Ganassi’s driver lineup in rapid state of flux for 2018

Kanaan and Kimball's IndyCar futures are uncertain. Photo: IndyCar
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MADISON, Ill. – The four-car lineup of Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton for 2017 marked Chip Ganassi Racing Teams’ first lineup retained for consecutive Verizon IndyCar Series seasons since 2011 and 2012, when Dixon, Kimball, Dario Franchitti and Graham Rahal were all on board for those two seasons.

Since that point, the team has either gone down to three cars (one year only in 2013) or had at least one driver change to its roster.

Driver change is expected to return to Ganassi for the 2018 season, because it remains to be seen where three of its four drivers will land next year. This year, the major upheaval centered on the team’s return to Honda from Chevrolet.

Dixon is the team’s lone lock, and will lead Ganassi’s charge in whatever format the team takes on next year, if it continues as a four-car team or as has been rumored from multiple sources, downsizes to either two or three cars.

NBCSN contributor Robin Miller stated during Saturday night’s telecast from Gateway Motorsports Park that Kanaan and Chilton won’t return for sure.

It’s in looking at those last two drivers just mentioned that a pair of somewhat surprising and controversial in-race decisions for them to retire in-race have occurred in recent weeks.

Kanaan lost the back end of his No. 10 NTT Data Honda on a pace lap in Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline. That saw him come into the pits before the race even began for repairs to his rear wheel guard assembly.

Running several laps down, Kanaan later retired with 164 laps complete. Kanaan told NBCSN’s Jon Beekhuis to “talk to Chip” about the reasoning for the retirement, with Ganassi then declining comment himself when asked by Beekhuis. Kanaan left the track, and posted a tweet thanking the fans for coming to Gateway Motorsports Park and apologizing for himself that he didn’t deliver a better performance.

Chilton, who only had two DNFs the entirety of 2016 and just one thus far in 2017 – when he got caught up in the Turn 1, Lap 1 multi-car pileup at Phoenix – has now had two in consecutive weeks.

A wastegate issue cost him a potential top-five finish at Pocono as he was up to fifth in the opening stint. There, Chilton was looking to emulate the run he turned in at the 101st Indianapolis 500, where he led a race-high 50 laps and finished a career-best fourth.

But running several laps down there, Chilton’s car was parked past the halfway point. It’s understood several key members of the No. 8 team were displeased with that decision.

Chilton tweeted during the race “I am not a quitter,” and in the race aftermath, a radio transmission between Chilton and his team was broadcast where he ended it saying, “Good riddance. Can’t wait for next year.”

The Chiltons are now happily married, but questions exist over where they’ll go next in IndyCar. Photo: IndyCar

For Chilton, who just got married to his longtime girlfriend Chloe a little over a week ago, Saturday night’s early end came after he lost the rear end of his No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Honda in Turn 4.

“It’s not been ideal,” Chilton told NBC Sports of his last two weeks. “But Watkins (Glen) though is my favorite track. Hopefully we score some points there. Sonoma’s a doubleheader really because of double points. Essentially there’s three races to go, and lots can change.”

Kimball, Ganassi’s second longest-tenured IndyCar driver having been with the team for 115 races since 2011, also is a free agent at year’s end with he and longtime partner Novo Nordisk working to secure a new contract to continue in IndyCar in 2018. Finishing seventh Saturday, his second-best result of the year, was key as he faces question marks about where he might go.

“I think the future holds a little uncertainty but at same time it’s irrelevant; I have a great partner, they love being at the race track and I know there’s a big group coming to both Watkins Glen and Sonoma,” Kimball told NBC Sports.

“I’m just focused on getting good results to close the year. That only makes my offseason better, when I go into the offseason with good results under my belt.

“I don’t talk about contracts or worry about it. My job is to be quick in practice, get pole and win races. The rest is business and that takes care of itself.”

Kanaan still has the desire to be in IndyCar and told RTV-6 reporter Dave Furst, also a member of the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network, at Pocono last week he is an official free agent.

Chilton and Kimball had been rumored earlier this season to jump ship and go with Carlin into IndyCar, in what would be a potential step up for the Trevor Carlin-led organization from the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season. Carlin has not commented publicly on the rumor, and has said in the past he’d only make the step up once all the necessary puzzle pieces were in place.

Even if the Carlin option doesn’t materialize, both Chilton and Kimball would figure to have some degree of budget from their respective partners – Arthur J. Gallagher and Novo Nordisk – which they could take to other teams on the grid. Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports are among the potential suitors with expected vacancies.

