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Target signs off incredible 27-year Ganassi Indy run in Sonoma

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SONOMA, Calif. – There have been partnerships in racing, and then there have been epic, legendary, long-standing partnerships.

The partnership between Target and Chip Ganassi Racing has been just that over a period of 27 years, from 1990 through 2016. The near-inextricable link between the two of them, however, comes to an end this weekend at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), on the IndyCar side once the checkered flag falls, before Target continues with Ganassi’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series program into 2017.

Humble beginnings started in 1990 for Ganassi, who’d branched off to his own team after breaking away from U.E. “Pat” Patrick the year before. Eddie Cheever was the first Target driver for Ganassi that season.

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Cheever in 1990. Photo courtesy Chip Ganassi Racing

“It started with, if you go back then, that was the time I’d bought Patrick Racing. They were sort of going in one direction, I went for another,” Ganassi told a pool of reporters this year at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

“I’ve developed some long-standing, lifelong relationships. They were so much more than a sponsor. You’ve seen that over the year. Arguably, my team’s development is squarely on their shoulders, and maybe my own development to some extent. Like I said, my takeaway is, they’re greatest sponsor ever.”

And Target stuck with Ganassi through some tough early seasons. There were only two wins between 1990 and 1995 with Michael Andretti at Surfers’ Paradise and Toronto in 1994, and a rotating driver lineup where Cheever, Andretti, Arie Luyendyk, Robby Gordon, Jimmy Vasser and Bryan Herta all had flashes of brilliance but no sustained success in this period of IndyCar competition.

The floodgates opened for the partnership in 1996, following a team switch to the Reynard/Honda/Firestone package in the PPG IndyCar World Series.

Zanardi and Vasser. Photo courtesy Chip Ganassi Racing
Zanardi and Vasser. Photo courtesy Chip Ganassi Racing

Vasser, in his second year with the team, grew into a championship contender while a then-unheralded Italian named Alex Zanardi won a shootout for the second seat, to replace Herta.

That 1996 season kicked off a period of moves that came to define Target Chip Ganassi Racing as arguably of the team of this era, the last 21 seasons, where the team has won 11 championships and four Indianapolis 500s together. Vasser’s title some 20 years ago – the anniversary of which just passed – was the first title, while Zanardi’s epic move on Herta at the Corkscrew at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca came to be known as simply as “The Pass”.

All the while, Target was there, and there not just from a sponsorship standpoint – but an activation one as well.

“They did as much for the sport as for the team,” Ganassi said. “I think we were lucky to have those at a time when CART at the time was on an upswing. And they were squarely a part of it. They generate a lot of buzz. People still talk about those ads. Racing the motorhomes. Or going through the stores with shopping carts. Running radio control cars. We had a lot of fun with those.

“The other thing you take away from those is look at all the great things that came with them involved as part of the team. Zanardi on ‘The Pass’ at Laguna, Jimmy the first championship on the same day, and everything that’s happened since then.

“You guys have been around a long time. There was Roger [Penske] and Carl Haas and no one else got in that door. You had to go create your own door. Target did that for us.”

Tough decisions lay ahead come the turn of the century. Zanardi left for F1 after back-to-back titles in 1998; Juan Pablo Montoya took his place, then won the title a year later.

(Photo credit should read ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Montoya in 2000. Photo: Robert Sullivan/AFP/Getty Images; courtesy Chip Ganassi Racing

Ganassi – with Target – was first to cross the “picket line” a year later during the height of the IRL/CART split. Montoya promptly dominated the 2000 Indianapolis 500 in a car that was new to the team, while their day jobs – running a new Lola/Toyota/Firestone package in CART – brought more heartaches in terms of mechanical failures while pushing the boundaries of technology.

Where would Ganassi race? In 2002, the team split its strategy by running two – later three – full-time CART entries for Bruno Junqueira, new signing Kenny Brack and a then-21-year-old named Scott Dixon in midseason. Jeff Ward gave the team a foothold in the IRL, which was underrated at the time but important given Team Penske had switched from CART to the IRL fully that year.

