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High Speed Hero

Cigar lover Chip Ganassi is the only race car owner to win each of the five most renowned races in America
By Kenneth Shouler | From Michael Strahan, November/December 2014
High Speed Hero

Chip Ganassi is showing a video of his 1984 car crash at the Michigan 500 when he was 26 years old. A cut tire caused his car to dart left into the path of Al Unser Jr., who slammed Ganassi broadside. Both cars slid down toward the infield together. Unser’s auto lost its top but stayed upright; Ganassi’s car took flight, twisted several times, smacked a restraining wall, and disintegrated. A thick veil of smoke obscured the wreck.

“I was very, very, very lucky,” Ganassi says today, explaining that his head hit the infield guardrail in the crash. “I had a broken sternum, a broken hand, some stitches in my knee,” he says, speaking almost casually as he ticks off the damage. He was flown to the University of Michigan Medical Center, spent a night comatose and remained hospitalized for a week.

Three decades removed from the wreck, Ganassi, now 56, enjoys racing from the safer vantage point of a team owner. The offices of Chip Ganassi Racing occupy an architecturally alluring two-story glass building in Fox Chapel, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh. Ganassi is in the lobby, standing in front of an Indy Car, a sleek red machine valued at about $600,000. Most striking about Ganassi is his prominent head, as broad as a jack-o’-lantern. He has massive shoulders and a linebacker’s build. A wry smile rarely leaves his face. It could be the smile of a Chesire cat, or the grin of some rare breed of sportsman who doesn’t feel pressure. More likely it’s the smile of a man who knows about victory.

“We’re in the winning business,” he asserts. Full stop. “Losing and not winning are two different things. There are a lot of races we don’t win. But even worse than the races that you don’t win are the races that you lose. There’s a big difference.” In the lexicon according to Ganassi, “losing” usually owes to driver error. “You make a bad pit stop. You run out of fuel. You crash. Or your strategy doesn’t work—maybe you lead all day and you don’t win the race. It’s one thing if you’re second or third all day and never really challenge for the lead. O.K., so we didn’t win that day; we got beat. If you lead all day and human error takes you to third, it’s the same third, but you can’t get over that. It’s a race that you lost. Losing is way different than just not winning.”

Chip Ganassi has earned every right to pontificate about winning. He is the only racing owner in history to have won each of the five most renowned races in America: the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and the 12 Hours of Sebring. His team reached the summit in 2010, when he won the racing Triple Crown—the Indy 500, Daytona and Brickyard. “And he finished second in the 24 Hours at Daytona,” adds Brickyard winner Jamie McMurray. The feat is comparable to running off consecutive wins of major tournaments in golf or tennis. Consider: to date, there have been 11 Triple Crown winning horses and 16 Triple Crown hitters in baseball. Team Ganassi was the first ever to do it in racing. Does that mean he is the greatest racing owner of all-time?

Chip shakes his head. “No, no. I’ll have plenty of time in retirement to look back; I want to look ahead right now.” But the wealth of accomplishments must make him proud, no? “I’ve been lucky to have great people, great drivers, great sponsors. You don’t do any of these things by yourself.” He’s not resting on his laurels: his head may be large, but it isn’t big. What’s his favorite race? “The next one coming up,” he says.

Life for Chip Ganassi has been full. The need for speed started with his driving dirt bikes and go-karts as a kid. Then he evolved to racing in the Indy Series and NASCAR. A former driver, Ganassi is also a former minority owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and is celebrating his 25th year of owning a racing team. He has been wildly successful, more successful than owners who are decades older. Chip Ganassi Racing employs more than 300 people—including pit crews, strategists, engineers—and some of the great drivers of the era: Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Kanaan, Scott Pruett and Jamie McMurray, Alex Zanardi and Max Papis, and on and on.

