NASCAR: A Ganassi encore

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 24, 2011

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE — A bleary-eyed Chip Ganassi apologized in advance Monday if he appeared too tired. He stayed home in Pittsburgh to attend the AFC championship, a can’t miss event for true Steelers fans.
The racing mogul then praised the Rooney family for the way they’ve always run their business — behind the scenes, quietly, allowing their football team to do the talking.
Ganassi said he’d like to model his own approach to his race teams after the Rooney’s style.
In a way, though, he’s a lot more like the football team and it’s blue-collar city than he’d ever admit.
In a rough economy that shook race teams to their core, Ganassi buckled down and made every strategic move possible to keep his organization afloat. He stared down every critic who predicted his demise, using it only as motivation to strengthen his race teams.
The result was the most successful year in a career spanning more than two decades.
All six drivers under the Ganassi umbrella reached Victory Lane last season, while Dario Franchitti claimed the IndyCar championship and Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas teamed to win the Grand-Am Rolex title.
There was Jamie McMurray’s season-opening victory in the Daytona 500, followed by Franchitti’s win at the Indianapolis 500 and McMurray again at the Brickyard 400. The trifecta made Ganassi the only car owner to sweep the three biggest races in America, and his 19 victories spanning three different racing series was a team record.
That he was successful in IndyCar and Grand-Am surprised no one. It was the breakthrough by Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in NASCAR — McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya combined to win four races, three of them crown jewels — that took the skeptics by surprise.
“It’s just a matter of making a plan and staying with your plan,” Ganassi said Monday during the first stop in the annual Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour.
But that wasn’t always easy considering the uncertainty surrounding his NASCAR team. The economic crisis in NASCAR at the end of the 2008 season thinned Ganassi’s sponsorship stability, and it took a merger with troubled Dale Earnhardt Inc. to keep both teams afloat.
Ganassi inherited driver Martin Truex Jr. and his sponsor, Bass Pro Shops, in the merger, but Truex waited less than half a season to announce he was moving on at the end of the year. About the same time, Ganassi faced a serious health issue that kept him away from the track and unable to answer the mounting questions about the future of his race team.
What he was able to do, though, was keep those external distractions away from his organization.
“None of us listen to that stuff,” team president Steve Lauletta said. “We kept our head down, we knew what we needed to do and our partners supported us. What Chip is really good at is putting the right people in the right places, and it’s created a group of really talented people that know their role, work amazingly hard to put us in position to win, and we have the crew chiefs and the drivers to execute.”
Those who know Ganassi well point out he really has no choice but to keep after it day in and day out.
Unlike most of his rival team owners, racing is Ganassi’s only business. He doesn’t have car dealerships, isn’t a parts distributor and spends all of his time on his race teams.
“Chip is hands-on, he is on the phone every day with everybody,” said team co-owner Felix Sabates. “He’s on the phone to the drivers, the crew chiefs, to me, and it’s because the man only knows one thing — racing. His whole life is built around race cars.”
So unlike the last few seasons, when an air of gloom and doom seemed to follow his race team, there’s outside expectations for a repeat of 2010.
The team is stronger than ever, with contract extensions for both McMurray and Bass Pro Shops, the sponsor everyone assumed was following Truex out the door. Ganassi’s 20-plus year relationship with Target is one of the longest sponsorship partnerships in auto racing, Energizer is back for a 16th season, and the team on Monday announced new business deals with LiftMaster and WIDIA Products Group.
What does Ganassi do for an encore?
“I don’t think you look at it in terms of encores or trying to top last year,” he said. “You just go out week in and week out, the most important race on the schedule is the next race. We just want to go out and do the basic things right, stay on our plan, not get too excited, not worry about 2010 and trying to top our performance.
“Just go out and do what you are supposed to do it when you are supposed to do it, and everything else will take care of itself.”
The Associated Press
01/24/11 17:17