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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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Podcast: James Hinchcliffe might find a silver lining in disguise at Indy after ‘an emotional roller coaster’

Richard W. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway
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INDIANAPOLIS – No one could blame James Hinchcliffe for going incognito at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, and he might do exactly that on the eve of the Indianapolis 500.

But it won’t be because the SPM driver is bummed about missing the biggest race of the IndyCar season. Actually, it’s because the crushing disappointment of getting bumped from the field a week ago might have a silver lining.

“I’ve heard all these stories from way back when to the present day of what it’s like just outside the speedway on Saturday night before the race,” Hinchcliffe said during a new episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast that was recorded and released Saturday. “Up Georgetown (Road), in the Coke Lot, you hear all these crazy stories about all these crazy parties and the rest of it.

“And honestly, we’re always isolated in our little bubble inside the speedway in the drivers lot. Part of me is tempted to dress up in disguise and just venture out there and see what it’s all about. I’m very tempted to do that and maybe document some of the exploits out there.”

And if Hinchcliffe lingers well into the night? Well, it’s not as if he has a 500-mile race to worry about Sunday.

“I know the (track’s) cannon is going to go off at 6 a.m. (Sunday) and wake us up, but I have fewer responsibilities tomorrow than most of my colleagues,” the Canadian said with a laugh.

Of course, it still has been one of the longer weeks in the life of a 31-year-old who is ranked fifth in the points standing and seemed on track for a career season. Before Indy, Hinchcliffe’s average finish in the first five races was 5.8, including a third at Barber Motorsports Park.

But the momentum screeched to a halt when his No. 5 Dallara-Honda was knocked out of the field in the closing hour of the opening day of qualifying at the Brickyard last Saturday.

Hinchcliffe gamely accepted the outcome with a series of graceful interviews shortly afterward and has maintained a brave face during a week of promotional appearances

“It’s been an up and down week,” he said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster. The term good days and bad days doesn’t even apply. You have good hours and bad hours.

“The busier I’m keeping myself, the better I’m feeling. There were times you have that little driver tantrum in your head like, ‘I don’t want to do any of this stuff because I’m in a bad mood! And blah, blah blah.’ But talking about it helps you get over it, and staying busy takes your mind off it a little bit.”

Still, there is no escaping the reality of when the green flag falls on the 102nd running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“Sunday is probably going to suck,” he said. “There’s no way around that. The start of the race is really going to suck. Then when I see how hard it is out there, I might think it sucks a little less.”

It has been easier to swallow because of “fan support that has just been completely overwhelming,” and Hinchcliffe of course has a perspective about Indianapolis that few have after a near-fatal practice crash in 2015 (“(Missing the race) actually wasn’t the worst day I’ve ever had at Indianapolis Motor Speedway”).

His comeback from the brush with death brought his team closer together, and he’s hoping the latest spate of adversity will do the same.

“One of the hardest parts was just being back with the crew right afterward, getting back to the garage and seeing a group of like 10 grown men literally brought to tears over what just happened,” said Hinchcliffe, whose team misjudged the amount of time left in the session after a tire vibration problem quickly ended what would be his final attempt. “It shows you how much this race means. If we had a really bad crash at Detroit on Saturday morning and couldn’t get the car fixed in time for Sunday. We’d all be like, ‘Man that really sucks. We’ll fix the car and come back next week.’

“But not getting to start Indy, man, is just such a gut punch for these guys and for all of us. But at the same time, it brought us closer as a group. There were mistakes made that we’re going to learn from. There’s no doubt that we come back as a stronger unit because of this. Emotionally, from a preparation point of view, from an execution point of view.”

There was a jolt of positivity from a second-place finish in a pit stop competition Friday. Hinchcliffe’s team, which has posted the fastest pit stop in two races this season, fell to Scott Dixon’s team in the final after pulling out a surprise victory over Will Power’s crew from the non-preferred right lane in the semifinals.

“Even if we beat Dixon in the finals, it wouldn’t have felt as good as that win did,” Hinchcliffe said. “It was such an awesome performance. The guys have been killing it in the pits. It’s definitely a point of pride for us.

“It was fun to get back in the car and do something for the fans and do something for the boys. We won a check at the end of the day. Add it to the beer fund and go have a fun Sunday night.”

Other topics discussed in the podcast:

–How and why he became a popular star by learning how to showcase his affable personality early in his career;

–Why the IndyCar Series needs a driver to play the villain role;

–An expanded explanation of why he believes the Indianapolis 500 should be separate from the championship;

To listen to the podcast, click here for Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or play the Art19 embed below: