Chip Ganassi on team’s IMS winless drought: ‘It’s about time we win the Indy 500. I miss it’

Chip Ganassi Indy rookie
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INDIANAPOLIS – From a rookie driver who skipped his commencement at Duquesne University so he could qualify for the Indy 500 in 1982, to this past Sunday when Scott Dixon qualified first for a fifth time, team owner Chip Ganassi was the “King of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway” on Pole Day.

“Just for this weekend,” Ganassi told NBC Sports.com. “Next weekend is another one.”

All five Chip Ganassi Racing entries made the Fast 12, and four advanced into the Fast Six.

“To get all five in the Fast 12, that’s pretty impressive,” Ganassi said. “That’s down to the guys that work on the car. I’ve got a great group of guys. I can’t say enough about them how hard they work in the offseason, what they think about, what they work on, how hard they work.

“I’m just lucky to work with such a great group of people.”

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Scott Dixon topped the incredible effort with a record run for the Indianapolis 500 pole. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion, 51-time winner and 2008 Indy 500 champion made four laps around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway in just 2:33.8162 for an average speed of 234.046 mph.

It’s the fastest pole-winning speed in Indy 500 history, breaking the record of 233.718 mph set by Scott Brayton in 1996.

Arie Luyendyk set the all-time four-lap qualifying average speed record of 236.986 mph in 1996, but his run came on the second day of qualifications and wasn’t eligible for the pole.

It’s Dixon’s fifth Indy 500 pole, one shy of Rick Mears’ record.

There was even more reason for Ganassi to be proud. Defending IndyCar Series champion Alex Palou was second (233.499 mph); Marcus Ericsson fifth (232.764) and 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan sixth (232.372 mph).

Rookie Jimmie Johnson, a seven-NASCAR Cup Series champion, made the Fast 12 and will start 12th (231.264). Johnson could have made the Fast Six, but he had a bobble entering Turn 1 on the opening lap of his four-lap run.

“I felt so bad for Jimmie Johnson that he had that blip on his out lap,” Ganassi said. “He is a smart guy.

“He can win this race, too.”

Ganassi posed with all five of his drivers as they celebrated Dixon’s pole.

Being “The King” at Indy is one thing for qualifications, but Ganassi has a much bigger prize in mind and a chance to overcome a long drought at the Indianapolis 500.

“Let’s face the facts, we haven’t won this race in 10 years,” Ganassi said. “That’s what we need to do. It’s nice to win the pole and that’s great, but there is only one lap around this place that matters, and that’s the last lap of the race next Sunday.

“They are a great group of teammates, and it really helps when they are working together. That is what you saw here. I’m really proud of the team. What you saw here in qualifying is the effort of 200 people that began this journey on June 1 and said, ‘We need to do better at Indianapolis.’ ”

Ganassi’s last Indy 500 win was Dario Franchitti in 2012 — so long ago, he confused it with another win by one of his former drivers when talking about it a few mionths ago.

“I think it’s about time we win the Indy 500,” Ganassi told a small group of reporters back in January at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. “I wouldn’t mind doing that. I kind of miss it. It’s about time we do that. I love winning the championship, but I want to win the Indy 500, too. We seem to have squandered that the last couple of years. We need to put a little effort toward that.”

“Do you remember your last Indy 500 win?” Ganassi was asked.

He replied, “2015 maybe?”

Juan Pablo Montoya won in 2015 but he was driving for Team Penske.

Ganassi was incredulous as he reflected on the long winless string: “Was that (last win in) 2012? Was that when Dario touched (Sato)? 2012? Really.”

What better way to celebrate 40 years of competition in the Indianapolis 500 than to win the race on Sunday?

Ganassi was just 22 years old and wheeled his Cosworth-powered Wildcat onto pit lane for Pole Day for the Indianapolis 500 on May 15, 1982. He was supposed to be attending another milestone day in a person’s life.