Ganassi’s team fully switched to the IRL a year later in 2003, and Dixon won the title. More importantly, Target followed – knowing Ganassi had run the Indianapolis 500 each of the three previous seasons but not had it as a centerpiece of their full campaign.

“No question it was hard,” Ganassi said. “The time of the split, we had to make some difficult decisions. Whether it was ‘breaking away to go to the Speedway in 2000. I’d like to think we were some small part of bringing the thing back together.”

The success that followed from 1996 until now comes as a result of Target’s dedication in the tough, early years.

Said Ganassi, “The good news was, I think I was honest and said, ‘Here’s what’s going on, and what do we need to do better?’ And they said, ‘Let’s go get one of these,’ or whatever else we needed. That’s the kind of partner they were. If you needed something, they said go get it.”

The lone ‘lean years’ in the last 20 years came as the Toyota engine program’s competitiveness waned in 2004 and 2005. While Dixon stayed, from 2003 to 2005, Ganassi went through Tomas Scheckter, Tony Renna (who never got the chance to race before being killed in testing), Darren Manning, Ryan Briscoe, Jaques Lazier and Giorgio Pantano as teammates, but none were able to provide a similar spark. Only when Dan Wheldon and Honda joined alongside Dixon in 2006 did the fortunes turn back to regular race winners and title contenders – but Target stayed throughout.

Dixon’s only had one primary sponsor for Ganassi since joining the team midway through 2002. He’ll go into 2017 knowing the sponsor will be different, but he wouldn’t have been able to have the steady career he’s had without them.

“From my view, Target and Chip worked so well together,” Dixon said. “Chip alluded to the business side, but the relationships – for me, the relationships are important. I’ve spent a great part of my life working with Target. They’ve been the best sponsor. We’ve achieved a lot together. Some pretty crazy stats. For me, it’s been a blast.”

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Franchitti’s first points start at CGR, 2009 at St. Pete, saw him in the Air Wick/TomTom car.

Charlie Kimball never drove a Target car but said that stability they’ve provided is what has helped make Ganassi the powerhouse team it is.

“You see it in the longterm success of Chip Ganassi Racing,” said Kimball, who drives the No. 83 Tresiba Chevrolet. “Target’s long-tenured relationship has meant that they as a team have year-on-year stability.”

Although the red has been the long-standing primary color – either with white, black, or the yellow lightning bolt as the secondary color – sometimes the Target cars have gone all sorts of different colors.

That’s thanks to the business relationship where companies which sold their products at Target are smaller logos on the car, and occasionally, got their own paint job (see a couple examples to the right, that Franchitti ran).

2013-franchitti
Glad was one of several alternate schemes for Franchitti on the DW12. Here at Iowa in 2013.

“I’d say there 30 or 40 special ones. What can we do for others? Give ’em a paint job,” Ganassi said.

Overall, Ganassi said the decision for Target to leave IndyCar was a company business decision, pure and simple.

“It’s a business decision Target made. I don’t think there’s any secret message or ulterior motive, or hidden agenda. It’s not a referendum. There’s no sub story here.

“They’ve been in 27 years, and now they want to do something else.”

THE PARTICULAR STATS, 1990-2016

  • 21 drivers (Eddie Cheever, Arie Luyendyk, Robby Gordon, Michael Andretti, Bryan Herta, Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Montoya, Bruno Junqueira, Nicolas Minassian, Memo Gidley, Jeff Ward, Kenny Brack, Scott Dixon, Tomas Scheckter, Darren Manning, Ryan Briscoe, Jaques Lazier, Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan)
  • 101 wins (2 in 1994, 7 in 1996, 6 in 1997, 10 in 1998, 8 in 1999, 5 in 2000, 1 in 2001, 4 in 2002, 3 in 2003, 1 in 2005, 4 in 2006, 6 in 2007, 8 in 2008, 10 in 2009, 6 in 2010, 6 in 2011, 3 in 2012, 4 in 2013, 3 in 2014, 3 in 2015, 2 in 2016)
  • 11 championships (1996, Jimmy Vasser, 1997-1998, Alex Zanardi, 1999, Juan Pablo Montoya, 2003, 2008, 2013, 2015, Scott Dixon, 2009-2011, Dario Franchitti)
  • 4 Indianapolis 500 wins (2000, Juan Pablo Montoya, 2008, Scott Dixon, 2010, 2012, Dario Franchitti)