In turn, the drivers recognize the value of racing for Ganassi. “He has a saying that he uses before the races,” Franchitti says.“He says, ‘OK guys, let’s get the obvious things right,’ which means don’t make stupid mistakes. Our business is about winning. And one of his strengths is knowing when to push you and knowing when to put his arm around you. I remember in Indy one year we were qualifying and it was about the fifth attempt to qualify. And I was absolutely just worn out and over it. And he came in and he just pumped me up. He was doing something he’d never done, he was almost like a cheerleader. He said, ‘C’mon, we’re gonna go this. Are you ready?’ I said, ‘Not really.’ By the time he was finished I was ready to go. I drove well. That is one of the arts of being a leader that he does very well.”

Scott Dixon has raced for Team Ganassi since 2002. “I’ve been very lucky to work with Chip,” says Dixon. “For one, he’s a very competitive person.” Dixon’s 34 wins are sixth all-time behind only A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Al Unser Sr. and Michael Andretti. “He’s the first person to let you know if you’ve made a mistake or let him down,” Dixon continues. “He’s very up front. It’s nice to have someone that’s a rock leading the whole organization—and you’re talking many, many people. There’s the NASCAR, the sports car scene, the Indy Car scene,” he says, listing the different series that Team Ganassi races in. “And he knows every bit that is going on, which is quite unusual, too.” Owning a racing team is not a toy for Ganassi, as it might be for some billionaire owner. Racing is all he does, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is his single-minded pursuit.

Into this life of enormous responsibility and ceaseless pressure to perform, Ganassi makes time for a leisurely, contemplative smoke. Cigars play a supporting role. They are a capper, a flavor to savor at day’s end. “I like two kinds of cigars,” he says, sounding as unpretentious about smokes as he does about other things. “I like a Cohiba. But lately I’ve been enjoying these Arturo Fuente Short Story cigars. They have good tobacco. I generally will have a cigar after qualifying. It’s the end of the day. The pressure is off. It’s the first part of the weekend. There is something very cerebral in a sense—just sitting back in a chair at the end of the day, maybe with an after-dinner drink and a cigar. And I tell you this: I don’t like to smoke cigars indoors. I would say that nine out of 10 cigars I smoke are outside. I like to smoke cigars in fresh air. You’re outside—it’s the whole experience.”

His fascination with racing preceded his love of fine cigars. He grew up in Monessen, Pennsylvania. When he was eight the family moved to Fox Chapel. One day his father Floyd brought home a replica of a 1963 Indy car. “My father and his partner paved a go-kart track and the guy couldn’t pay him, so they ended up with three go-karts. The karts started out in my cousin’s garage. The go-karts sat for years, since the steering wheel was too big and I couldn’t reach the pedals.” But the seeds of competition were planted. “When you have one go-kart, that’s fun. When you have three, that’s a major race.

“Then we had a weekend home at a place called Seven Strings, which is a ski resort about an hour east of here. I’d ski the winter and ride dirt bikes in the summer.” Other activities aside, his heart was in racing. “Between dirt bikes, go-karts, and snowmobiles I had what you might call a fossil fuel fired youth. I participated in other sports. I didn’t realize it then—but motorsports were it for me. So obviously I had the need for speed at an early age.

“You wouldn’t call Pittsburgh a racing hotbed,” he asserts. The hotbeds for motorsports in America are Indianapolis and Charlotte, where much of the talent is. Still, the Pittsburgh of Ganassi’s youth impacted him because it was win city. “I was so lucky to grow up here during the age of the Steelers (who won four Super Bowls between 1974 and 1979) and the Pirates (who won World Series in 1971 and 1979). Back then, sports wasn’t about taking the biggest chance or proving it to everybody. It was about hard work, perseverance, grit on the field, excellence, ability. To me that’s what it’s all about.”

When did he think he might race for a living? He hesitates.

“Well, doing it for a living is different than thinking you are going to do it. When did I think I was going to do it for a living? I had some interesting things happen over the years when I was younger that I never knew would touch me years later. Let me give you two examples. One was when my father brought home the eight millimeter film of the 1963 Indianapolis 500.