Kanaan’s pre-race spin in Gateway. Photo: IndyCar

As for Kanaan, his year started with so much promise with a yearlong “TK20” celebration and a number of career lifetime achievement boxes ticked – Ganassi offered Kanaan a chance to race a Ford GT in a scheduled role at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and then as an injury replacement for Sebastien Bourdais at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

But since Le Mans, Kanaan’s IndyCar season has descended into a series of frustrating incidents and results.

Between a crash at Road America, giving up a spot to Dixon at Iowa, a lock-up going into the Turn 1 wall in Toronto (which jumbled the order there as it brought out a caution during the first pit stop sequence), a nondescript Mid-Ohio showing and now Saturday night’s race, it’s been rare to see Kanaan in the typical race-winning and podium-contending form he’s shown the last three years with Ganassi. Pocono was the exception rather than the norm.

Thanks to some personal sponsorships, he has a degree of budget to bring to another IndyCar team as well, but more than that he has the veteran savvy and significant fan base he’d provide as well.

There have been some 20-something-year-old names in the IndyCar paddock floated as potential 2018 Ganassi drivers, some with more experience in the series than others.

In any case, Ganassi seems to need at least one funded driver to offset the potential loss of anywhere from one to three of his existing quartet next year.

Although nothing is settled yet, it seems apparent after the last two weeks that Ganassi’s IndyCar team is set for a significant state of upheaval alongside Dixon, the team’s standard bearing driver rock since mid-2002.

A deep dive into the new GR Cup as Toyota branches into single-make sports car racing

Toyota GR Cup
Swikar Patel/Toyota Racing Development
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MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Inside this former textile mill, a retro building built in 1892 with massive floor-to-ceiling windows and sturdy brick, Toyota has planted a future seed with the GR Cup.

Once a hub for making cotton dye, the first floor has been turned into a factory that churned out spec sports cars for the past year as Toyota Racing Development prepares to launch its first single-make series.

The inaugural season of the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, the first of seven SRO-sanctioned events (each with two races) featuring a field of homologated GR86 production models that have been modified for racing with stock engines.

Under the banner of its Gazoo Racing (a high-performance brand relatively new to North America but synonymous with Dakar Rally champion Nasser Al-Attiyah), Toyota will join Mazda, Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini as the latest automaker to run a single-make U.S. series (with Ford recently announcing plans for its own in the near future).

It’s grassroots-level amateur racing for manufacturers that are accustomed to racing at motorsports’ highest levels, but there are many benefits through competition, driver development and marketing despite the lower profile.

“It’s not the easiest thing or cheapest thing to do,” TRD executive commercial director Jack Irving told NBC Sports. “But there’s massive value to be a part of it and have our DNA in the cars. You get to race a bunch and get a bunch of data. You get to engage directly in feedback from the people beating those cars up.”

The GR86s being raced are very similar to the street versions that retail for about $35,000 at dealerships that annually sell several thousand.

“It’s a test of the car and your design,” Irving said. “We take an engineered vehicle designed to spec for the road and then apply our resources to make it race ready. Some of those things cross over.

The first floor of Toyota Racing Development’s Mooresville facility that finished the vehicles for the new GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

“Everyone approaches it differently. It’s a marketing piece for us. It’s a development piece for drivers. We’re supporting grass roots racing. This is a very long-term deal for us. This isn’t something we’re doing two years and done. It’s got a long-term vision. There’s big value in it, and there’s a lot of responsibility with that, too.

“You’re ultimately supporting it. You’re not just selling cars into a series and hoping it goes well. You have to be involved in a very material way to make sure it goes off well and has your fingerprints and represents the brand.”

Early indications have been solid. The GR Cup cars were rolled out on iRacing in January and immediately became one of the platform’s most popular vehicles (with 212-horsepower engines, the cars handle well and are difficult to spin).

TRD’s GR86 factory floor (Swikar Patel/TRD).

TRD has sold 33 cars for GR Cup with 31 racing in Sonoma, easily surpassing initial expectations.

“Our target was to sell 20 cars in the first year, and we could have sold 50 if not for supply chain issues with some vendors,” TRD president David Wilson told NBC Sports. “We basically came up with the idea of taking the GR86 and looking at what it would take to turn that into a little race car and do it affordably and competitively, and what’s come along with that is just a tremendous interest level. It seems like a market that perhaps has been underserved right now.”

