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It was the end of the 1988 CART season when a former driver became an ownership partner of Patrick Racing. One year later, the two men celebrated Emerson Fittipaldi’s spectacular 1989 Indianapolis 500 win in Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In 1990, he began his team with Eddie Cheever driving a white, Target-sponsored car on the racetrack.
That man was Chip Ganassi, and it was the beginning of one of racing’s greatest dynasties.
“I bought the team in 1988 from Pat Patrick,” Ganassi said. “I was just a young guy trying to learn the business, so I stayed in the background for a long time. While being the owner of the team, I stayed in the background to learn what I could about the business. I learned quite a lot.
“I consider 1990 when we arrived at Indy with Eddie Cheever to be the beginning of Chip Ganassi Racing.”
This is the 30th anniversary of Chip Ganassi Racing. Since that time, some of the greatest drivers in history have raced for the son of late Pittsburgh industrialist Floyd Ganassi.
Prior to Floyd’s death in 2013, he was a popular figure in the racing paddock, providing Chip with the kind of support only a father can give his son. Chip learned some valuable lessons from his father, including the equation to success that Chip Ganassi Racing emulates today.
“It’s ‘Life times people,’” Ganassi said. “It’s people that enjoy racing. We still enjoy the sport. I think it’s important to be students of the sport. Each of those people, whether it’s Alex Zanardi or Jimmy Vasser or Juan Pablo Montoya or Scott Dixon or Dario Franchitti; they are all still students of the sport, every one of those guys.
“They all have an interest in the sport besides taking away the fruits of the sport; they have the fruit of the sport in mind.”
Michael Andretti delivered Chip Ganassi Racing is first victory in 1994 at the season-opening race at Surfers Paradise, Australia.
Prior to that season, Ganassi admitted if his team couldn’t win a race with Andretti behind the wheel, then perhaps he shouldn’t be a team owner. It was time for his investment to produce.
Andretti checked off that box in his very first race with the team.
“We had finished second a couple of times with Arie Luyendyk in 1993 and had a good run with him,” Ganassi said. “We missed winning the 1993 Indy 500 by a whisker with him. We had to stretch to get Michael Andretti, and we stretched. I knew then we had a guy that could win races. I thought, ‘If I have a guy in the car that can win races and we don’t win races, who are they going to look at?’
“That was a little bit of a risk on our part, but it worked out well. That was the beginning of something great. Michael was certainly the spark of that.”
Ganassi believes Andretti brought a winning attitude to his team, the missing ingredient.
Andretti’s win launched Ganassi’s team into greater success. Jimmy Vasser won Ganassi’s first CART championship in 1996.
“What I take away from 1996 is there were three drivers going into Laguna Seca, Jimmy, Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. all having a chance at the title,” Ganassi said. “You had three drivers, three different chassis, three different engine manufacturers and two different tire companies all riding on the championship in 1996. I had Joe Montana as our partner for a couple, three years. It was great to have him there. He brought a lot about winning to the team.
“We won the championship, Alex Zanardi had ‘The Pass’ to win the race. It was just a storybook day. It was our first championship, it was Target’s first championship and the beginning of four championships in a row, which at that time nobody had ever done. That was nice. We had four championships there with four different drivers over four years, and that had never been done.
“That was the beginning of this freight train that I’ve been so lucky to be part of.”
Zanardi, from Italy, won back-to-back CART titles for Ganassi in 1997 and 1998. A young rookie from Colombia dominated CART in 1999 and earned the first of his two Indianapolis 500 victories, in 2000 – Juan Pablo Montoya.
“The Montoya years were important, too,” Ganassi said. “He was lightning when he came in. He picked up where Zanardi left off and came into his own there in 2000 with the Indianapolis 500 victory.
“Nobody had Montoya’s swagger at that age. And nobody had the car control that he had. You either have it or you don’t.”
Both Zanardi and Montoya left Ganassi’s team for Formula One. Both would eventually return to IndyCar racing.
In 2003, Ganassi brought a fiercely determined, yet quiet driver to the team who would ultimately become a legend – Scott Dixon of New Zealand.
Dixon has produced five NTT INDYCAR SERIES championships and 45 IndyCar wins, including the 2008 Indianapolis 500, during his Ganassi tenure. Dixon is in his 18th consecutive season with Chip Ganassi Racing, joined this season by Felix Rosenqvist and Marcus Ericsson in the team’s INDYCAR lineup.
When Dario Franchitti joined Chip Ganassi Racing in 2009, it began one of the most glorious five-year runs by a driver in history. Franchitti won three of his four NTT INDYCAR SERIES championships (2009-11) and two of his three Indianapolis 500 victories (2010 and 2012) with Ganassi.
The 2012 Indy 500 was Franchitti’s last victory, retiring after an injury in the 2013 Shell Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston.
“Those were good years,” Franchitti said. “It was fun to be a part of a team like that to win championships and the Indianapolis 500. I can add 2007 with Andretti Autosport to that, as well. Coming on board with Chip and the Ganassi team, it was a great time to go up against Scott (Dixon) and fight toe-to-toe and be able to compete. I was proud of that.
“I look back fondly at those years. I think I was at my best and driving a car for some great people.
“What more do you want?”