Driven man pulls ahead of the field

Winner: Though it didn't happen overnight, success has become synonymous with car owner Chip Ganassi, who'll be shooting for his third Indy 500 win today.

Auto Racing

May 26, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS - Chip Ganassi is the man with the magic touch. All his teams do is win poles, races and championships, forging an organization that can be measured against those of the most successful owners ever to come to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Ganassi, a 5-foot-10, barrel-chested man, sits casually now in his team's garage. A smile touches his lips as he is asked about being known as "the Magic Man," a man with Midas' touch.

"There's a lot more to it than that," he said. "It's not so glamorous as that. There were seven years - lean years that were a period of definition. You have to find out what you have [first] to decide what your team is going to be about."

His teams are about winning and he is looking for his third victory here in today's 86th Indianapolis 500.

He has three cars in the race. One of them is driven by Bruno Junqueira, the pole-sitter. Junqueira's teammates, IRL driver Jeff Ward and CART driver Kenny Brack, will start 15th and 21st, respectively.

"Last year, I was the fastest rookie and finished fifth in the race," Junqueira said. "It was a good experience. This year, with all the time to prepare, I will do better. My plan is to keep the car on the track and lead the last lap."

Spoken like a Ganassi disciple.

Ganassi is the only car owner in CART history to have won four back-to-back titles. Only Newman-Haas racing, which started five years ahead of Ganassi, has more wins among active teams than the 45 of Ganassi drivers.

It was Ganassi who was first willing to cross the great divide that separated CART and the Indy Racing League after open-wheel racing split in 1996. He brought his then CART champion, Juan Montoya, to Indy in 2000, won the race and opened the door through which five other teams have followed, helping to restore the competitive image to the historic race.

This Indy 500 will see eight CART drivers in the field from four teams. The Penske team, with defending 500 champion Helio Castroneves and second-place finisher Gil de Ferran, is also back, but is now an IRL team following Penske's defection to the oval-racing circuit this season.

Ganassi, who will field a team in the IRL as well as his two teams in CART, also bought into the struggling two-car NASCAR team owned by Felix Sabatas a year ago and now has the Winston Cup points leader in driver Sterling Marlin.

He is a busy man.

In addition to his racing interests, the Pittsburgh native is vice president of FRG Group, a Pittsburgh-based holding company with interests in telecommunications, manufacturing and computers. He is also a partner in the Pittsburgh Pirates ownership group.

His love for racing started early and by the time he graduated from Duquesne University in 1982 with a degree in finance, he was already sitting in his first Indy Car, having qualified as the fastest rookie for the Indianapolis 500.

"It was great to outqualify all the rookies that year," he said. "I don't recall ever being so happy in my life to that point."

But being a race-car driver was not where Ganassi's success would come. After retiring as a driver five years later, he combined money he'd earned in the sport and family funds to buy into Patrick Racing in 1988.

The first thing he did was entice Morris Nunn, a brilliant engineer, to the team. The result of that decision was to bring the team a CART championship and an Indianapolis 500 victory with Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989.

"I know that was the key to that championship," said Ganassi, who eventually bought out Patrick.

And it was the first sign that his talents lay in his ability to hire the perfect people.

"You look at his history and you'd have to say that is his gift," said Brack, the 1999 Indy 500 winner who joined the Ganassi team this season. "Team owners are all a little eccentric. I drove for A.J. Foyt and they are similar. They come across to the outside world as a bit arrogant and rough, but both men are fair and straight and both have big hearts."

"He's very demanding," Junqueira said. "We have the same objectives, the same goals. The reason for this team's success is that he will do everything to win."

Ward, who has known Ganassi since they rode motorcycles together 15 years ago, said the owner simply knows what he wants and goes and gets it.

"Bruno is a little intimidated because Chip is an intimidating man," Ward said. "He's like Roger Penske. You don't want to make a mistake. But if you give 100 percent, he doesn't mind the mistakes. He's taken risks and he's been rewarded."

But, for a while, Ganassi wasn't sure he would be.

"For years we were a perennial eighth," said Ganassi, who turned 44 on Friday. "We were eighth in races, eighth in the championship points. It made me crazy. In 1994, I was to a point where I knew the philosophy was correct. We just needed something to validate it. Michael Andretti joined us and we won right away in Australia and that was a defining moment."

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