PWC: All that’s old is new again for Aschenbach’s Blackdog return

Photo: Blackdog Speed Shop

Few things are known “tried-and-true” quantities in the new-look GTS class for Pirelli World Challenge in 2016.

So Blackdog Speed Shop is going back to the future this year to bring back one of the most successful combinations in recent years: Lawson Aschenbach in its No. 10 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R.

In a weird twist, Aschenbach returns to the team where he won his two most recent of four World Challenge titles, back-to-back in 2013 and 2014 after a year out of racing full-time in the series.

He still was on site in a handful of races in a coaching role and also deputized for an unwell teammate Tony Gaples at Barber Motorsports Park in GTS, but Michael Cooper admirably stepped up to fill the seat en route to a GTS class title of his own. Cooper has gotten one of sports car racing’s most plum promotions, into the No. 8 Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.R in the GT class previously driven by Andy Pilgrim.

Meanwhile for 2016, Aschenbach is in the Z/28.R that premiered in World Challenge the final weekend of 2014. Despite it being a different model Camaro than the previous generation SS Camaro Aschenbach drove in 2013 and 2014, the reunion with the Gaples and Ray Sorenson-led Blackdog team was like getting back on a bike.

Lawson Aschenbach. Photo: Courtesy of IMSA
Lawson Aschenbach. Photo: Courtesy of IMSA

“It was pretty seamless, as I know Tony and Ray Sorenson well,” Aschenbach told NBC Sports. “They have such a professional organization. It’s realistically plug-and-play.

“But I’ll be talking to someone new on the radio. They also brought in Ryan McCarthy as my engineer. He’s a great asset to the team and in general, so I’m happy to be back and see everyone.

“The car’s come a long way since Barber. We’ll slowly transition the setups. We can gain a little bit each weekend.”

GTS, however, has come an even longer way since Aschenbach last raced full-time in the category.

Gone are usual title rivals Jack Baldwin (Porsche Cayman S) and Mark Wilkins (Kia Optima turbo), among others, gone are a number of the same cars from 2013-2014 and more importantly to the racing, is the GT class within GTS races. Both classes raced combined through 2014, but as each class car count grew, they were split prior to 2015.

Aschenbach took an interesting viewpoint on the GT/GTS split.

“It’s definitely better for GTS to be a single class race, and the racing is better,” he said. “It should eliminate a lot of potential problems with GT overtaking slow GTS cars, which creates issues.

“Back in Houston ’13 – it was raining – I almost lost that race, and the championship, because of a GT car limping around the track. So I’m a big fan of single-class racing, it helps bring a lot of clarity and eliminates confusion.

“We need to get eyes not just on GT, but also GTS; sometimes having a single class is better for drivers and fans.”

GTS’ newness is primarily with the range of GT4-spec cars, or “kit cars” entering for 2016. It’s created a random variable with new cars such as the KTM X-BOW, Ginetta GT4, SIN R1 GT4 and Maserati GranTurismo MC entering the class along with a host of new drivers. Trying to pinpoint potential star cars or drivers, then, is a question mark.

“There’s a lot of new names, faces, and cars that you mention, so realistically I don’t know who’s gonna be the guy this year because of all the question marks!” Aschenbach said. “(Director of Competition) Marcus Haselgrove has a tough job ahead of GT4 cars with current spec. He’s smart and super gets it. Until that balances itself out, there’s a little bit of a question mark.

“Guys like Brett (Sandberg) in the X-BOW and Dean Martin being strong in Mustang should be good.

“For us, I have no concerns regarding Blackdog. We’re a very consistent car from the series standpoint. They have so much data, they know where we can be at each track.”

Aschenbach – who as in past years will pull double duty with his IMSA commitments, this time in the No. 9 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS (GT Daytona) he shares with Matt Bell – said the Z/28.R and Audi are closer to drive than the Camaro Z/28.R in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and the previous generation Camaro SS when he was last in World Challenge.

“The difference in feeling from a GS car to GTS is quite a bit more than the difference between a GTD car and GTS car,” Aschenbach explained. “In a GS car its extremely heavy, limited grip, not much aero. It’s very different. Definitely changes your driving style quite a bit.

“The Audi and Camaro will be a lot easier this year, with good grip, good area, but similar driving characteristics. It’s my third time of doing the double with Blackdog, and this time I’ll have a better understanding compared to the past.”

