Andretti Autosport finding strength in numbers again at Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Though he didn’t make the Fast Nine in Indy 500 qualifying, Zach Veach was eager to talk about his Andretti Autosport teammates.

If only he could remember all of them.

“We had a shot if things went the right way, but I’m glad it did for James, Marco, Ryan and …,” Veach said, pausing with a furrowed brow as he tried to recall the team’s fourth Dallara-Honda that had a shot at the pole position. “And … and.

“And Alex! Sorry! We’ve got so many cars, it’s hard to remember everyone.”

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With five full-time cars — plus an extra Indy 500 entry for James Hinchcliffe — Veach can be forgiven.

Even for an Andretti Autosport driver, it’s easy to overlook a teammate – though the past week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway has marked the first time this season that seemingly all of the team’s cars are standouts.

Ryan Hunter-Reay reacts during qualifying Saturday for the Indy 500 (Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports).

Marco Andretti’s pole position for the 104th Indianapolis 500 was only the beginning for Andretti, which also has Ryan Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe and Alexander Rossi in the first three rows.

In his first season as a full-fledged Andretti Autosport driver, Colton Herta is lurking (having just missed the Fast Nine by qualilfying 10th), and Veach will start a career-best 17th at the Brickyard.

Throw in Jack Harvey, whose Meyer Shank Racing car has a technical alliance Andretti Autosport, and more than 20% of the 33-car field can be traced to a single organization that seems to be finding its stride after being winless since adding a fifth car to start this season.

“We have a tremendous team,” team owner Michael Andretti said. “We have great depth and talent. We have great systems down. One of the challenges that we’ve had in the past is trying to make all the cars equal. We’ve done a pretty good job this year.

“They’re as close together as they’ve ever been. That goes to the engineering group and also our management had really done a great job in putting the cars together exactly the same.”

NTT IndyCar Series car owner Michael Andretti watches from the pits during qualifications for the 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports).

The other key is having the data from at least a half-dozen cars to pore over from every practice and race. Truncated race weekend schedules at Texas, Road America and Iowa because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic blunted the effectiveness of Andretti’s strength in numbers approach as there wasn’t enough time to digest the information and apply the lessons.

Track time at the Brickyard also has been limited, but having a full three days of practice allowed for the driver debriefs and engineering meetings that weren’t possible earlier in the year.

Hinchcliffe, who is back in a three-race stint after racing full time for Andretti from 2012-14, plunged into meeting much of his team for the first time in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway. Before being scuttled by COVID, the plan had been to learn the team during the season’s first three months.

“It would have been an opportunity to spend some more time at the shop and get to know my guys specifically and kind of see how and where I fit in,” he said. “With the way it all happened, I was meeting some of these people in Texas for the first time. Definitely made it more of a challenge. I took a fly on the wall approach to start to see how things worked here, and I’m super impressed.

“I’ve been in two- and three-car teams that couldn’t get through a debrief quite as efficiently as these guys are doing it with seven. I don’t feel like information is lost or any wires get crossed or anything like that. They’ve really got it down to a science.”

Indy 500 Andretti Autosport
Marco Andretti will be the first member of his famous racing family to start on the pole position in 33 years (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

Its success is rooted in knowing how to be discriminating in sifting through so many perspectives.

“You learn as a group what are the important things to hit and what are the things that you can pass over,” Hinchcliffe said, noting that engineers always can dig through another car’s data later. “It’s bullet points. Get on the big hitters positive and negative and just be cognizant of the fact we need to get through six or seven cars’ worth of information in a relatively timely manner, and it works.

“Information isn’t getting lost, things aren’t falling through the cracks. The cars are all running very competitively here, and it’s great to see.”

Veach said the Indy week is important because “you start learning the guys you’re working with and learning how to take their feedback. Someone like Alex says the car is loose, you can bet it’s probably too loose for you because he likes a really free car. It’s just understanding and interpreting what your teammates are saying. As you get more familiar with each other, it just allows it to be a much better fit.”

It can take some time to reach that point, though, as Marco Andretti joked last week about team meeting “that will probably go until 9 p.m. every night. … There’s always stuff to learn off the other cars. The way we shorten (the meetings) is, ‘Say what your good changes were.’ We sit down and can see if we want to implement it to our package or not.”

Still, it also is difficult for the team to adapt quickly, particularly under COVID-19 restrictions that have led to odd hours and triple shifts at the team’s shop. “It’s tough when we find one damper, we have to produce seven,” Marco said. “It’s a lot of work for the guys to keep up with, a lot of housekeeping items. But we’re working through it.”

Indy 500 Andretti Autosport
Andretti Autosport teammates (and podcasting co-hosts) James Hinchcliffe and Alexander Rossi watch Marco Andretti’s pole run on the big screen at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports).

Results were mixed in the first six races. Rossi has Andretti’s lone podium finish (a third in the second race at Road America), and the team has struggled through mechanical glitches, driver errors and a lack of pace relative to Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing (and Arrow McLaren SP at times).

Though Indy has been encouraging, Andretti annually excels at the 2.5-mile oval, and the Aug. 29-30 doubleheader race weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway could be a more important barometer. An Andretti driver has yet to win at the 1.25-mile oval near St. Louis.

Indy 500 Andretti Autosport
Colton Herta, who joined Andretti Autosport this year in its absorption of te Harding Steinbrenner team, will start 10th in the 104th Indy 500 (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports).

“Indy is very independent of every other race for a lot of different reasons,” Rossi said. “I think some of our struggles this year won’t necessarily show up at Indianapolis. I think this team’s always been incredibly strong here regardless of the circumstances.

“I think it’s awesome in terms of motivation for all of us. We need to make sure that we use that and make sure an Andretti car wins the race for sure. But then it’s immediately to Gateway and we still have our own issues and stuff to resolve. Just because we have hopefully a good month of August here at Indy doesn’t necessarily mean everything is going to be perfect for St. Louis.”

Said Herta: “We definitely haven’t been the best team at any of the races so far, so it’s nice to see that change (at Indy). But this place is so different to everywhere else that we’ve gone that I couldn’t really say that we’re fast here, so we’re going to be good at a lot of other places. We still need to work on our road course car. Our short oval car was OK. I think Penske and Ganassi are still just that little bit above us, but we’re very close.

“We’re making finds every week with the dampers and stuff on the car. (Indy) is promising, and I hope that going into Gateway that we can show that we made that leap forward after being second fiddle or third fiddle at Iowa.”

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.

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Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.

But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 963 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.

“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.

“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”

After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”

Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.

“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.

“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”

Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:

Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.

“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”

Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”

Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.

“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”

Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”

Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”

Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”

Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.

“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”