Ganassi skipped his commencement ceremony at Duquesne University in his hometown of Pittsburgh for something that would start him on his career path as one of the most successful team owners in Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar history.

Ganassi was driving a Cosworth-powered Wildcat for team owner Jack Rhoades and with 53 car/driver combinations for the 33-car starting lineup, the college boy from Pittsburgh would have to perform under pressure.

He was the fastest rookie in the race that year, qualifying with a four-lap average of 197.704 miles per hour.

“Quite a long time ago, but obviously a great time to start my career,” Ganassi said. “I put out a tweet yesterday that they had — it was the 40th anniversary of Gordon Smiley and his terrible accident, and I got my start in the team I was with because Gordon Smiley stepped out of that car and went to drive for — I got to drive for Jack Rhoades. Gordon Smiley stepped out of that car and went to drive for Lindsey Hopkins I think is who that was. I’m not 100 percent sure.

“I spoke to Gordon about that. ‘I owe you a big thanks, man; you go to that team made an opportunity for me.’ He said, ‘Oh, no problem.’

“Sadly, a couple days later he was dead. It was a little different time then.”

Ganassi was part of a rookie class at Indy that included Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Hector Rebaque and Herm Johnson.

“Really had a great time in Indianapolis that year I remember,” Ganassi recalled.

It was also the start of something big that continues today with his powerhouse racing team.

“In some ways, it’s gone like that,” Ganassi said as he snapped his fingers. “Other ways, seems to have been a long time. It was certainly a different era in IndyCar racing.

“People don’t remember Gordon Smiley was killed at Indy that year in qualifying. Jim Hickman was killed the next week at Milwaukee. There was a lot of death around there then. That has certainly changed. The safety aspects have changed.

“I’d like to think a lot of me that’s still the same. I still have as much passion about the sport as I did then. In fact, it’s shifted from my own personal goals have changed having a team as opposed to being a driver. I’m certainly happy with it.”

Ganassi remembered his first Indianapolis 500 Driver’s Meeting as a rookie in 1982.

“I was only the guy with my Zegna slacks on there,” Ganassi quipped. “I was the only rookie with Zegna slacks and Gucci’s.

“I don’t know if skipping my college commencement was good or bad, but the way I did it, I’m happy I did it that way.”

His driving career was cut short when he was involved in a massive crash with Al Unser, Jr. in the 1984 Michigan 500. Ganassi suffered injuries in that crash, and he would compete in just four more IndyCar races after that.

Instead, Ganassi began to pursue other opportunities in the sport. He joined forces with famed team owner Pat Patrick in 1989 and went to victory lane at Indy after Emerson Fittipaldi won a thrilling duel with Al Unser, Jr. in the 1989 Indianapolis 500.

In 1990, Ganassi went out on his own, started Chip Ganassi Racing, signed Target as a sponsor and put Formula One driver Eddie Cheever into his Chevrolet-power Penske chassis. Though Cheever was from the United States, he grew up in Rome, Italy, and had a lengthy career in Formula One. He started 14th and finished eighth in a white-color Target entry, but it was the beginning of something big for Ganassi.

Arie Luyendyk, the 1990 Indianapolis 500 winner, would join Chip Ganassi Racing along with Robby Gordon in 1992.

It took a few seasons before Ganassi found the winning combination, but when he hired Michael Andretti to drive his car in 1994, he finally had a winner. Andretti drove to victory in Queensland, Australia in his first race for Ganassi.

Since then, Ganassi has rivaled Roger Penske as the leading team owner in IndyCar history with four Indy 500 wins, including Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000, Scott Dixon in 2008 and Dario Franchitti in 2010 and 2012.

Counting his four consecutive championships in CART beginning with Jimmy Vasser in 1996, continuing with Alex Zanardi in 1997 and 1998 and Juan Pablo Montoya in 1999, Ganassi has won 14 IndyCar championships – just two short of Penske’s all-time record.

Through it all, Ganassi has proven it’s great to be “The King.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500