The past was successful, but Aschenbach is hoping he starts stronger and doesn’t need to rely on the usual “Mid-Ohio starts Aschenbach’s comeback” story. In his last four Mid-Ohio starts in 2013 and 2014, Aschenbach has three wins and a third place, to score nearly all possible points.

“I’m not gonna lie, I’m sick of coming from behind, trying to win at the last race,” Aschenbach laughed. “But in the end, you take it as you get it. It would be nice to start the season better with a couple good finishes.

“The start is a little bit more of an unknown, as we don’t know what to expect at COTA, but the goal is to win races right away. We have a great package. We’ll be pushing like heck to make sure to get podiums.

“Wins will be important early, as the balance changes throughout the year. You have to try to really pounce, and get a win when you’re capable of doing so.”

For a guy that’s been a big part of the fabric of World Challenge for nearly a decade, seeing Aschenbach back only revitalizes him – and the series – after his one-year absence.

“I’ll tell you what, I wish I was around (last year),” he said. “Not only with the competition in GTS, but seeing the GT3 cars in GT was fantastic.

“It’s an exciting time for the sport and for the series. You could see how many fans are aware of World Challenge. There were some growing pains. But they seemed to right the ship. Even better things this year.

“I think the series in taking that direction with the GT3 platform was obviously the right move. It was a long time coming. Every driver wants to be in GT, but GTS is good too.

“When I first started talking to Ray and Tony end of ’12, we started talking. I knew what they were capable of, as it seemed to be a very fast car with Andy Lee driving at the time.

“I wanted to make this deal happen. We’ve got a really good legacy in place, with a long-term, stable program, for GM and Chevrolet in GTS.

“To come out first year with a championship, then fast forward and have the team win three straight championships, there’s a great legacy being built. We have big expectations now, as we did every year.”

‘Baby Borgs’ bring special Indy 500 bonds, memories for Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi

Ganassi Ericsson Indy
Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner

THERMAL, Calif. – Winning the Indy 500 is a crowning achievement for driver and car owner, but for Chip Ganassi, last May’s victory by Marcus Ericsson had meaning even beyond just capturing one of the world’s greatest sporting events.

When Ganassi was 5 years old and growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, his father, Floyd, attended a convention in Indianapolis in 1963. Floyd went to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to tour the track and visit the former museum that used to stand next to the main gate on 16th and Georgetown.

Ganassi’s father brought young Chip a souvenir from the gift shop. It was an 8-millimeter film of the 1963 Indy 500, a race won by the legendary Parnelli Jones.

“I must have watched it about 1,000 times,” Ganassi recalled. “More importantly than that, something you did when you were 5 years old is still with you today.

“I was 50 years old when I celebrated my Thanksgiving with Parnelli. It dawned on me that something I did when I was 5 years old took me to when I was 50 years old. That’s pretty special.”

Ericsson and Ganassi were presented with their “Baby Borgs,” the mini-replicas of the Borg-Warner Trophy, in a ceremony Feb. 2 at The Thermal Club (which played host to NTT IndyCar Series preseason testing). The win in the 106th Indy 500 marked the sixth time a Ganassi driver won the biggest race in the world.

Ganassi will turn 65 on May 24, just four days before the 107th Indianapolis 500 on May 28. The 2023 race will mark the 60th anniversary of the victory by Jones, who is now the oldest living winner of the Indianapolis 500 at 89.

Jones wanted to do something special for Ericsson and Ganassi, so each was given framed photos personally inscribed by Jones.

Parnelli Jones (Steve Shunck Photo For BorgWarner)

“Congratulations Marcus Ericsson and my good friend Chip Ganassi on winning the 2022 Indianapolis 500,” Jones said in remarks conveyed by BorgWarner publicist Steve Shunck. “There is no greater race in the whole world and winning it in 1963 was by far the biggest thrill in my life.”

Ganassi’s relationship with his racing hero began 60 years ago, but the two have shared some important moments since then.

It was Jones that signed off on Ganassi’s first Indianapolis 500 license in 1982. Jones was one of the veteran observers who worked with Ganassi and other rookie drivers that year to ensure they were capable of competing in the high-speed, high-risk Indianapolis 500.

When Ganassi turned 50, he got to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner with Jones.

“We’ve been friends over the years,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “He wrote me a personal note and sent me some personal photographs. It really says what this race is all about and how important it is to win the biggest auto race in the world.”

Michelle Collins, the director of global communications and marketing for BorgWarner, presented the “Baby Borgs,” first to Ganassi and then to Ericsson.

