The foundation of another NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship season at Chip Ganassi Racing began with some key personnel moves before the season even began.
Team owner Chip Ganassi and managing director Mike Hull took a great team and made it even better. Scott Dixon’s longtime and highly successful race engineer, Chris Simmons, was elevated to a new role as Chip Ganassi Racing’s Performance Director.
When the IMSA Ford GT program ended, many of Ganassi’s key members from the sports car team were integrated into the NTT INDYCAR SERIES program across the three cars fielded in 2020. Those included Dixon’s No. 9 PNC Bank Honda, Felix Rosenqvist’s No. 10 NTT DATA Honda and Marcus Ericsson’s No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda.
But there was also a key piece to this equation: An engineer that has bright, innovative ideas but remains old school at heart.
That man was Michael Cannon, a colorful, sometimes eccentric Canadian who joined the team after mentoring Santino Ferrucci in his rookie season at Dale Coyne Racing in 2019.
Cannon, whose father was a famed sports car racer, helped bring a fresh approach and a new way of looking at things to Dixon’s operation at CGR.
“Maybe it is another level, but what drives you to a different level than where you are is fresh thinking,” Hull told INDYCAR. “That is looking at solving problems and creating competitiveness within the organization through a fresh set of eyes.
“We have a terrific resource inside of our building with our people. What Michael has done is help that resource understand how to redefine the direction of that resource to work with other people. We moved some key people around within the structure that had new job descriptions and new job titles, and they were looking at things with fresh eyes from a different approach.”
Although the start of the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season was delayed three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, once it began with the June 8 Genesys 300 at Texas Motor Speedway, Cannon and Dixon were an immediate success.
Dixon and Cannon won the first race of the season. Hull remained on the pit stand as the race strategist with Simmons spending the first part of the season assisting Cannon and Dixon.
The combination scored a second-straight victory to open the season in the July 4 GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The following Saturday, Dixon’s team scored its third win in a row in the first race of the Rev Group Grand Prix at Road America on July 11.
Success, however, wasn’t limited to Dixon’s No. 9 Honda. The very next day, Dixon’s three-race victory streak ended, but Ganassi’s winning streak continued as Rosenqvist scored his first career INDYCAR win in the second race of the Road America doubleheader.
“The byproduct is all three entries in INDYCAR racing have benefitted by moving people around,” Hull said. “It isn’t just Scott Dixon’s program; it isn’t just the 9 (car). The 8 and the 10 car have benefitted by the redeployment of people. It’s been a positive in all areas.”
The positive impact is undeniable. It was also a bold move, considering the amount of success Dixon enjoyed with Simmons as the race engineer. The team saw a greater opportunity for Simmons and once Cannon was available, CGR reshuffled its engineering lineup.
“You always have reservations when you make change,” Hull said. “The key to success in any enterprise is to accept change at face value and make the most of it every day. It is certainly a satisfactory result with the changes that we made.
“Michael’s push was for redirection for some of the production on the car and how we utilized it. Plus, the fact he stepped in and picked up where Chris Simmons left off without a blip on the radar screen. His personality and way of working fit ours really well. That, to me, is a big deal.”
It was also a big deal for Dixon, a driver who understands the process of engineering as much as the sport of racing.
“Those were two key changes,” Dixon said after securing his sixth career series championship. “Chris Simmons also moved into a different role and was able to work alongside Julian Robertson (CGR Technical Director). That cleared a lot of ways to focus on what we needed to do and process the data.
“It’s like being an Apple person and having an iPhone and the Mac and then you try to switch to Android or PC, it doesn’t feel right, it feels a bit strange and takes a while for the transition. It’s nice to have somebody that asks, why we do that.
Dixon and Cannon hit it off immediately. The driver from New Zealand and his Canadian engineer forged a fast relationship.
“Cannon is a really fun person, very interesting, different perspective,” Dixon said. “He comes from teams that do things completely differently.
“It was cool for him to kick off the first race and win with him and get on the roll that we did and win a championship. It’s fantastic to kick off that working relationship. Hopefully, we can keep that going.”