Chip Ganassi hits brakes after 20 years in NASCAR
Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 4, 2021
By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE (AP) — First things first: Chip Ganassi is “no doubt about it, 100%” rooting for Kyle Larson to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship in Sunday’s season finale.
“Look, I’m fine with Larson and absolutely I am pulling for him,” Ganassi said. “It would prove what everybody has said all along — that he was going to be a champion someday.”
Larson, a nine-race winner this season and the title favorite, of course will not be racing for Ganassi at Phoenix Raceway. He drives for Hendrick Motorsports now.
What an ironic ending it would be if Larson goes and gets that big trophy on Ganassi’s final day in NASCAR. Ganassi brought Larson into the series from sprint cars and then developed him over nearly eight seasons, taking him right to the edge of superstardom.
The future of Ganassi’s NASCAR operation depended on Larson, but Ganassi fired him last year over Larson’s use of a racial slur. There wasn’t really any other decision to make. Ganassi could keep Larson or he could keep the sponsors that keep the lights on at the shop. Larson got a pink slip.
A year and half later, Ganassi will leave Phoenix with NASCAR in the rearview mirror. He sold his NASCAR operation to Trackhouse Racing. All of it belongs to Justin Marks and Pitbull as soon as the race is over.
Ganassi didn’t sell because he lost Larson. It was a free agent year, anyway, and there was no guarantee Larson wouldn’t move to Hendrick Motorsports. But it didn’t help.
The sponsorship market is tight and new business hard to find. Pitbull and Michael Jordan are now NASCAR team owners and Chip Ganassi Racing, in its 20th anniversary year, was no better than middle class.
Marks couldn’t get the NASCAR charters he needed for his own upstart team, so he bought an entire race team after cold-calling Ganassi. It’s been a fast-moving four months: CGR had a farewell luncheon at the shop Tuesday. Some employees will be hired by Trackhouse; some are out of luck.
“You could be melancholy if you want to be, but I look at it and see a lot of successes over the years,” Ganassi told The Associated Press this week.
“We had wins, we had poles, twice we were one race away from making the championship four. But we also brought in a lot of people, and we brought in a lot of great sponsors over the years,” he said. “You never read about that, we never made the papers for that, but we grew great managers and great engineers and great mechanics.
“And we did it over 20 years, so you know a lot of these people well and you see them grow and their families grow and their kids grow, and I’m very happy with what we did and what my legacy will be in NASCAR.”
The record book shows 24 Cup Series victories and 21 Xfinity Series wins, 53 poles and two All-Star race victories. Only having 24 wins and no championships suggests a team that couldn’t get over the hump to become one of NASCAR’s powerhouse organizations, but it was not a dry well.
The highlight was 11 years ago when Jamie McMurray returned to Ganassi and won the season-opening Daytona 500. McMurray won the Brickyard 400 that season, too, and coupled with Dario Franchitti’s victory in the Indianapolis 500 and a sports car win at Rolex 24 at Daytona to open the 2011 season, Ganassi became the only team owner to claim all those crown jewels in a 12-month period.
“I think when you stack up wins per dollar, I think we look really good,” Ganassi said.
The 63-year-old Ganassi is not a NASCAR lifer. A former racer who remains true to his Pittsburgh roots, Ganassi’s career was in IndyCar until he bought into Felix Sabates’ existing team ahead of the 2001 season. The new Chip Ganassi Racing program debuted on the day Dale Earnhardt died. Ganassi driver Sterling Marlin was involved in Earnhardt’s fatal crash.
The year went on and Marlin needed only 23 races to appease a boss known for his “I like winners” slogan. A second victory six weeks later set up a possible run for the 2002 championship
Marlin opened Ganassi’s second season with two wins in the first five races. He topped the standings for 25 consecutive weeks, but his title hopes ended when he broke a bone in his neck in a crash at Kansas with seven races remaining.
It was the closest Ganassi came in 20 years to winning a Cup championship.
Ganassi gambled when he brought Juan Pablo Montoya back from Formula One to race in NASCAR, and again when he signed Dario Franchitti away from Michael Andretti. Not to drive one of Ganassi’s all-star Indy cars, though: Ganassi signed Franchitti to join Montoya in stock cars.
Franchitti’s 2008 rookie season lasted only 10 races before he was injured in a crash at Talladega. Ganassi was already feeling the effects of the upcoming financial crisis late that 2008 spring and sponsorship was tight; Franchitti’s team was closed.
CGR alone in 20 years lost big-money backers Coors Light, Texaco/Havoline and Wrigley Co. and then flagship sponsor Target ended its 27-year partnership with Ganassi.
“We had a couple of major speedbumps along the way didn’t help our business and the model we had worked for a long time,” Ganassi said. “You know, my business relies solely on sponsorship.”
Ganassi doesn’t own car dealerships, doesn’t run a global transportation business, doesn’t even make engines to sell to other race teams. The Ganassi engines in NASCAR come from Hendrick.
So if he doesn’t have a sponsor, Ganassi has to pay out of pocket. And his income derived from racing. It’s one long cycle like that in motorsports, a daily hustle of trying to find some more funding.
DC Solar made a big showing at Phoenix in 2018 when it introduced itself as a major Ganassi sponsor for the next season. Less than two months later, founder Jeff Carpoff was raided by the the FBI and DC Solar was accused of being a $1 billion Ponzi scheme.
Ganassi says the DC Solar con nearly killed his organization. He called the Xfinity Series team he shuttered “a champion team” and he laid off around 30 employees.
Ganassi told AP he has received notice he is being sued by a trustee attempting to collect Carpoff’s debts. It infuriated him.
“I’m owed money, and I’m getting sued?” said Ganassi. “The guy almost put me out of business. I’m the one who had to lay off all these people. I’m the guy who had to eat the losses and make up that $8 million.”
There is no single reason Ganassi is leaving NASCAR and he is certainly not leaving racing. Alex Palou’s championship in September in his first year of IndyCar was Ganassi’s 14th in American open wheel racing. Six of the sport’s legends have won titles for Ganassi.
Alex Zanardi, Montoya, Franchitti and Scott Dixon are all Ganassi champions, and this years marks the 25th anniversary of the Jimmy Vasser title that launched a Ganassi dynasty. Ganassi will have four IndyCar teams next season, and he told AP he will run a fifth in the Indianapolis 500 for Jimmie Johnson.
Ganassi also returned to sports car competition this year and next season will field two full-time entries as IMSA prepares to return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And he has a team in the global Extreme E Series and was with that team two weeks ago in Italy.
Still, Ganassi hedged this week on whether he is done with NASCAR forever.
“I left IMSA and now I’m back in IMSA,” Ganassi said. “Who knows?”
It would take a significant financial guarantee. The sleepless nights, the debt, losing Larson, the DC financial mess — it just got tiring.
“I hate to see Chip leaving NASCAR,” fellow team owner Rick Hendrick said. “He’s one of the very best. He builds an unbelievable team. We’ll miss him, but I’ll be watching him in the Indy cars and we’re going to watch him win. He’s a good friend and I admire his racer mentality.”
But for now, the NASCAR chapter has ended for Ganassi.
“This is racing, and you have those big ups and those big downs, and we had big downs. But you know what? The big ups we had outweighed the downs,” Ganassi said. “When I weighed everything, I just decided that moving forward was not the best decision. But it doesn’t mean I’m not racing and it doesn’t mean I can’t come back to NASCAR.”
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