“More special is winning the Indianapolis 500,” Ganassi said during the presentation. “It’s been a big part of my life. I want to call out my buddy, Roger Penske, and thank him for the stewardship of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and what it means to us. It’s about the history, the tradition and, to me, it’s about the people that have meant so much in my life.

“Thanks for the trophy, Marcus.”

Marcus Ericsson and Chip Ganassi hold their Baby Borgs while posing with the Borg-Warner Trophy (Bruce Martin).

The Baby Borg presentation also came on the birthday of sculptor William Behrends, who has crafted the Bas-relief sterling silver face of each winner on the Borg-Warner Trophy since 1990. The “Baby Borg” presents each winner with a miniature of one of the most famous trophies in sports.

“I have to thank BorgWarner for everything that has happened since winning the Indianapolis 500, including the trip to Sweden,” said Ericsson, who took a November victory lap in his native country. “I’m very thankful for that because it’s memories that are going to be with me for the rest of my life.

“To bring the Borg-Warner Trophy to my hometown, seeing all the people there on the city square on a dark day in the middle of November. It was filled with people and that was very special.

“I’m very proud and honored to be part of Chip Ganassi Racing. To win the Indianapolis 500 with that team is quite an honor. It’s a team effort and a lot of people worked very hard to make this happen.

“Our focus now is to go back-to-back at the Indy 500.”

If Ericsson is successful in becoming the first driver to win back-to-back Indy since Helio Castroneves in 2001-02, he can collect an additional $420,000 in the Borg-Warner Rollover Bonus. With Castroneves the last driver to collect, the bonus has grown to an astronomical amount over 21 years.

Ericsson is from Kumla, Sweden, so the $420,000 would have an exchange rate of $4,447,641.67 Swedish Kronor.

“It’s a nice thing to know I could get that if I do win it again,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “But the Indianapolis 500 with its history as the biggest and greatest race in the world, it doesn’t matter with the money, with the points, with anything. Everyone is going to go out there and do everything to win that race.

“It’s great to know that, but I will race just as hard.”

Marcus Ericsson points at the newest face on the Borg-Warner Trophy (Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner).

A popular slogan in racing is “Chip Likes Winners.” After winning the 106th Indy 500, Ganassi must really love Ericsson.

“It doesn’t get much bigger than that, does it? I’m very thankful to be driving for Chip,” Ericsson said. “He likes winners and winning the Indianapolis 500, it doesn’t get better than that.”

When Ericsson was presented with his Baby Borg, he stood off to the side and admired it the way a child looks at a special gift on Christmas morning. The wide-eyed amazement of his career-defining moment was easy to read and met with delight by executives of BorgWarner (an automotive and technology company that has sponsored the Borg-Warner Trophy since its 1935 debut).

“I noticed that immediately and I was watching him look at it wishing I had a camera to capture that,” Collins told NBC Sports. “But maybe not because we always have our phones in front of us and it’s nice to take in that moment as it is. That is what makes the moment well worth it.”

Marcus Ericsson (Bruce Martin)

Said BorgWarner executive vice president and chief strategic officer Paul Farrell: “It’s very special to have the big trophy that has been around since 1935 and to have a piece of that. Hopefully it’s something that (Ericsson) cherishes. We think it’s special, and clearly, Marcus Ericsson thinks it is very special.”

The trophy process begins shortly after the race as the winner has the famed Borg-Warner Wreath placed around his neck, and the Borg-Warner Trophy is put on the engine cover. The next morning, the winner meets with Behrends, who has been sculpting the faces on the trophy since Arie Luyendyk’s first victory in 1990. Later in the year, the winner visits Behrends’ studio in Tryon, North Carolina, for a “Live Study.”

The process takes several more steps before the face is reduced to the size of an egg and casted in sterling silver. It is attached to the permanent Borg-Warner Trophy and unveiled at a ceremony later in the year. Ericsson’s face was unveiled last October during a ceremony in Indianapolis.

That’s when it hit Ericsson, a three-time winner in IndyCar after going winless in Formula One over 97 starts from 2014-18.

“Until then, it was strange because you are so busy with your season right after the Indy 500 you don’t really get much time to sit back and think about what you had accomplished,” Ericsson said. “It was the offseason before I really realized what I had done.”

The permanent trophy remains on display at Indianapolis Motor Speedway but has been known to travel with the winning driver on special tours, such as the Nov. 3-7 trip to Sweden.