Here’s a deeper look at the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup and how the manufacturer built the new series:


THE CARS

The race cars start as production models that are shipped directly from the factory in Japan to a port in Charleston, South Carolina. After being trucked to the Mooresville facility, they are stripped and sent to Joe Gibbs Racing to be outfitted with a roll cage.

Upon return to TRD, the transmission and stock engine is added. The body remains virtually the same as the street version with a slightly altered hood, decklid and splitter for ride height and aerodynamics.

Jack Irving (Swikar Patel/TRD)

The cars mostly are customized to help manage the heat – the stock versions aren’t designed to handle the oil that sloshes around in the high-speed left- and right-hand turns on the road and street courses of the GR Cup schedule. TRD puts about two dozen parts on the cars, using Stratasys 3-D Printers to manufacture many on site (which allows flexibility for adjusting on the fly during R&D). In addition to help with cooling, many of the tweaks focus on allowing a limited number of setup changes.

“You don’t have a lot of ability to adjust these cars,” Irving said. “It was done on purpose. The intent was you have three spring sets, and you can adjust the shocks and do air pressure. That’s it. We seal the engine and components of it. We dyno everything. Everyone is within range to create as consistent a series as we can.

“Some of that is to mimic what Mazda did. They’ve done a really good job with their series. Porsche, Ferrari and other OEMs have done it very well. We had a learning that was easier to go through their book and see the Cliffs Notes version to get where we are.”

After taking delivery, GR Cup teams are responsible for transporting the cars to each track (and can buy up to three sets of Continental tires per event). Toyota brings two parts trucks to each track


THE SCHEDULE AND SCENE

After Sonoma, the GR Cup will visit Circuit of the Americas (May 5-7), Virginia International Raceway (June 16-18), the streets of Nashville (Aug. 4-6), Road America (Aug. 25-27), Sebring International Raceway (Sept. 22-24) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Oct. 6-8).

Though Nashville (IndyCar’s Music City Grand Prix) and Indy (SRO’s eight-hour Intercontinental Challenge) are part of weekends with bigger headliners, the GR Cup mostly will be the second-billed series (behind SRO’s Fanatech GT World Challenge) for events that will draw a few thousand. Sonoma had a crowd of about 4,000 last year, and SRO Motorsports America president Greg Gill said its events draw a maximum of about 13,000 over three days.

“There are some iconic venues, and the SRO it’s not IMSA,” Wilson said. “It’s got a different feel to it. It’s not the show. IMSA is kind of the show. I actually think it’s a good place for us to start, because it’s a little bit under the radar relatively speaking. It’s not a venue where you see the grandstands full of fans. It’s very much racers and their families. It’s got a neat vibe to it because it’s kind of small. So for our first effort as a single-make series, it’s the right place for us.”

Toyota GR Cup
The interior of the GR86 that will be raced in the GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

Though the attendance will be much smaller, Toyota still is bringing a large hospitality and marketing activation area with two 56-foot trucks that will provide a central gathering area for the series.

Teams’ entry fees will include meals there and provide a place to connect with Toyota engineers and other officials.

“I think we have a very different way of engaging with our group of drivers, and this series is similar to that,” Irving said. “Knowing that this isn’t going to get 100K people watching, but we want to have a direct connection with the drivers and understand their feelings about car, how do we make it better and empower them to be brand ambassadors for GR.”


BUDGETS, PURSES AND TEAMS

Toyota has positioned the GR Cup as filling a price gap between the Mazda MX-5 Cup (a spec Miata Series known for high-quality racing at very low costs) and the Porsche Carrera Cup

“If you look at the ladder of MX5 to Porsche Cup, the difference in cost is massive,” TRD general manager Tyler Gibbs told NBC Sports. “We slot in closer to Miata than Porsche. We’ll slot another car in potentially in the future above that. It’s a good place for us from a price point perspective. Our road car is slightly more expensive than a Miata, so it makes sense our performance on the car is higher than Miata.”

A GR Cup car will cost $125,000. Full-season costs will vary depending on how much teams spend on equipment and transportation with estimates from $15-35K per event. So a competitive full season probably could be accomplished in the $250,000-$300,000 range.

Toyota GR Cup

“The goal was if you can ‘Six Pack’ it like Kenny Rogers and throw it in the back of a trailer, that would be amazing for us,” said Irving, referencing a movie about being an independent racer in NASCAR. “That would make it more of what we hoped it would turn into, just being as accessible as we possibly can make it.”

Toyota has tried to bridge the gap by posting a purse of $1 million for the season. Each race pays $12,000 to win (through $5,000 for eighth) with the season champion earning $50,000.

