Chip Ganassi Reflects On Racing From The Driver’s Seat And The Team Owner’s Office
Images courtesy of Chip Ganassi
Chip Ganassi is one of those very few people who was fortunate enough to compete in the highest levels of motorsport—driving in races like Indianapolis and Le Mans—before turning around and becoming an outright dominant team owner, with championships and marque victories scattered across multiple series and continents. During some rare downtime at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, I met with him in his motorhome, and with a vintage Can-Am race broadcast on the TV, we chatted about his driving days, the secrets to his immense success as an owner, and the emotional difference between driving for and owning a team.
Aaron Miller: What was your favorite memory from your driving days?
Chip Ganassi: I have a lot of great memories, but an early favorite was obviously qualifying at Indy for the first time. That was big—back in the day when you used to have 65 cars show up for 33 spots. That was a little different than it is today. That was a pretty big day. I was ten days out of college, and I was qualifying for the Indy 500.
AM: Obviously you had your wreck in ‘84 at Michigan, but you came back from that. So what drove you to the decision to hang up your helmet and become a team owner?
CG: A couple things. In the back of my mind, I thought you had to make a commitment of maybe five years when you’re going to do something big like that. When you’re a driver—unless you have a rolling commitment to the sport—you’re not gonna make decisions that are gonna perpetuate that far into your career. So, you know, if you’re not ready to sit there and make a three or five year commitment to the entire undertaking of managing a team, you’re not ready, and I don’t think I was prepared to do that. I was getting pulled into working in my family’s business at the time, and didn’t really see a path, and really nor did I want to be an owner for a long time leading up to it happening.
I didn’t really think in terms of being a car owner, or think in general terms of what I was gonna do later, I just wanted to drive. And then the opportunity just came around, and I saw that I could maybe enjoy the sport equally from the other side of it, being involved as a team owner instead of just being a driver.
AM: Clearly, there’s still a competitive fire there. How different does it feel when you watch one of your drivers win, as opposed to being in the car yourself?
CG: There are so many more people I’m happy for. When I was a driver, and I would win a race, you’re happy for yourself. When you have one of your driver’s win, you’re not only happy for that driver, you’re happy for that entire team of people that you brought along in the endeavor. And you say, you know, “I want you to come with me, ‘cause we’re gonna win, and I want you to be a part of the team, and be a part of this goal that we’re trying to reach.” It’s much more rewarding, I think, because it’s more rewarding for many more people from this angle than it is when you’re a driver. You know, when you’re a driver, it’s all about me, me, me, me, me. And I think when you’re a team owner, it’s about “us.”
AM: Obviously, damaged cars kind of comes with the territory of racing. Can you walk us through what goes through your first couple of thoughts when you see a driver come back with a damaged car?
CG: I say, “What the fuck?” [Laughs] You know, any street race [like Long Beach] has its cruel realities, and car damage is one of those. If you’re gonna come back with a damaged car and you want sympathy from me, there’s a time and a place for that. Let me say this: my boiling point is different if it’s in practice, qualifying, or depending on which part of the race it’s happened in.
If it’s on the last lap of the race and they’re going for the lead, I’ve got no problem if they destroy the car. That’s okay. If it’s the first lap of the race and they destroy the car though, I’ve got a big problem. I’ve never been mad at anybody going for aggressive moves if they’re passing for the lead or for second or third, that’s one thing. If you’re passing for 15th though, I’ve got a problem, you know, if you’re damaging the car.
I don’t think it’s a big secret that no car owner wants damaged or crashed cars. As they say, it’s pretty hard to finish first if you don’t first finish.
AM: When you’re putting together a team, trying to find the best drivers, deciding your criteria, obviously they have to have outright pace, and sponsorship, but what other traits do you look for?
CG: I always wanted to build a team that I would have wanted to drive for. So you try to take away the things that make drivers nervous. What makes drivers nervous? Lots of things, so I think it’s stability, a lack of hyperbole—that’s another word for bullshit—it’s just about being calm and having a strong foundation of sponsorship like we’ve had for so many years. Some success begets more success in racing.
AM: In terms of the overall approach, how different is it working with and between WEC and IMSA, compared to IndyCar and NASCAR?
CG: It’s all just a rulebook. You know what I mean? It’s all just about understanding the rulebook, understanding how they enforce it, and what the hot buttons are. And all the sanctioning bodies are in some sort of oscillating wave, either tightening the rules or loosening the rules, or equalizing the performance, but they’re all pretty much the same. They all have their good points and bad. I’m okay with them all.
AM: Turning to the Ford GT for a second, if you look at the original GT40 program, there are so many great names, it’s like a Hall of Fame’s Who’s Who list. Obviously, you added to that legacy last year at Le Mans. Does that history ever weigh on you as you’re trying to keep the team competitive?
CG: I’ve always looked at it as, there’ll be plenty of time left to look back on things. We just try to take each day a day at a time. Let’s just do the best job we can right now, and the long term will take care of itself. Obviously you have to have a little vision, a goal, a path where you’d like to go, but I think you can’t constantly be looking forward either; you have to take care of what’s on your plate today. If you take care of today, the long term will take care of itself, and if you watch your pennies your dollars will take care of themselves.
AM: You work with different manufacturers in different series; how many times do you have to change your hat and shirt back and forth over the course of a weekend?
CG: Saturday’s one shirt, Sunday’s another, but on Friday I try to go just neutral.
AM: Obviously you’ve won just about every major race there is in the different series that you’re in, but what major race would you like to win that you haven’t yet?
CG: There are lots to win yet. There are a lot of NASCAR races to win, lots of WEC races to win. I want to win tomorrow and Sunday here at Long Beach. I want to win in Texas this weekend.
I remember when we won Indy for the first time, and people said “Okay, you did it, man. You can leave now.” Or when I won Daytona it was, “Okay you won Daytona, you can be done now.” I like this sport. I like what it means, what it does, what it brings. I like the business. There’s lots of races to win yet. Name one. If I haven’t won it yet, I want to win it.
AM: Across all the different series, all the different teams, do you have someone you consider a main rival? Penske obviously comes to mind…
CG: It’s whoever’s running in second that day, you know? I want to figure out who’s running second, and I want to finish in front of them. In NASCAR, I’ve got 38 other rivals. 20 other rivals in this series.
AM: One last question, and it’s an easy one. Which tastes better, the milk at Indy, or the champagne at Le Mans?
CG: Good question. Wow. Let me say this: on their particular days, they both are very sweet.