, Zanardi was fixing his seat, moving his mirror a zillionth of an inch, tinkering with this and that. But then he made this magical transition from a Friday/Saturday guy to a Sunday guy. In the race, he didn’t care if the wheels fell off the car. He was going to the front.”

I notice Ganassi glancing out the window as we chat. There, waiting impatiently outside the motorhome, are a gaggle of Ford engineers eager to talk to him about their troublesome engines. Ganassi continues to answer questions while they languish. Finally, he says he’s got to meet with the Ford guys. But he gives me his phone number and e-mail address. “Let me know when you want to come to my office in Pittsburgh,” he says. “Anytime.”

As I leave the motorhome, I think about the disconnect between Ganassi’s public and private personae. And I remember something Zanardi had told me: “Chip has a huge and tender heart, but he’s always, always fighting with this little devil who sits on his shoulder, whispering to him that he should not trust people. Chip won me over to the point that I would not only drive for him forever, but I would say, ‘Chip, hey, I’ll come to your house and do the cleaning. Let me wash your car. Let me wash your dog!’ Because I loved the man from the bottom of my heart. And sometimes I would hate the guy to the point where I would want to hit him. And this could happen not just in the same day but in the same minute! This is Chip Ganassi.”

Virtually every team owner who’s come into the sport of racing during the past half century has begun with the avowed or unspoken dream of becoming the next Roger Penske. Only one man has succeeded. In fact, Ganassi’s record is arguably better than Penske’s.

Since 1996, Ganassi’s Indy cars have won ten championships, and his sports cars have won seven titles since the Daytona Prototype class was created in 2003. NASCAR has proved to be a tougher nut to crack. The team has scored only eleven race wins since 2001. But in 2010, Ganassi’s cars managed a unique sweep of the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, and the Indianapolis 500.

Along the way, the fifty-five-year-old Ganassi has forged one of the most enduring commercial relationships in the history of racing. “From the beginning, Target was so much more than a sponsor,” Ganassi says. “They showed me how they do business, whether it was helping with IT infrastructure or designing a new race shop or getting health insurance or writing an HR manual. They helped me establish a solid business model so I could focus on racing.”

Nobody recognized greatness in the making when Chip Ganassi Racing Teams opened its doors in 1990 with a year-old Indy car painted as a gaudy red-and-white bull’s-eye. At the time, the vast majority of racing sponsors were beer, tobacco, or automotive companies, and Target was a largely regional retailer with 400 stores. (It now has more than 1900.) Ganassi, meanwhile, was a rich kid who’d retired from driving a race car after a modest career.

Ganassi’s father, Floyd—technically, Chip is Floyd Jr.—had earned a fortune in the sand, gravel, and pavement business in the Pittsburgh area, and while he knew nothing about racing, he supported his son’s ambitions. Ganassi started in motocross and graduated to Formula Fords while attending Duquesne University. “I thought I’d take over my father’s company and be one of those guys who ended up with a station wagon with wood on the side, belong to the country club, and have 2.5 kids and a bugeye Sprite on a trailer, and that would be my racing career,” he says.

But Ganassi’s performance in club racing was impressive enough to inspire several racing journalists to encourage him to turn pro. The day of his college commencement—he graduated with a degree in finance—he was the fastest rookie qualifier at the 1982 Indy 500. (Although Ganassi never brags about his driving, he relishes pointing out that his fellow rookies included Bobby Rahal and Danny Sullivan.)

Ganassi scored a couple of podiums in 1983. The next year, two weeks after finishing second at Cleveland, he lost the rear end of his car coming out of turn 2 at Michigan International Speedway, got collected by Al Unser Jr., and hit the inside guardrail a ton. He woke up in an oxygen tent in the hospital and heard the doctor tell his parents that he’d never drive again.

The prognosis was premature. He ran Indy the next year and Le Mans in the rain in a Sauber the year after that. But he realized that he wasn’t going to make it to the top as a driver. So with money fronted by his father, Ganassi bought into the team owned by Pat Patrick, who was running Emerson Fittipaldi with Marlboro sponsorship. I recall meeting Ganassi after Fittipaldi won the Indy 500 in 1989 and thinking he was Patrick’s junior partner. “I owned the team outright by then,” Ganassi tells me. “But I was a young kid, and I wanted to keep a low profile, so we said we were partners.”

In 1990, when he became his own front man, Ganassi performed a masterful magic trick that secured his future. As part of a convoluted deal that saw Fittipaldi and the Marlboro sponsorship go to Penske and Patrick form a new team with the backing of Alfa Romeo, Ganassi ended up with a fully funded, year-old Penske chassis. With sponsorship already in hand, Ganassi pitched Target with a deal it couldn’t refuse. “They said, ‘How much is it?’ ” he recalls. “I said, ‘It’s this much for the first year—’ ” he holds up his thumb and index finger in the shape of a zero—“ ‘but I gotta know by June first if you’re in for the second year.’ ” Pure genius.

Target signed on, and then Ganassi scored another coup by signing ex–Formula 1 driver Eddie Cheever. The team ran creditably enough to inspire Target to re-up. In 1994, Michael Andretti snagged the team’s first win, and in 1996, Target Chip Ganassi Racing won the first of four consecutive Indy-car championships.

The 98-pound weakling had become Indy car’s 800-pound gorilla.

Ganassi walks down the stairs to let me into his office building. For many years, he had a place in downtown Pittsburgh, but he recently built a modern-looking glass, steel, and brick structure in the suburbs to avoid traffic. The sparsely furnished lobby features a pair of show cars and a wall of posters and photographs. “There’s an Indy car. There’s a stock car. There, that’s the nickel tour,” he says as he leads me upstairs.