“Our hope was if you won, the prize money would cover the cost of that weekend,” Gibbs said. “We’re not all the way there. But almost there.”

Toyota also has posted an additional $5,000 (on top of prize money) to the highest-finishing woman in every race (which dovetails with SRO’s 50 percent female-led executive team structure).

GR86 Manufacturing at GRG before the first 3 cars are picked up.
—Swikar Patel/TRD

“If you’re a female driver who wins, you could get very close to sustainable” and cover a team’s race weekend costs, Irving said.

There are four women (Mia Lovell, Toni Breidinger, Cat Lauren and Isabella Robusto) slated for the full schedule.

The 31 cars will be fielded across more than a dozen teams including Smooge Racing (which fields GT4 Supras in SRO) and Copeland Motorsports (with Tyler Gonzalez, a four-time winner in MX-5 Cup). After a test last month at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, teams began taking delivery on Feb. 24.


THE SANCTIONING BODY

Toyota fields Lexus in the GT categories of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship but elected to go with the SRO Motorsports Group (“SRO” stands for Stephane Ratel Organization; Ratel is the founder and CEO) as the sanctioning body for the GR Cup.

With a heavy focus on GT racing, SRO’s marquee events are 24-hour races at the Nurburgring in Germany and Spa in Belgium. In the United States, SRO primarily is focused on GT3 sprint racing, and Gill said it’s viewed as a “gateway to IMSA” and its endurance events.

In choosing SRO, Gibbs said “the schedule was a big part of it.” GR Cup races will be held almost exclusively on Saturday and Sunday mornings in a consistency that would have been difficult with IMSA (which runs a greater volume of bigger series).

“Our people can show up Friday, race Saturday and Sunday and be on the way home Sunday afternoon,” Gibbs said. “For our customer for this car, that was important. They still have jobs and particularly the younger drivers have to go to school. The SRO really fit us. They were very interested.”

Irving also was drawn to SRO’s flexibility with digital media right and free livestreams of races that Toyota can use on its platforms.

Toyota GR Cup
The SR86 in testing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (TRD).

Said Irving: “It’s hard to get a schedule that made sense and having a break between races so an amateur can repair their cars and have a month to regroup was a big deal. The long-term vision of SRO was a big part of that. IMSA runs a lot of classes. How we fit in was difficult. Would they have done things to make it work, yeah. But they just didn’t work for the vision we were doing. This is its own thing for us.”

Gill said the SRO is focused on “customer racing” that balances individual interests against factory programs – while still putting an emphasis on the importance of manufacturers such as Toyota.

“We were very impressed with the development of sports car racing at Toyota and what they wanted to do for the brand and the very strategic way they looked at things,” Gill told NBC Sports. “We had enjoyed real success and had a lot of admiration for the programs that Honda and Mazda developed with sports car racing at the grass roots and entry level. We thought they’d done an excellent job. Toyota has taken it to another level and should be commended because it’s good for the entire industry.”


GAZOO RACING AND THE FUTURE

Irving said Toyota has set a goal of turning Gazoo Racing into the premier performance brand in the United States within a decade, and the GR Cup is part of that thrust.

Gazoo Racing is the baby of Toyota Motor Corp. president Akio Toyoda, who founded a separate company called “Garage Racing” while racing under a pseudonym for many years.

Toyoda, who eventually would race a Lexus LFA at Nurburgring, eventually transitioned the program into Gazoo Racing (Gazoo translates to photographs in Japanese; Toyoda often took pictures of vehicles he wanted to build and race) as he rose through the ranks of Toyota.

Toyota GR Cup

“The concept of the brand is we’re going to build cars that are fun to drive, not just for accountants,” Gibbs said.
Irving said the intent of GR is “the car is born on track and not the boardroom.” In order to be certified by Toyota for Gazoo Racing, the GR86 had to decrease its lap time by a certain percentage over its street model.

In the long-term, Irving said Toyota could work with another series to adapt the GR86 to endurance races. But in the short-term, there are plans to roll out a “dealer class,” possibly by its COTA round in May.

“That’s our version of a softball league with dealership principals who purchase cars and race against each other,” Wilson said with a laugh. “As competitive as dealers are, we’ll sell a lot of spare parts. It becomes a way to generate competition amongst our dealer body, and we’re going to have some fun with it.”

Toyota GR Cup
Toyota Racing Development’s fleet of GR86s shortly before GR Cup teams began taking delivery (Swikar Patel/TRD).