Parnelli Jones won that race. When I went to Indianapolis as a driver in 1982, I met Parnelli. Over the years as I became a team owner, we became friends. So much so that I celebrated Thanksgiving dinner with him—with he and his family. The other example I was reminded of just this last weekend, when I was at Watkins Glen, New York. My mother Maria used to take us on these weekend jaunts to Monticello or D.C., or New York, or Niagara Falls. So one time she said we were going to the Corning Glassworks in the Finger Lakes. I didn’t think much of that, until she said it’s near Watkins Glen. I perked up and said, ‘Oh, Watkins Glen.’ So we went. I was 11 or 12 and went to the Glen Motor Inn, which is a famous inn there. And my idols Mario Andretti, Jackie Stewart and Joe Siffert were in there! And I got their autographs. So when did I think I wanted to be in racing? It was right then. I thought this was so cool.

“So now, does it mean that I was going to be in the Indy 500 when I was 23? No. But it didn’t hurt. Now I’m getting a little more serious about it. I always thought I was going to be a race car driver in my early 20s. And then I would be involved in my father’s business and take it over. My father was in the construction supply industry here in Pittsburgh—sand, gravel, stone, concrete that kind of thing.”

A steady, lucrative, established business had its appeal, especially for a young man with fanciful dreams of speed. “But I always had that tug of motor sports in me.” That “tug” pulled him to his first victory in an auto race in an amateur Formula Ford competition at the tender age of 18. After graduating Duquesne University with a degree in finance in 1982, he started competing. He competed in the Indianapolis 500 five times, achieving a personal best finish of eighth in 1983. In 1982 he had been the fastest rookie in Indianapolis, a title given to the racer with the top average speed over the first four laps. Ganassi averaged 197 miles per hour.

Though his racing career was dealt a severe blow by the crash in the Michigan 500 in 1984, Ganassi has no regrets. “My driving career was great. It lasted from 1977 to 1987. I drove 25 races after the crash.” Didn’t he think about quitting after the accident? “No. That’s part of the thing of being a driver.”

He already had plenty of what it took to be an owner. “My driving career was setting the stage for my next career as an owner. I had three things. I drew on my family business background—my father working hard and working for himself, working with people. I saw him do all facets of the business. He was the HR department, the finance department, the sales department, the investor. I didn’t realize the education I was getting, watching that. I also drew on my motorsports experience. I knew fundamental racing principles, like to finish first you have to first finish. You would be surprised how far it gets you. And then there was my college education. Those three things prepared me for team ownership.”

Ganassi created his own one-car Indy team in 1990 and formed what would be his most lasting partnership with Target, the discount retailer. The relationship with Target, now 25 years old, is the life net of Ganassi Racing. In addition, he has partnerships with Cessna and McDonald’s, Novo Nordisk and NTT DATA, among others. As owner he assumes the responsibility. “I buy the cars, I employ the mechanics, employ the drivers, get the sponsors. I remember people asked ‘How long do you think you are going to be in business?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I hope I can make a living for a couple of years.’ Here I am 25 to 27 years—I do have a recurring dream that I will have to get a real job one of these days.”

In time, Ganassi has found his niche among sports owners. “There are two kinds of guys that own sports teams,” he says. “Billionaires that have them. And those that have them their whole life. And for those of us that are the second type, you feel like you should get a real job.”

The record is unambiguous: he has done an unreal job. To his Triple Crown of 2010 he added one more jewel in January of 2011 when he won the prestigious endurance sports car race the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and subsequently held wins in all four of North America’s most prestigious auto races—an accomplishment now known in racing circles as the “Chip Slam.”

Ganassi routinely deflects attention from himself and toward the team. Dario Franchitti, who drove for Ganassi before retiring in 2013 after a serious crash at the Grand Prix of Houston, knows just how much of a team sport it is. “Any time you can win the Indianapolis 500 it’s an achievement. In 2012, early in the race I was hit and spun around. The guys repaired the car and I went on to win the race. It was one of the highlights, and I won in the last lap. Looking back, it’s something I’m quite proud of. But any race you win is because of multiple factors. It’s a team sport. Without 20 or 30 people that run each car, it wouldn’t be possible to win these races.”

