As some of the pieces of Chip Ganassi Racing team entries are maneuvered around ahead of the 2015 season, there’s one thing that needs to improve compared to the last two years: results at the start of the season.
Scott Dixon has delivered an incredible streak of eight years in a row finishing in the top three in points, but the last two years have seen him struggle a bit out of the gate in most races.
Tony Kanaan took a few races to get comfortable in the climate after switching from KV Racing Technology in 2013.
Charlie Kimball and Ryan Briscoe had decent first halves, but improved more in the second half of the year.
All told, CGR has played from behind the last couple years since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 in 2012. They’ve also had a number of changes to work though both last year and this one.
Last year, the team change at the start of the year was a switch from Honda to Chevrolet engines. On the driver side, Kanaan replaced the retired Dario Franchitti, who moved into a team advisor role, and Briscoe joined as the team re-added a fourth car after one year without it.
This year, the big changes are the adoption of the new Chevrolet aero kits, and a rotation of the team’s four engineers. Chris Simmons, Franchitti’s longtime engineer, moves to Dixon’s car as Eric Bretzman has been reassigned to Ganassi’s NASCAR program.
Kanaan’s longtime engineer Eric Cowdin will work with rookie Sage Karam. Meanwhile Todd Malloy joins the team from Bryan Herta Autosport, and will work with Kanaan.
For both Dixon and Kanaan, the chance to develop the new aero kits presents a revived opportunity for the first time since earlier in their careers in CART when they had a new chassis every year.
“It’s been split up between the teams. The Phoenix test is all we could go off,” Dixon said during the IndyCar media day in February. “The loads were higher, speeds faster. It’s a track we never ran at before. The track has gone through a change, different corner radius, banking, all that kind of stuff. Kind of hard for a reference.
“I think we understand the car is going to be more efficient on both sides of the fence with both manufacturers. Physically the cars are going to become more demanding.
“It’s kind of all we know at this point until we get to tracks and see comparative times, the loads in competitive environments rather than just fact checking.”
Kanaan liked his first laps in the car as well at Phoenix, early in the testing process.
“It’s hard to give a comparison because it was on a track that I hadn’t driven the new DW12 currently. But it felt good.
“We had a pretty good day there. We did maybe like 500 miles in one day. It was very reliable and it felt good.”
They hope to build off what have been difficult starts the last couple years.
Dixon has finished in the top five in four of the first 10 races, each of the last two years. Last year, Dixon ended the year with seven top-fives in eight races; the year before, it was seven in nine, including four wins.
In his first year with CGR, Kanaan only had one top-five finish in the first 11 races, before ending with five in the last seven.
Briscoe’s improvements were subtler. After six top-12 finishes in the opening 10 races, Briscoe matched that number in the last eight, including five top-10s.
Kimball finished each of the last nine races after posting three DNFs in the opening nine.
Karam replaces Briscoe in the team’s fourth car for this year. Right now, the Indy Lights champion is only confirmed for the first race of the season in St. Petersburg, but is expected to run further races.
Collectively, the quartet is working from a one team, one goal standpoint to start stronger this year.
“We obviously work very hard as a team. At Chip Ganassi Racing, it’s open book, and we try to push the envelope to advance all the cars,” Dixon said.
“Some days you have to understand maybe it’s not your day. But when it comes down to the wire, you’re going to fight your teammates as hard as anybody else. The last thing we get told is to make sure you don’t crash each other out of the race by Chip. That’s something we focus on. In the past we’ve done a pretty good job of that and hopefully that continues.”
“To have all the IndyCars under one roof, really working well together as a group and organization translates well,” Kimball added. “When you finish 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, I don’t think the boss cares who wins the race as long as one of his cars wins and one of his cars wins second.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a bigger smile when Scott, Dario and I finished 1-2-3 on the podium at Pocono a couple years ago, so we’d like to replicate that again coming up.”
And ideally for the team, they’d want to do it earlier in the year rather than later.
The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.
To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.
“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.
“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?
“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.
“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”
The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.
The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.
Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.
“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”
The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.
With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).
“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.
“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”
On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.
Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.
His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).
Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.
Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.
Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.
“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.
“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.
“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”
But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.
“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.
“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.
“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”
Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.
“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.
“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”
Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.
“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.
“It’s pretty good.”
The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.
Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?
“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.
“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?