The building is full of sleek furnishings that would look at home in a high-flying high-tech start-up. Although there’s a shelf of racing paraphernalia behind the glass desk in his office, Ganassi faces a wall dominated by a flat-screen TV broadcasting the financial news on CNBC. The team has large, state-of-the-art race shops in Indy and North Carolina, but Ganassi keeps his distance. “My job is to worry about where the money’s coming from and making sure we have enough sponsorship to go forward. And I think it’s counterproductive to look at race cars and watch money fly out the door every day,” he says with a booming laugh that fills the room.

Most of the owners in professional sports come to their game, be it baseball or football or racing, as wealthy men. This isn’t to say that they’re not invested in their teams. But they’re not going to go broke if their teams fail to perform. Although Ganassi dabbled in race promotion early in his career and used to be a small investor in the Pittsburgh Pirates, he’s now focused entirely on racing. He owns no car dealerships. No real-estate developments. No distributorships or commercial tie-ins. Nothing but racing, 24–7.

“A lot of guys don’t have to treat racing as a business,” he tells me. “Roger, Rick [Hendrick], [Jack] Roush—these guys have billion-dollar businesses. Racing is kind of a hobby to them. With me, it’s my only business. So I have to watch where I spend my nickels and dimes.” He laughs again, but more thoughtfully. “Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers told me something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘The thing about professional sports is that there are two bottom lines. There are wins and losses, and there are profits and losses.’ ”

To prove his point, Ganassi opens a chunky three-ring binder filled with the team’s financial data and waves me over to his desk. “Come here,” he says. “I’m going to give you ten seconds to look. What do you want to see? Balance sheet or income statement? I got both of them right here.” He riffles through the pages. Income statement. Forecasted revenue. Prize money. He’s doing this, I think, not to impress me but to impress upon me that, at this level, professional sports is first and foremost a business. A very big, very expensive business.

Ganassi has nearly 300 employees and an annual budget approaching nine figures. (His back-of-the-envelope calculation is roughly $20 million for each of two Cup cars, $10 million for each of four Indy cars, and $4 million for the sports car program. The biggest single expense is personnel—and not just mechanics and engineers. “You see what I’m paying in drivers’ salaries?” he says, sounding outraged.

Speaking of drivers, Ganassi has earned an enviable reputation for nurturing new talent. Zanardi, Juan Montoya, and reigning IndyCar champ Scott Dixon became superstars racing for him. At the same time, Ganassi is notorious for handing out pink slips faster than Donald Trump. Montoya, who won the Indy 500 as a rookie, was the most recent casualty, fired last year after seven underwhelming seasons in NASCAR. “He’s tough and he demands performance,” says Jimmy Vasser, who won Ganassi’s first championship but later got the hook. “If you’re not winning, you’re not staying.”

Vasser was replaced by French rookie Nicolas Minassian, who, ironically, was axed before the season was half over. When I suggest that the poor guy didn’t get much of a chance, Ganassi seems hurt by the implied accusation. “He wiped out three cars before June!” he says, sounding almost defensive. “I was into the guy for a million dollars. I couldn’t afford him!”

One of the keys to Ganassi’s success is his willingness to make unpalatable and unpopular decisions, whether it’s firing drivers or changing engine manufacturers. (He won Grand-Am championships with Lexus and BMW before switching to Ford this year.) During the civil war that nearly destroyed open-wheel racing, he was the first of the big-time CART owners to defect to the IRL, prompting loyalists to dub him a traitor. “You’ve got to go where your business takes you,” he says. “It’s great to be an idealist. But at the end of the day, you have to have a business model that works. I wasn’t independently wealthy enough to keep fighting them.”

Throughout his career, Ganassi has remained competitive by being nimble and innovative. Early on, when Penske was building his own chassis and Carl Haas (of Newman/Haas, the other top Indy-car team of the day) was the distributor of Lola, Ganassi became the first Indy-car owner to race a Reynard chassis, and by mating the Reynard with Honda engines and Firestone tires—both relative newcomers—he put together a nearly unbeatable package.

More recently, Ganassi funded the initial development of the controversial and contrarian DeltaWing. (He still controls several patents associated with the needle-nosed car.) When the team realized it needed a full-scale wind tunnel, he came up with the insanely outside-the-box idea of retrofitting an abandoned railroad tunnel in the Allegheny Mountains for straight-line testing. “People say it’s a secret tunnel,” he says, firing up Google Maps to show me the site. “It’s not a secret tunnel. It’s a private tunnel.”

Ganassi is so tickled as he recounts the genesis of the project that I can’t help but be tickled, too. Despite his forbidding aura, Ganassi is one of those guys whose energy, enthusiasm, and sense of humor make him fun to be around—most of the time. Yeah, he’s ruffled some feathers and made his share of enemies over the years. But he’s also collected a bunch of fiercely loyal friends and assembled a remarkable motorsports empire. As Cheever puts it: “Chip has the ability to draw you into the vortex of his passion for racing.”

Racing, I sense, has given scope to Ganassi’s ambitions in a way that he never could have achieved by taking over the family business and leading the life of a suburban patriarch. “I still have this nightmare that, one of these days, I’m going to have to get a real job,” he admits. “But I’ve got all this time and money invested in racing. What am I supposed to do—sit at the country club and play cards? I can’t imagine anything better than this. Can you?”

Then he flashes a grin that comes perilously close to a smirk. Or maybe it’s just a mischievous smile.

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