A fair portion of the public thinks that a Daytona or Indy race is 500 left turns, a put-your-foot-to-the-pedal affair where you weave in and out a dozen times and you win. We have this fixed image of solitary drivers, isolated in their machines, engaged in some survival-of-the-fittest struggle for supremacy. While that picture is partially accurate, what is not seen by the viewing public is the degree to which the driver depends on others. Communication is constant, with racing strategies and other kinds of advice being fed into the ears of drivers.

“You become very good at multi-tasking,” says Dixon, who listens in his headset while driving at speeds between 230 and 250 miles per hour. “You are strategizing on the two-way radio with the team, you are changing fuel mixtures, you are moving the weight from the right to the left of the car. It becomes repetitious, something that you do without thinking. You’ll have a spotter in the Indy 500, say, and they will tell you where the cars are. If you are passing someone on the outside, they will say ‘Inside, car 10, outside car 11.’ They are constantly talking to you. The engineer will be asking how the car feels and what changes they can make on the next pit stop. And then you have your strategy people who are talking to you about ‘If you can get this to your mileage number we can go a lap longer, which will put us into a different strategy window.’ Lots of chatter back and forth, and then I will be asking questions like, ‘Wow that car is quick, what is he doing different? Can you see what they are doing?’ It’s an open conversation going on.”

Focus, not speed, is the biggest challenge. “Concentration is constant. That’s another thing that’s tough about Indy, it’s a three-and-a-half to four-hour race, the toughest by far because you are constantly thinking about the next corner, what the car is doing. You are constantly on the edge. Your focus is something that you gain over time with maturity. When you lose focus it seems you make a mistake. You are going 240 miles per hour in an Indy car, but other cars around you are running within 10 miles per hour of you, and so it doesn’t feel that fast. When you lose control, that’s when you know how fast you are going because the wall is going zero. Hit that thing at 200 miles per hour and it definitely rings your bell.”

For Ganassi’s part, the mere mention of Dixon, 34, makes his face light up.  “Scott Dixon is a great racer.” What separates a good racer from a great one? “A lot of guys can win races, but very few win championships, a series of races. There are a lot of guys who can drive race cars fast, but that doesn’t necessarily make them a race car driver. Scott Dixon has great ability to begin to win in the first 10 laps of the event, by his driving style, by his fuel consumption.”

With fuel consumption, racing math comes into play. In a 500-mile race, an Indy Car must fuel up about nine times—roughly once every 55 miles. Since the fuel cell of an Indy car holds 18.5 gallons of gas, the driver who can make that fuel last longer is saving valuable seconds on pit stops, and can potentially win a race.

Ganassi cocks his head back and remembers his own experience driving at that level. There was the respect for the speed. He recalls that Indy cars, with their 800 horsepower, were the final rung on the ladder of the driving experience. “It was like driving a cruise missile with wheels.” Did the power inspire fear? “I wasn’t afraid, but it had my full attention.”

Besides the massive power of the Indy car, Ganassi appreciates the physics, too. “It’s the opposite of an airplane,” Ganassi says, explaining the downforce that helps keep a car on the track at 250-mph speeds. Downforce is created by the air moving over the top of the car and pushing it down toward the track surface.

So what is there to look forward to for an owner who has won it all? “When you win a race, it is a feeling unlike anything else,” he says. “And the feeling you get and the taste you get in your mouth you want to put in a bottle. And you want to be able to sip it every once in a while and savor it. It’s like endorphins when you lift weights or exercise. Once you’ve had it, you don’t want to let that go. You strive to get back to that, so much so that it’s been known to take a toll on other parts of people’s lives. It’s about winning.”

Frequent contributor Kenneth Shouler is an associate professor of philosophy at the County College of Morris in Randolph, New Jersey.