AN ASSORTMENT OF ALTERNATE LIVERIES/PRIMARIES

Target has had a variety of alternate liveries the last several years. Here’s some of the extra companies/entities that have been on Target cars as a separate, one-off primary paint scheme, via the last four primary Target drivers:

  • Scott Dixon: Clorox, Coca-Cola, Cottonelle, Degree, Jurassic World, Energizer, Brita, Commit, Coors Light
  • Tony Kanaan: Huggies, Glad, TNT, Suave for Men, Energizer, Lexar, GE Reveal
  • Dario Franchitti: T-Mobile, Cessna, GE Reveal, Energizer, Glad, Huggies, Belkin, Suave for Men, Lexar, Banana Boat, Cottonelle, Clorox, Downy, Kellogg’s, Nikon, Dixie, Breathe Right, Air Wick, LifeLock, Vaseline MEN Lotion, Polaroid, TomTom, Nicorette
  • Dan Wheldon: Polaroid, FujiFilm, Nicoderm CQ

Jimmy Vasser ran a Superman livery at Michigan in 1999 but neither he nor Alex Zanardi or Juan Pablo Montoya, or really any of the 2001-2005 drivers that followed, ran too many alternate liveries.

AN ASSORTMENT OF TARGET LIVERIES, 1990-2016 (all photos courtesy Chip Ganassi Racing)

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Daniel Ricciardo frustrated to crash out of home F1 qualifying

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Daniel Ricciardo made no secret of his frustration after crash out of Formula 1 qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, resigning himself to a 10th-place start for his home race on Sunday.

Ricciardo entered the Melbourne weekend aiming to become the first Australian to finish on the podium at his home race since the event became part of the F1 world championship in 1985.

Despite struggling with the setup on his RB13 car on Friday, Ricciardo looked poised to claim a top-five grid slot for Sunday’s race, only to lose control of his car at Turn 14 in Q3 and end the session in the wall.

“That was a tough one today. I don’t crash into the barriers often and the last place I want to do that is at home,” Ricciardo said after the session.

“But I feel I crashed for the right reason, as I was basically pushing and trying to find the limit and these things happen, so let’s say I’m not disappointed by the approach, it was just more of a frustrating outcome, starting 10th instead of being under the top five.”

Ever the optimist, Ricciardo said the difficult qualifying will only serve as greater motivation to fight back up the order and give his home fans a result to celebrate on Sunday.

“I knew the crowds would have also preferred to see me further up the grid and it would have been nice to put on a better performance than that but tomorrow is where the points are,” Ricciardo said.

“It’s a chance to create a bigger headline if I have a good race so that’s what will motivate me to do better tomorrow. I made it a bit more difficult for myself but it’s going to be alright.

“To get a good start in the race will be the key. I saved a set of ultra-softs in Q2, I know that not everyone in front of me has, so maybe that gives me a chance.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Valtteri Bottas disappointed with P3 start for Mercedes F1 debut

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Valtteri Bottas came away from qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix feeling disappointed despite securing third place on the grid for his first Formula 1 race as a Mercedes driver.

Bottas joined Mercedes over the winter following world champion Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from racing, and made his first official race weekend appearance for the Silver Arrows on Friday.

The ex-Williams driver made a splash in qualifying by running teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel close, but was left to settle for third on the grid after finishing three-tenths of a second off the pole time.

