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.

IndyCar 2017 driver review: Remaining part-time drivers

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MotorSportsTalk wraps up its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017 with the remaining part-time drivers, after the 23 drivers who ran anywhere from six events to the full season.

There were 15 drivers who made four or fewer starts this season. Some overly impressed or drew major headlines in their limited opportunities.

They were, by start count:

  • Sebastian Saavedra (No. 17 Juncos Racing Chevrolet, No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, 4)
  • Gabby Chaves (No. 88 Harding Racing Chevrolet, 3)
  • Oriol Servia (No. 16 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, 3)
  • Jack Harvey (No. 50 MSR w/Andretti Autosport Honda, No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, 3)
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet, 2)
  • Zach Veach (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, No. 40 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet, 2)
  • Fernando Alonso (No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti Honda, 1)
  • Pippa Mann (No. 63 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, 1)
  • Jay Howard (No. 77 Team One Cure/SPM Honda, 1)
  • Sage Karam (No. 24 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Chevrolet, 1)
  • James Davison (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, 1)
  • Tristan Vautier (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, 1)
  • Buddy Lazier (No. 44 Lazier Racing Partners Chevrolet, 1)
  • Zachary Claman DeMelo (No. 13 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, 1)
  • Robert Wickens (No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, Practice Only)

Going through them, in terms of impact, Alonso’s one-off at the Indianapolis 500 easily resonated loudest. It was incredible to witness the amount of buzz, worldwide support and media attention that Alonso generated, and fueled a running joke that he was the only driver in this year’s race. It was capped off when he beat Ed Jones to race rookie-of-the-year honors, despite losing a Honda engine late while Jones dragged a broken Dale Coyne Racing car to third place.

Elsewhere, Chaves and Harding Racing’s debut was the most unexpected pleasant surprise from a driver and team standpoint. A solid ninth at Indianapolis was followed by an even more impressive fifth at Texas. Their three oval races laid the groundwork for a step-up to a full-time entry in 2018.

Montoya proved he still had it with a pair of top-10s in a fifth Team Penske car. He’ll be in Penske’s Acura prototype sports car program next year and the hope is that we haven’t seen the last of him in IndyCar.

Saavedra re-established himself on the scene after a year-plus hiatus. The likable Colombian overachieved given low expectations with two different teams. Whether it was enough to see him and longtime backer AFS Racing for further races in 2018 is unknown.

Harvey and Veach each came up to IndyCar for a cup of coffee, both rookies in the Indianapolis 500 alongside Alonso and Jones while also getting additional road course starts. Neither of them looked a world-beater in their road course outings owing to tough circumstances, but they logged key laps and miles to build for a brighter future from 2018 and beyond in recently announced multi-year programs (Harvey with Michael Shank Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and Veach with Andretti Autosport).

Of the rest, Servia’s results left a bit to be desired, a potential top-five fading in Indy when he and Davison collided to trigger a multi-car pileup. Davison and Vautier impressed in their lone starts of the year with their pace and aggression but were unable to parlay them into results.

Mann made her usual Indy 500 one-off entry and secured her best finish in six starts, but pressed through a challenging month that she’ll be keen to improve upon in 2018. Her day was significantly better than Howard’s and Lazier’s, who both ended their ‘500 bows in the wall, and with Howard having contributed to Scott Dixon’s savage accident when he crashed in Turn 1 and then came into Dixon’s path.

“ZCD” made his debut at Sonoma in a second RLL Racing entry and did rather well, competitive on lap times as the weekend progressed on a track that’s notoriously low-grip. Wickens never got that far. Despite a preseason ride swap with his close friend James Hinchcliffe that reignited his passion for open-wheel after several years, and with Mercedes announcing it would pull the plug on its DTM program after 2018, Wickens got only a practice day at Road America before Mikhail Aleshin sorted his visa issues. The circumstances evolved in Wickens’ favor at season’s end to see him get the second seat for 2018 at SPM after all.