“It’s been incredible to see the amount of interest in me and the IndyCar Series and the Indy 500,” Ericsson said. “The trophy tour with the Borg-Warner Trophy we did in November really made a huge impact in Sweden. I was on every TV show, morning TV, magazines, newspapers, everywhere. People are talking about IndyCar racing. People are talking about Marcus Ericsson. It’s been huge.

“I was back in Sweden last month for the Swedish Sports Awards and I finished third in the Sports Performance of the Year. Motorsports is usually not even nominated there, and I finished third. That says a lot about the interest and support I’ve gotten back home in Sweden.”

Ericsson continued to reap the rewards of his Indianapolis 500 victory last week at the lavish Thermal Club, about a 45-minute drive from Palm Springs, California.

Earlier in the day before the Baby Borg presentation, Ericsson, and Chip Ganassi were among the 27 car-driver combinations that completed the first day of IndyCar’s “Spring Training” on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile road course. The next day, Ericsson turned the test’s fastest lap.

The 32-year-old still seems to be riding the wave, along with his girlfriend, Iris Tritsaris Jondahl, a Greece native who also lived in Sweden and now lives with Ericsson in Indianapolis.

“Today, receiving my Baby Borg, it was another thing of making it real,” Ericsson said. “It’s not a dream. It’s reality. To get the Baby Borg and bring it home. My girlfriend, Iris, and I are house hunting, looking for a house in Indianapolis. It will definitely have a very special place in our new home.”

Marcus Ericsson and girlfriend Iris Tritsaris Jondahlc share a kiss at the Baby Borg presentation (Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner).

Ericsson told NBC Sports his most cherished trophy before getting his Baby Borg was for his first NTT IndyCar Series win in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix in 2021.

“It was such a huge win for me and such a huge breakthrough for me and my career,” he said. “After that, it catapulted me into a top driver in IndyCar.”

The Brickyard win was another level for Ericsson, who moved to Ganassi in 2020.

“Marcus kept himself in the race all day,” Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports. “Anybody that ran a race like Marcus ran, maybe you deserve the race win, but you don’t always get it. Marcus did everything that it took, and we are really, really proud of him.”

Ericsson also proved last year to be one of the best oval drivers in the series, a much different form of racing than he experienced until he came to the United States.

“Racing in Europe and around the world, I always liked high-speed corners,” he explained. “It was always my favorite. I always had this idea if I go to IndyCar and race on the ovals, it is something that would suit me and my driving style. I was always excited to try that. When I came to IndyCar and started to drive on ovals, I liked it straight away. It worked for me and my style.

“The first few attempts at Indy, I had good speed, but it was always some small mistakes that got me out of contention. I learned from them. I’m very proud I was able to pull it off, but it was a lot of hard work behind that.”

Michelle Collins of BorgWarner presented Baby Borgs to Marcus Ericsson and Chip Ganassi at a ceremony also attended by Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull (Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner).

The victory in the Indianapolis 500 is etched in history, as is Ericsson’s face on the trophy.

“It’s such a special thing,” the driver said. “The BorgWarner people and IndyCar and everyone at IMS, I get to experience so many cool things since winning the Indy 500. It’s a win that keeps on giving. It never ends. It still does.

“I can’t wait to get back to Indianapolis, the month of May, as the champion. I still have to pinch myself. It’s a dream, for sure.”

Ganassi doesn’t have to pinch himself — all he needs to do is look at his collection of Baby Borgs.

His first Indy 500 win — as a team co-owner with Pat Patrick — came in 1989 with Emerson Fittipaldi’s thrilling duel against Al Unser Jr.

In 1990, Ganassi formed Chip Ganassi Racing. Juan Pablo Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000, Scott Dixon in 2008, Dario Franchitti in 2010 and 2012 and Ericsson in 2022.

“It’s a feather in the team’s cap for sure just to have our representation on the Borg-Warner Trophy with five other drivers,” Ganassi said. “It’s a testament to the team, a testament to Mike Hull that runs the team in Indianapolis. I just feel really lucky to be a part of it. It’s great to work with a great team of great people.

“Just to relive that moment again and again never gets old; never goes away. I’m really lucky to be in the position I’m in. It’s an honor to represent the team with the great people that it took to bring Marcus across the finish line. He and I get to celebrate events like this, but it’s really about the people at Chip Ganassi Racing in Indianapolis that pull this all together.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500