“Third position is not ideal. In general I’m not happy with the result,” Bottas admitted after qualifying.

“But what I’m really happy about and proud about [is] what the team has done again with this car. I only saw a very small part of the preparation with the new car and the new era of Formula 1, and it’s really nice to see that all the work has paid off and we’re fighting at the very front.

“It seems to be very close this year, especially here. Myself I didn’t get any perfect laps in, so not that satisfied.

“Tomorrow’s the day that matters. It seems like in the race starts we’ve been quite strong. If we can keep that form I had in practice, and have a nice and clean race and get some really good points.”

Bottas’ best finish in Australia currently stands at fifth place in 2014 with Williams, with the Finn never qualifying any higher than sixth at Albert Park in his four previous attempts.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Vettel: Front-row grid slot for Australia proof of Ferrari’s progress

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Sebastian Vettel believes that his charge to second place on the grid for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix acts as proof of the progress Ferrari’s Formula 1 operation has made over the winter.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites to take pole following an impressive showing in pre-season testing, prompting three-time champion Lewis Hamilton to name Ferrari as the leading team.

Hamilton rallied in qualifying to take pole position for Mercedes, beating Vettel by two-tenths of a second, but the Ferrari driver managed to fend off Valtteri Bottas in the second Silver Arrow and clinch a front-row berth.

The result marked Ferrari’s best qualifying result since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix – Vettel’s and Ferrari’s last pole and victory in F1 – and the German was encouraged by the result.

“I think we have a good car. I think we are working well as a team,” Vettel said.

“Things are improving. Obviously it’s nice to see that things are working, the car is working. I had a mixed day yesterday, but the confidence in the car was there from testing and I think we showed that again today.”

Vettel conceded that he felt his final lap in qualifying could have been faster, but doubts it would have been enough to catch pole-sitter Hamilton.

“In the end I was not entirely happy with my lap. I was pretty happy with the end, maybe not so much with the opening of the lap where we lost a bit too much,” Vettel said.

“But I think Lewis did a very good lap. I would have loved to, but I don’t think pole was up for grabs. Tomorrow I think we can do something in the race. The car feels good, we’ve improved it so the pace should be much better than it was yesterday when we had practice.

“It’s been a big winter for us, lots of change we’ve gone through as a team in the last 12 months, and for the better. I think the team is getting stronger.

“Obviously everyone is pushing very hard and it’s not so easy to come here with a long journey to get to Australia, but I think people are fired up and we are motivated for tomorrow.

“I think it’s the first good opportunity.”

Hamilton buoyed by sixth Australia F1 pole, ready for tight race

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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton was buoyed by his charge to pole position in Australian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday, but is braced for a tight race at the front of the pack.

Hamilton saw off a challenge from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and new Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to capture his sixth pole at Albert Park, and the 62nd of his F1 career.

Hamilton had doubts over Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari heading into the new year, making his charge to pole all the more meaningful as he paid tribute to the team members after qualifying.

“It’s been a fantastic weekend so far. It’s quite amazing to come here for I think the 11th time, and it feels like it was only yesterday that I came here and had my first race here in 2007,” Hamilton said.

“I’m just incredibly proud of my team. This rule change has been huge and such a massive challenge for everyone. The guys have just worked so hard to make this car what it is today.”

Despite taking pole by almost three-tenths of a second in Q3, Hamilton is braced for a close fight on Sunday with Vettel and Bottas, the latter starting his first race for Mercedes from third on the grid.

“Valtteri did a fantastic job given it’s his first qualifying session with the team. He did a great job and it’s great for Mercedes,” Hamilton said.

“Looking forward to the race, it’s close between us all. As you can see, there’s going to be a tight race this year I think.

“I think tomorrow is about putting all the work that’s gone in over the winter, all the work that’s gone through testing and this whole weekend and really put it to work tomorrow.

“I’ll make sure I get a good night’s sleep and come back tomorrow stronger than ever.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET on Sunday.