Ganassi, Pruett excited for Ford future

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Tuesday’s announcement – a long-awaited and anticipated confirmation that Chip Ganassi Racing’s TUDOR United SportsCar Championship effort would switch from BMW to Ford Ecoboost engines – changes the game in the merged series before it’s even run its first race.

How, you ask? The Michael Shank Racing team was likely to be Ford’s flagship team, and it has had the longest history with the manufacturer in GRAND-AM Rolex Series history. Ganassi, though, brings the championship pedigree (five GRAND-AM titles, the last three with BMW) and consistent week-in, week-out threat to win that Shank’s team has often struggled to produce.

That’s no knock on Shank, but when you’re the scrappy, plucky underdog compared to the “Goliath” that is CGR, it’s always more of an uphill struggle to achieve the same results on a regular basis.

If nothing else, Ganassi has given himself a new nickname as a result of the partnership.

“You can call me ‘Mr. Detroit,’ I guess, with having both Ford and Chevrolet now,” Ganassi told me Tuesday at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas.

“For many years we’ve been in different series, with IndyCar, sports car and NASCAR, and we’ve been under three manufacturers for a long time. So now, we’re down to two manufacturers. It’s exciting and it’s really no different than a car dealer with more brands under his belt.”

Indeed it’s Ganassi who has spread his wings to have two of North America’s “Big Three” auto manufacturers at once. But while the decision to not bring everything under the Chevrolet umbrella may come as a surprise, Ganassi explained that the Ecoboost platform, a turbocharged V6 built more for efficiency, was a better fit for his sports car operation.

“I’ve been a proponent of ‘economy car,’ mileage, ‘going green,’ renewable, all these sort of buzzwords over the last 10 years,” he said. “Somewhere along the line we lost ‘performance.’ With Ecoboost, we’ll have economy, and performance. I’ve been preaching that you can have that in racing. It’s about using the least fuel as you can to get to the finish, right?”

Lead driver of one of the CGR Riley Ford Daytona Prototypes is Scott Pruett, himself a five-time Rolex DP champion and a five-time overall winner of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

For Pruett, the switch to Ford marks a homecoming and an anniversary. He’s also driven for the “blue oval” in IndyCar and NASCAR.

“The last time was when Doug Yates, interestingly, was building the engines on the ’32 Tide ride,'” Pruett said. “And it’s pretty interesting, I was telling the Ford guys this story. 30 years ago this month was my first opportunity to drive a big car, and it was a Ford: a front-engined Mustang GTP, ’83, Elkhart Lake, Wis.”

Pruett explained the challenges the DP teams are facing with such a condensed timeline between making this announcement and upgrading the car with the necessary performance and aero adjustments, before the team’s first scheduled test December 14-15 at Daytona. One of the few constants is staying in Continental Tires, which P2 teams need to adapt to.

“We’re getting the engine fit, components organized; it’s a lot of reorganization to move from a normally aspirated V8 to a turbocharged V6, and do all the other updates,” he said.

“It’s unfortunate (all the rule news) is coming now, because realistically this should have happened in June and July. That makes it more difficult for the teams, considering the reality that this largely falls on the Daytona Prototype guys, not the P2 guys.”

Ganassi confirmed two DPs will run at the Rolex 24 and continues to pursue the second full-season car there. The team adds a fourth IndyCar for Tony Kanaan in 2014, and remains constant with two Chevrolets in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

MRTI: Barber Motorsports Park Preview

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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After a month break, the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires is back in action this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, with two of its series tacking the 2.38-mile road course in Birmingham, Alabama.

Both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires have double-headers this weekend, with Pro Mazda returning to Barber after not running there last year.

The season-opening weekend in St. Petersburg was a tale of two completely different stories, with two different winners – Pato O’Ward and Santi Urrutia – and more than a fair bit of chaos for Indy Lights, while Pro Mazda saw Rinus Veekay sweep the weekend.

Talking points for both series heading into Barber are below.

Indy Lights

Santi Urrutia heads to Barber leading the Indy Lights championship on the strength of finishes of second and first in St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Santi Urrutia displayed great patience at St. Petersburg, finishing second in Race 1 and winning Race 2 after rivals like O’Ward and Colton Herta faltered. However, Barber has not been one of his better tracks, with finishes of 11th, 15th, and 13th in three of his four Indy Lights starts. Yet, he did win Race 2 at Barber 2016, so he has had success there before, and he will be one of the favorites heading into the weekend.
  • Pato O’Ward looks poised to be a title contender in 2018 and will look to avenge a somewhat disappointing outing at St. Petersburg. O’Ward had the speed to sweep the weekend, winning Race 1 handily and dominating Race 2, but a mistake late in the race saw him overshoot Turn 4 and briefly stall before he could rejoin, relegating him to seventh. If O’Ward can show the pace he showed at St. Pete, he might end up being the man to beat.
  • Colton Herta will look to rebound from a St. Pete weekend in which he flashed the speed that caught everyone’s attention last year, but also committed the same mistakes that ultimately prevented him from taking a championship. After finishing third in Race 1, Herta crashed while chasing then leader O’Ward in Race 2. Herta won Race 2 at Barber last year, and getting another win this weekend, along with staying mistake free, would go a long way to erasing his problems from St. Pete.
  • Aaron Telitz is also looking to rebound after a down weekend, as his St. Petersburg weekend lasted all of two corners across both races – he won the Pole for Race 1, but crashed in Race 2 qualifying, and the Belardi Auto Racing team could not repair the car to allow him to race. After the team borrowed a chassis from Carlin for Race 2, Telitz get collected with Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni right off the start, and he crashed again, this time in Turn 2. Telitz finished on the podium at Barber in 2016, the year he won the Pro Mazda championship, and he’ll look for more of the same this weekend.

Pro Mazda

Rinus VeeKay swept the Pro Mazda weekend in St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Rinus Veekay had a perfect weekend to open the Pro Mazda season. The Juncos Racing driver outdueled Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson for the Race 1 victory, and then ran away with Race 2 to complete the weekend sweep. Veekay was expected to be a title contender after moving up to Pro Mazda in 2018, and if he can repeat his St. Pete performance, then he may leave Barber as the heavy favorite in the championship.
  • Not to be forgotten, Parker Thompson sits second in the Pro Mazda title chase, and looks to avenge losing out to Veekay in St. Pete Race 1, and then fading somewhat to finish fifth in Race 2. Thompson was the only driver to regularly challenge Veekay and Oliver Askew in the 2017 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda season, and he and Exclusive Autosport have adapted nicely to the new Tatuus PM-18. If they can show the same form at Barber, and then finish the job with at least one trip to Victory Lane, then it could set the stage for another titanic Pro Mazda championship fight.
  • Last year’s USF2000 champion Oliver Askew had a quiet weekend in St. Pete, finishing fifth and sixth in the two races. He swept the Barber races in USF2000 last year, and will need a similar performance to vault himself forward from his current place of sixth in the standings.
  • Carlos Cunha and David Malukas head to Barber third and fourth in the championship after solid St. Pete weekends – Cunha had finishes of fourth and third, while Malukas had finishes of seventh and second. Neither was necessarily looked at as a title combatant entering 2018, but repeat performances in Barber could vault them into title contention.

A full weekend schedule, including the Mazda Road to Indy sessions, can be viewed here.

**Note: NBCSN will broadcast Sunday’s Indy Lights race (Race 2 from the weekend) on Monday, April 23.**

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