Photo courtesy of IMSA

Ganassi set to battle for title, to conclude epic Ford GT debut year

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Chip Ganassi Racing Teams have made winning championships in the Verizon IndyCar Series a habit, with 11 achieved since 1996. The team has also secured five GRAND-AM Rolex Series Daytona Prototype titles in the prior era of North American sports car racing before the merger and the eventual launch of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2014.

What would be a new accomplishment for Ganassi in 2016 would be a GT Le Mans class title, in a year when the team’s new jet fighters in wheels – the new Ford GTs – are up against the established heavyweights from Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari and BMW, albeit the latter two manufacturers also debuting new cars this year.

It’s been a learning year for Ganassi, long a standard bearer in the DP ranks but new to the GTLM scene this year.

The team’s already achieved arguably the biggest race win of the year with the 24 Hours of Le Mans triumph and now are setting their sights on winning the GTLM crown, and toppling the proverbial standard bearer in GT this millennium – Corvette Racing – in order to do so.

Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull explained going into Sunday’s Continental Tire Road Race Showcase that the culture of winning the team has instilled has been a daily motivating factor in the team’s maiden GTLM season, to achieve the success they have up to this point.

“I think we have a roomful of people here at Woodland Dr. in Indianapolis who have either by example, or by doing, have won races together, and work very unselfishly,” Hull told NBC Sports. “You try to get the most of today. We want to win every day. But we want to win with humility, and lose with dignity. That’s really what we’re all about.

“We have five carnivorous OEMs. Each defines their own technical culture with their cars, and their own automobiles. There’s so much passion from fans for cars. We underestimated that, perhaps.

“And to be honest with you, we’re still learning about the racing in this category. We’re learning about our car, our drivers, our people, and everything it takes. The racing is slightly different, yes, but it always is. You study the rules and make the best decisions you can.

“I’m not sure if people expected us to have early success or not. But we’ve practiced doing new things for a while. This is how people pull together in our building to get the most from our product.”

Asked who Hull and Ganassi have viewed as the target and the best team to learn from and he made no hesitation: it’s Corvette Racing.

“I would give a lot of credit to the Corvette Racing team,” Hull explained. “Just like when we came into IRL from CART, we studied the best people in the category. You watch how they race, how they practice, qualify, and what is their racecraft. At this point I don’t know if we’re a mirror image, but I have high respect for how they manage their process.”

Perhaps it’s fitting then, that it’s a Corvette versus Ford showdown that began with Sunday’s race at Road America and will continue for the final three races of the year later this month at Virginia International Raceway, then in September at Circuit of The Americas and in October at Road Atlanta.

At Road America, Ford looked poised to win its fourth IMSA race of the year with the No. 67 Ford GT pairing of Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe.

But apparent turbo issues on the final two laps left Westbrook needing to defend from a snarling pack behind him, and ultimately losing the lead on the final lap to Tommy Milner in the No. 4 Corvette.

It was a seismic shift in the championship that saw the No. 4 car, which was sixth in class not much earlier, extend its points lead from 10 to 13 on a day when the two cars could have left tied had the No. 67 won and the No. 4 ended sixth.

Hull said the team wouldn’t be in championship-contending position if not for the drivers that were selected. Briscoe and Joey Hand are Ganassi veterans while Westbrook and Dirk Mueller have been easy plug-and-play solutions.

“Chip Ganassi Racing is a big fan of talent that knows how to win,” Hull said. “And those four drivers possess all those attributes. We don’t have to teach them how to win races.

“Of course they were not the only ones we talked to, certainly. This time 12 months ago, my goodness, there was a line out the door. I would have liked to hire every one of them, to be honest with you.

“But they all drive the car for their teammates. We’ve had unselfish teammates in DP racing and we do now here. That then transfers directly to everyone who works on the cars, our two entries and one team of people.”

Hand and Mueller have been perhaps unlucky to not have won in IMSA this year, although they combined with Sebastien Bourdais to win at Le Mans – and it’s a given how much that triumph means not just to them, but to Ford and Ganassi’s programs.

For Hand, despite the lack of IMSA wins, the frustration isn’t there because it hasn’t been for a lack of pace – just a lack of luck.

“It was a great morale booster for the other car to win at Laguna,” Hand told NBC Sports. “And that momentum carried us into Le Mans. That shows what a team effort it is.

“I think you saw at Laguna in the 66, we had the pace. They had the strategy. Same thing at Mosport where we were in the mix in the 66, then the 67 had the alternate strategy and it worked. I don’t feel bad, because we’re in the mix. It’s one thing if you lose and you’re slow. But now, we’ve been in contention a lot this year.”

And for Hand, coming back to GT after several years in DPs hasn’t been that difficult an adjustment period. The competition remains fierce; so too does his desire to win.

“It’s not a lot different. The differences are subtle,” he said. “You’re always careful in traffic, between the GTD cars we go by and the PCs who don’t pass you as fast.

“But in GT, it’s pro/pro with these really good manufacturers, so you have a proper dogfight every race. That’s why we love this class, and that’s why we’re in it.

“The GT class is still the one to watch.”

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”