Target Chip Ganassi Racing had been going four years when team owner Chip grabbed Michael Andretti as the 1991 IndyCar champion returned from Formula 1. Remarkably, they won their first race together! Two years later, and Chip had his first champion, with Jimmy Vasser. Here’s how Andretti and Vasser – both now rival team owners to their former employer – recall their time as Target boys.
MICHAEL ANDRETTI – Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s first race winner
Nigel [Mansell] and Dad were under contract with Newman/Haas for 1994 when I returned from F1, so that option was out and I had two others: one was to go with Kenny Bernstein, one was to go with Chip. And with Chip’s plans brewing to bring Reynard in, I was very interested. I had a bit of history with Chip, we had been friendly when I first started in Indy cars back when he was driving, so that’s the way I went. I’ve also got to thank Chip, because I was coming back from the toughest year of my career, with my morale almost destroyed and he gave me that opportunity to rebuild my confidence.
Right from the start, we were quick at some places and completely out to lunch at other times, qualifying in the bottom half of the field. But it was a brand-new chassis design, so there were no 100 percent accurate data sheets to work off from previous years, so I think struggling in practice and qualifying sometimes was pretty much to be expected. The important thing was that the team was strong, and they’d often make good changes overnight so we always made progress in the races. But we were struggling on the small ovals – I think maybe it was because of Reynard learning to get the aerodynamic/downforce equation together in that first year. For example, Milwaukee had always been a good track for me, but we qualified near the back, then found a decent race setup and we came through to finish fourth, I think.
And when we were good we were really good. The wins at Surfers Paradise and Toronto are what everyone remembers, but there was also Indy – we were best in class, behind the super-powerful Penske-Mercedes – although we got penalized for lapping a car under yellow, which was a joke. At Vancouver we were fast, too. So overall it was an interesting year, hot and cold, but yeah, I’m proud we scored Ganassi’s first couple of wins, and we finished fourth in the championship behind the three Penskes, which was pretty good for a totally new chassis builder.
So it was tough to up and leave for Newman/Haas after just one year; I was sorely tempted to stay and Chip wanted me to stay, and if I had been able to persuade my old engineer Pete Gibbons to leave Newman/Haas and join, I might have stayed. But Carl Haas and Pete had a hard press on me…. Was that a mistake? Maybe…looking at how Ganassi went after the switch to Honda engines in ’96. Carl turned down Honda and Firestone, but Chip jumped right on both and that proved to be the smartest move. And then I had to try and beat that combo. It was tough…
Roger Penske was always the benchmark and then Chip Ganassi joined him in status, in my opinion. So I knew what we were up against when we formed Andretti Green Racing and then Andretti Autosport. And they remain the benchmarks: if you beat those two teams in a race, it usually means you’ve won. If you beat them in the championship, it means you’re the champions. I consider it pretty special that we’ve done that a few times, because on those days you know you’ve beaten the elite.
JIMMY VASSER – Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s first series champion
When I joined, they were still operating out of the old Patrick Racing shop off 38th street in Indianapolis, which is now a police station. They’d had that pole and second place at Indy in ’93 and Michael [Andretti] had won a couple races in ’94, the year they’d started running two cars, the other one being for Mauricio Gugelmin. But in ’95, myself and Bryan Herta joined. My old team Hayhoe Racing had been STP sponsored and I came over with STP sponsorship as Jim hadn’t really been able to keep it going. I remember we showed plenty of speed that year but I think we still had some of the problems that Michael had encountered – really fast some weekends, slow other weekends.
I wasn’t really an Al Unser Jr.-type driver who wanted to work away on race setup and develop a car; I’d just try and make up time by nailing the braking zone and that wasn’t always the best for tire wear. But when Chip went to Honda engines and Firestone tires, suddenly we had The Package, and I won four of the first six races. That fast start was what my championship was based on. I couldn’t drive the same setup as my teammate Alex Zanardi – I left-foot braked whereas he did heel and toe – and there are some corners where one technique is better, some where the other one was better. And then there was Juan, who could do both! So there would be times where my teammate was starting on the front row and I’d be 15th or whatever. I did try to convert, because it’s better on fuel mileage, but it wasn’t comfortable. So like I say, I’d go for the “red-mist-in-brake-zone” and there were some tracks where it worked, like on street circuits.
So I was better when the tires were harder. When they started softening the tire, it hurt me because my degradation rate was higher; when the tires were harder, it required my way of working them harder in order to get them up to temperature.
Chip was OK through my difficult phases: he’d say things like, “You’ve got to pick it up,” but I knew that already. I won a few races after my championship year, but not as many as my teammates were winning. Once Zanardi was on a roll, I was getting pummeled for two-and-a-half seasons, and when he goes off to Formula 1, I think, “OK, that’s good, I’m never gonna have another teammate like that…” and then Chip hires some snot-nosed Colombian who was probably even faster than Zanardi! Yeah, tough few years there…
But until Dixon came along, I was Chip’s longest-serving driver – six years – so I guess he appreciated my good days more than he got annoyed at my bad ones. In fact, I know he did, because after Juan left for Formula 1 at the end of 2000, at the same time he let me go and hired two rookies: Bruno Junqueira and Nic Minassian. Well we know how that went: he let Minassian go after just a handful of races and I think Bruno got a win but he was nowhere in the championship. One day I remember Chip growled to me: “I hate admitting this, but I should have kept you and just brought in one rookie.”
So that was a compliment, but hey: I think looking back I could have made myself a better Indy car driver and been more focused, so I understand why I was let go. And Bruno did come good, and Kenny Brack was strong too. And then that kid Dixon worked out, too, didn’t he…?
I remember Chip discussing with the team making a switch for 2000. It wasn’t just a case of, “Hey, I’ve done a deal.” He spoke to the relevant people and you could definitely see the Toyota engine was coming along well and that the Lola wasn’t bad at all. I have no idea of the business side of his deals are, but I admire him for not being afraid to make moves to improve performance.
You’ve got to remember that racing is Chip’s business, period. He doesn’t have car dealerships or all the other businesses that a lot of the elite of motorsport have. This is his sole profession and I think that makes a difference in how he runs things: he gets the right guys in place – and believe me, a lot of them are still there from when I was there – gives them the right tools. But then his short-, medium- and long-term planning is still all about racing. I think that’s definitely one reason for his sustained success and it’s something he’s had going for him even before his first title. He’d be asking, “OK, what does this team need to win?”
Paid off, didn’t it?
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