By the end of that late Saturday night at Petit Le Mans in 2019, Ford Chip Ganassi Racing had reached its farewell point in IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Shortly afterward, the Blue Oval’s Ford GTs would be returned and the formidable two-car GT Le Mans team would be reassigned, for the most part, to different wings of Ganassi’s multi-series racing operation.
As Ganassi contemplated life without sports car racing, the majority of FCGR’s IMSA crew members were headed for the team’s NTT IndyCar Series programs, including IMSA team manager Mike O’Gara. To their surprise, a new IMSA project landed one year after the Ford effort folded. And with an urgent need to create Cadillac Chip Ganassi Racing to compete in the DPi class, O’Gara and the team’s hierarchy had approximately three months to reconstitute a sports car program.
Adding to the complexity, CGR expanded to four IndyCar entries for 2021 before the Cadillac program was finalized, which made pulling its former IMSA team back to the WeatherTech Championship paddock all but impossible. With the exception of a few returnees, CCGR is a fresh assembly of endurance racers, which makes for a unique opportunity with the help of O’Gara to go inside their process of creating a title-contending DPi outfit without the luxury of extensive time and testing on their side.
Pivoting back to IMSA
“A year ago, the Ford program went away, and at the same time, we were adding Marcus Ericsson to the IndyCar program, so luckily, we were able to place almost most everybody from the IMSA program onto his No. 8 Honda,” O’Gara told RACER. “We sprinkled a couple other guys on the No. 9 and No. 10 cars. So, all was good. And then, towards the end of the summer, we got this new IndyCar deal done with Jimmie Johnson.
“So we’re going to add another car, so I set about trying to add a car’s worth of people. And a car’s worth of people that are worthy of a program like Jimmie’s, without destroying what we had on the other cars. Obviously, Scott Dixon’s program was successful last year. The 10 car with Felix Rosenqvist was successful. They won a race. Marcus really hit his stride at the end of the year. So you don’t want to destroy that by siphoning people off of what’s working there.
“And then a few weeks after the Jimmie Johnson deal got done, this Cadillac opportunity sprung up. Chip always said he wanted to go back IMSA racing, but he wanted to do it with the right program and in the proper way. The Ford program was a dream program for six years total, two years with the DP and four the GT cars. I mean, great partners, good funding, success, best sports car drivers in the world. It was a dream deal to be able to be a part of it. So taking a year off was a bummer, but this new Cadillac program is pretty darn exciting, and we get to go race for overall wins.”
Staffing the No. 01 Cadillac DPi-V.R
“The Dallara chassis is, in our opinion, the one to have if you’re going to go DPi racing, and to do it with GM is that much better. So we started building this team, and I managed to steal a couple of guys and get them back on the sports car program. Trevor Montgomery has been with us forever – been a sports car guy, been an IndyCar guy. He’s one of these utility players that you plug him in and stuff just gets done. So it was awesome that he was interested in coming back. A name familiar to the IMSA paddock is actually going to crew chief the car, and that’s Phil Binks (ED: son of long-time – and recently-retired – Corvette Racing crew chief Dan).
“We wanted to promote from within, and looked at a lot of different options. And again, without wanting to pull someone else off of the IndyCar program, Phil’s name rose to the top. Management at the Indy shop huddled and said, ‘Let’s see if Phil wants to do it.’ He and a few of the guys worked through Christmas and New Year’s, and got this car put together. It got loaded on the truck Friday night, about 2:30 a.m., to head down to Sebring. So far, Phil’s done a great job in leading his guys as we’ve recruited new people to work with us.
“John Hennek is going to engineer the car. He’s been with us for a long, long time – did our DP program, helped out on Dixon’s car last year as a performance engineer. He was a clear choice to engineer the car. And he’s one of those guys that just grabs the bull by the horns. You know, the words were barely out of our mouths that we were going to do this program, and he wanted Dallara’s parts books, and user manuals, and any data he could get, and build sheets and aero maps. He’s taken the ball and run with it. And you’ll see some other guys come and go, especially with Daytona luckily not being a conflict with the IndyCar schedule. There’s some guys that are going to be doing some double duty to help get this thing off the ground.
“Brought a few other guys in from outside, both for the Cadillac and to supplement the IndyCars. I had this big grid. I felt like it was a big one of those sliding number puzzles to get guys that I felt were going to gel and work together. And you have to take a chance on some people that may not have IMSA or IndyCar experience. And we’ve done that. We’ve taken a chance on some guys that don’t have any racing experience at all. But as [CGR managing director] Mike Hull likes to say, we get them in our system and get them doing things the way we want it done, and it works out. So far, everything is looking good.”
CCGR hired ex-Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac driver Renger van der Zande and former Haas F1 driver Kevin Magnussen to lead the No. 01 Cadillac for the season. Scott Dixon, who drove WTR’s Cadillac last year, will join the Dutch-Danish tandem at IMSA’s longest races, and Ericsson will serve as a standby for the upcoming Rolex 24 At Daytona if there’s a need for a replacement driver.
Although the team has vast sports car experience, van der Zande finds himself in an enviable place as a driver who knows more about the DPi-V.R than his new employers, and those he’ll drive with in 2021.
“Obviously, there are a lot of factors between Chip and Mike Hull on who they ultimately wanted to drive for us,” O’Gara said. “They’ve got a pretty good track record of finding good guys to drive our race cars. The process when we did the GT program was, Mike and I sat down and made a list, and we just worked our way down the list. The Cadillac deal is a similar thing, but for the Ford GT, we didn’t have anybody with Ford GT experience. So, we were looking at other GTLM drivers.