The 2020 season marks three decades in the sport for iconic IndyCar, NASCAR and now Extreme E team owner Chip Ganassi.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years,” he said in a recent interview. “I always tell people I had a fossil fuel-fired youth, having raced karts, motorcycles, Indy cars and sports cars. I could never in my wildest dreams imagined owning a race team back then, and now it’s incredible to see where it is now.”
But even for someone of his experience, having the entire sport shut down for months due to a global pandemic was a new experience. So who better to check in with about NASCAR’s return from hibernation at Darlington Raceway last weekend?
“Everybody was cautiously optimistic at Darlington,” says Ganassi about the first NASCAR race of the post-COVID-19 clampdown era. “I think the entire sport, for once, was respectful of the fact that we were going to be the first live network sporting event, and people were clamoring for any sporting event, really. I think everybody there involved with the sport respected the fact that they didn’t want to be the Ricky Stenhouse on Monday, per se, and crash on the first lap. They wanted to be the ones that got the project done and put on a good show for the many, many new fans we were going to have watching.”
Of the countless races and events Ganassi has been a part of over the decades, he found the made-for-TV Real Heroes 400 to be a unique motor race that will be reflected back on for a hell of a long time.
“Well, you know, in some sense, people were saying it was like being at a big test, because there was no screaming and yelling of the fans, or no-one milling about the parking lots, and the parking lots were all somewhat empty,” he says.
“Again, I think the fact that we were so fortunate to be the first ones out of the blocks was very good. I think the country does need to get restarted again and get this economy started again, and I think it’s a little bit of a feather in NASCAR’s cap to bear the responsibility of being the first out, but also being the first out and putting on a damn good show.
“I temper my comments by saying all these events [usually] have an on-site crowd and you have a television crowd, and certainly we were disappointed that we were not able to have fans there in the stands, even local fans who might drive 200, 300 or 400 miles to get to a race. That was disappointing, in that respect.
“Yet for however disappointing it was, I think we were equally filled with excitement that we were the live show to be back, so we had a little bump and I’m sure we made some new fans there from people that never watched NASACR before. Yeah, obviously we were disappointed with the onsite crowd, but we had the TV crowd that was up, and that we were very happy about. Really, there’s some excitement with that, you know? In terms of being there, there’s a bigger play involved here than maybe than a few other individuals and how they felt about being there.”
Among those who missed the chance to experience the race from trackside was Ganassi himself.
“I’m sitting in my office in Pittsburgh right now,” he says. “Currently, they’re trying to keep the groups that are there at the races down to a minimum, so I didn’t want to take up a roster spot in the infield. I’d rather have somebody there that we could employ there. We have a skeleton crew there as well, so I didn’t want to take up a spot. So for the owners to be there, they have to be on the outside of the track in a suite or in their bus in the parking lot, so I decided not to go and I was going to wait until maybe this weekend in Charlotte.
“Right now we have to be so careful, because we don’t want to bump up against any of the CDC guidelines and we want to respect that we’re the first sport out there running and operating, and we want to take every precaution we can. So there is no point in having non-essential people there. They don’t need to be there right now.”
This writer first met Ganassi on race day at the 1999 Long Beach Grand Prix Champ Car while drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Jimmy Vasser were getting suited up, and it’s always been apparent that while he’s a massively successful team owner, Ganassi just simply loves going racing. Upon seeing the cars rub against Darlington’s storied walls he was, just like the rest of us, thrilled.
“Once the thing got started and they were racing, it was fine,” he says. “The pre-race and the post-race I was a little let down, but the actual racing itself, and that’s what’s we’re there for, was perfect.”
Ganassi’s two drivers, veterans Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth (more on him in a moment) were more than ready to meet up with the Lady in Black. Kenseth – occupying the No. 42 seat due to the exit of Kyle Larson in April – held sway over all current Cup drivers in laps around Darlington with 8,455 markers completed, with Busch second overall in laps with 7,970.
“Yeah, Kurt was solid to finish Sunday’s race in P3,” enthuses Ganassi. “I mean, Darlington is one of those places where you really probably need to be restarting in the top lane to have that momentum coming off the corners, and by way of where we came out of the pits a few times there at the end, we were in the maybe not desired starting lane. We were relegated to third, and then Kurt made it up to second and then he got passed back – I think he used up his car getting up there to second and used up his tires, so it was unfortunate to know that we were just a tick off. But I’m encouraged about the next races.”
And then there was veteran Matt Kenseth, whose 26th career start at Darlington materialized into a highly-applauded 10th overall finish.
“Talk about throwing a guy into the deep end of the pool, and he bounced right up and accepted the challenge,” he says. “Literally, the first lap of the race was his first lap in the car. Remember, new car, new team, a new crew chief he never worked with, engineers he never worked with and a pit crew he never worked with before, a brake pedal he had never stepped on before, a throttle pedal he never stepped on before, a steering box he had never driven with before and the car he drove with the aerodynamic shape and 550-horsepower was a package he had never drove before, and he drove it down into Turn 1 with his foot on the floor and it turned, thank God! Matt said it took him a couple laps, but after two or three laps he said he was fine. For him to come 10th, I think, was just as equally exciting as Kurt being third. I’m encouraged.
“You know, I’m also very encouraged by the fact that both Matt and Kurt are so good with each other. I’ll never forget this – when I told Kurt that we hired Matt, he said, ‘He’s the best teammate I ever had.’ When I talked with Matt, I said, ‘Hey Matt, when I talked to Kurt today, he said you were the best teammate he’d ever had.’ Matt then said to me, ‘Hey, he was the best teammate I’ve ever had.’ It was interesting that they both said the same thing about each other, so I think there’s some speed in that. They talk the same language about the cars and they communicate in the same vernacular, if you will.”
Two top 10 finishes and finally back at the races, Ganassi spoke about the team’s post-race gather ‘round..
“We waited until the next day to get everyone together to review the race,” explains Ganassi. “Everybody wanted to go home and everybody wanted to get out of there on Sunday night, so we did a couple ‘good jobs’ and high fives and a couple back slaps’ and got out of there. We talked about it all on Monday.
“It was good at Darlington. Really good. Really special [for the sport] to be there. To have to tackle that responsibility of being the first sport back was a real honor and a real opportunity to showcase what a great sport we have. I mean, how many people did you talk to that said, ‘Man, I’ve never watched a NASCAR race, but I’m going to watch that one.’ Darlington was great. It was close, tight racing, and you have to drive the cars there. It’s not something where your foot is just to the floor and all you do is steer. You have to drive them there, and I think it looked great.”