Chip Ganassi Racing has same championship approach with three cars still in the title hunt

Ganassi IndyCar championship
Chris Jones/Penske Entertainment

Chip Ganassi Racing will enter Portland International Raceway this weekend with an NTT IndyCar Series championship outlook that is completely unprecedented and also totally familiar.

Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson and Alex Palou remain within striking distance of points leader Will Power with two races remaining – the first time in Ganassi’s vaunted history that the organization has been this deep in the season with three title-eligible cars. Team Penske also has three title-eligible drivers (Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin) but for the second time in five years (Newgarden, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud duked it out in 2017).

While winning 14 championships (including six by Dixon) over the past 32 years, Ganassi has had dynamic duos of contenders (Alex Zanardi/Jimmy Vasser, Dixon/Dan Wheldon, Dixon/Dario Franchitti) yet never a trio gunning for the crown so far into the closing stretch.

INDYCAR AT PORTLAND: Schedules, how to watch on NBC, Peacock this weekend

It naturally prompts the question: Without being able to prioritize resources or staff toward just one or two entries (and while also fielding the No. 48 Dallara-Honda of Jimmie Johnson), how does preparing three championship-caliber cars impact the workload at Ganassi’s Indianapolis shop?

“It doesn’t,” Ganassi managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports. “That’s not the case for us and never has been. It gets all the way back to the very beginning for me with Chip.”

Shortly after being hired by team owner Chip Ganassi to manage competition for two cars in 1992, Hull said the team’s top-down directive of standardization over specialization was evident.

“Even if we were building test parts, we had to make sure we built two of everything for both cars,” Hull said. “Chip said not one driver is going to get anything different than the other driver. And in some cases when you’re building test parts, you only want to build one set. But that was not the case with him.

“That is followed through with everything that we’ve done here from Indianapolis whether it’s been IndyCar, sports car or anything else that we have done. We’ve always made sure if we can only have it for one car, we’re not going to do it. And Chip’s belief, and it’s right, is if every driver and every team member feels that everyone is equal, then it’s easier to be unselfish with the share. And we’re lucky because we have an assemblage of people that have grown up in that system that mentor the younger people that are working here that understand that’s how we operate. We accept that as commonplace today. We don’t question that. We don’t worry about it.”

The drivers seem unworried, too – even despite (or perhaps because of) a season marred by several weeks of contract strife.

Palou, the defending series champion and race winner at Portland, has been embroiled in a lawsuit with Ganassi over his future

But in the six races since announcing he was leaving for McLaren Racing, the Spaniard has remained competitive. And even though his remote access to Ganassi data and engineering has been restricted, Palou is confident he will have the same chance at the title as Dixon and Ericsson.

“One hundred percent,” Palou said after finishing third at Nashville (where he also had a brief postrace conversation with Ganassi). “I think there’s a lot going on, but at the end of the day, Chip would be super happy if we win the championship. He wants one of his cars to win the championship. We cannot all three win, but he wants one car to win. I don’t think I’m getting less stuff or not so much attention than others. Yeah, I think we have a fair shot for sure.”

Said Dixon: “We’re here to win. Everybody is trying to win. That’s what I’ve always loved about this team. Obviously, this is a strange situation, and it hasn’t changed for Chip. The prerace meetings are the same, and all of our cars are trying to win this championship. I know Alex is trying to win this championship as much as he can. It’s in his best interest to, as it is all of ours. Yeah, some stuff gets a bit awkward here and there, but we’re all here to win. That makes it pretty simple.”

The IndyCar rulebook also simplifies Ganassi’s quest for equality across its four cars.

Since the introduction of the DW12 Dallara a decade ago, IndyCar has used a common chassis. Five years ago, the implementation of universal aero kits made the series even more “spec” and increased standardization by further reducing suppliers. (NASCAR took a similar direction this season with the Next Gen car.)

“I think you see that in other forms of motorsports besides IndyCar, and what’s happened is the sanctioning bodies have tightened up the spec of the cars so they’re much closer together than they ever were,” Hull said. “They’re no longer specific to the team. The cars are more spec, it’s more specific to the series.

“So because of that, the more information you have, even though the information is almost finite. It helps you climb the grid together, much more effectively than it used to. So what happens with teams like Chip Ganassi Racing is they value the input from the intellectual property that the car creates, and then the unselfish interchange between the drivers and engineering group and the managers to run those cars. It goes all the way from the very first track walk to the last lap of the race.”

Though there might be benefits from running an organization in lockstep across four cars, Hull admitted keeping the team in line can be problematic because “racing people are competitive, and they’re trying to gain an advantage all the time.”

Despite the spec limits, the team still can build some aerodynamic parts for use across all four cars. Ganassi is diligent about measuring their effectiveness on track and making those results immediately transparent through internal wireless communications.

“If we think it’s the right configuration, but a driver goes out on track and says, ‘Well, that doesn’t work for me, and I’m not going to tell anybody,’ well, we don’t do it that way,” Hull said. “We make sure everybody understands we tried something, and we’ll explain why it didn’t work. It’s not filtered, and we don’t hold anything back from each other.

“What we try to do is reinforce the fact that our advantage is gained by working together and not separating ourselves.”

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500