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Charging Ganassi gets into the driver's seat

| Sunday, May 29, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS — The bellowing echo of power tools reverberate throughout a spacious room inside the complex that houses the IndyCar Series team of Chip Ganassi Racing.

It's the thundering sound of success.

And that success is marked with three rows of championship cars stacked six-high — one atop another. The open-wheel title cars, including the 1996 model driven by Jimmy Vasser to secure Fox Chapel native Chip Ganassi his first open-wheel crown, are climbing the walls of a makeshift museum like ivy, putting the ceiling within reach.

"It's a cool sight," Ganassi said. "I'm too much of a pragmatist. I'm just glad those cars are off the floor, taking up space. I don't know how I feel. I couldn't envision that sort of stuff happening."

In 1996, Ganassi fought hard to win his first championship. It was the team's first legitimate shot at a title, CGR general manager Mike Hull recalled.

"At the racetrack, Vasser could win the championship on how well we performed as a group," Hull said. "I remember everybody being uptight. After we won, we realized we could do it again. We find out the definition of teamwork is to believe in each other, and we've succeeded together."

The sum of Ganassi's meteoric rise the past 15 years: three Indianapolis 500 victories and eight open-wheel championships — including the past IndyCar Series three titles.

"It's easy to win big races and championships once the team environment is built to accomplish that," Hull said. "You're not going to win every time, but we always give ourselves a chance to win."

Winning formula

From one corner of the shop to the next, mechanics and engineers diligently perfect the parts and components for the high-powered cars of reigning IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti. They searched for something; anything to give the No. 9 Dallara-Honda a shot at victory.

"It's great to get another one. I'd like to have a whole collection," Franchitti said. "For me last year, earning another win or trophy or championship was something that took awhile to sink in.

"Once the 2010 season was over, I was able to step out of the whirlwind of activity and reflect on the year. I would love to relive it all over again. Hopefully, we can come away with our third Indianapolis 500 win (today)."

The work is extremely tedious and laborious, but necessary to provide the razor-thin competitive edge Franchitti needs today during the 95th running of the Indianapolis 500 at storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Typically, horsepower and race-day strategy separates contenders from pretenders at the Brickyard — an oft-unforgiving, century-old 2.5-mile oval that sometimes rewards the daring and invariably bushwhacks those unwilling to invest the sweat equity required to be a champion.

"We've been in this great sport for many, many years, and the one thing you learn is how little you know," Ganassi said, "and that's a valuable tool. You can't prepare for a lot of situations, but you can be prepared for a lot of them.

"The little things in the shop — cleaning and piecing together parts — are important. You have to be better prepared than the competition. You have to do things a little better to win at Indy, but the difficult part is figuring out what to do."

Ganassi's team of engineers and mechanics have developed a winning formula. Predictably, Franchitti and 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon are among the favorites to capture the checkered flag today.

And Ganassi may have gained strength in numbers. He doubled his chances of winning for the fourth time at IMS after expanding his program by adding two young, ambitious drivers in Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball.

Ultimately, it isn't speed or strategy that offers up the traditional victory milk to quench a driver's insatiable thirst to add his or her name on the Borg-Warner Trophy alongside Brickyard legends A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser. Instead, it's a multitude of little things during the year-long preparation for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing that puts a driver in contention to win the most-coveted prize in motorsports.

"The good thing is we're really into the fine-tuning stage," said Julian Robertson, director of engineer for CGR. "Some of these projects take six and nine months to materialize."

"We have some different things we'll try," mechanic John Huffman said. "But you only get one shot at it, so it has to be right."

Planning ahead

No one, it seems, knows that better than Ganassi. It's why he seemingly obsesses more over the journey than the destination — Victory Lane.

"We're always thinking long term about the Indianapolis 500," Ganassi said. "We're constantly working on little pieces and parts that matter. Our guys in the shop can't afford to miss anything, because it could be the difference between winning and losing the 500.

"In some sense, you are getting prepared for the biggest race of the year — all the time. But you have to prepare as if you are getting ready for any other race. You don't want to overdo it, but you have to do the day-to-day preparation. It's kind of a double-edged sword.

"We come into the season understanding our goal is to win the Indy 500 and the (IndyCar Series) championship. We want to make sure we don't have a down year. So we can't afford to miss anything. We can't afford a bad pit stop. Everything has to work as planned. We can't afford mistakes."

Ganassi, his thin hair lathered with champagne following Franchitti's second win at the Brickyard a year ago, quickly shifted his attention toward this year's 200-lap race. It's that kind of single-mindedness that has enabled his Indy Racing League program to reel in Penske Racing.

"We start gearing up for the Indy 500 after the last Indy 500 while it's still fresh in your mind," said Julian Robertson, chief of engineering for Ganassi's IndyCar Series and Grand-Am teams. "You can't stop thinking about it. It's a one year project.

"It's our job to make sure the car is good enough for the driver to win in it. It's a combination of everyone in the building."

Ganassi isn't within shouting distance of Penske's record 15 Indianapolis 500 victories. However, his drivers have lapped the competition the past three years. Franchitti and Dixon have won two the past three Indy 500s.

The winning, though, hasn't come easy.

Attention to detail

In the weeks leading up to the 500, CGR personnel spent countless hours at both the Indianapolis and Brownsburg (Ind.) shops tweaking the Dallara chassis and Honda-powered engines. They adjusted and readjusted everything from wings to suspensions to grease before unloading the finished product earlier this month at Gasoline Alley.

"If we don't get it right at the shop, we're going to lose," team manager Barry Wanser said. "The last thing we want to do is beat ourselves. We nearly did that in Iowa last year with a gear box failure that cost us 40 points. Dario had to fight hard at the end to win the championship in the last race (at Homestead-Miami)."

So far, Ganassi drivers have been up and down this season — except Franchitti's win in the season-opener in St. Petersburg, Fla. Wanser said drivers and shop engineers had to double their efforts in preparation for Indianapolis, in part, because the cars that will line up on the 33-car starting grid at the Brickyard are largely different than those used on road and street courses — St. Petersburg, Birmingham, Long Beach and Brazil.

One of the most significant differences is the aerodynamics package. The road course setups have an aero package that generates 5,000 pounds of down force, while the Indy package has 1,700 pounds of down force, which provides better grip on an oval.

In the past, the top flap was the single biggest component engineers could manipulate to produce more speed. But the sanctioning body eliminated the top flap as part of its offseason rule changes.

"Everyone is working on the same small areas of the car," Wanser said. "At Indy, they actually open up the rear-wing rules (single-element rear wing at Indy) and it's adjustable. You can choose the wing element, especially during qualifying.

"But Indy can't compare it to any other races. We have limited practice in other races, but we'll have 1,200 miles of practice and qualifying before we get to the race — more than all the miles we've run in the first four races combined."

Unlike road and street courses, IRL officials provide a slightly different template and specs for the Brickyard that covers 90 percent of the oval package — including mirror angles, pillars on the rear wing and a larger front wing.

"There are a lot of different things we have to change (on an oval), except the chassis," said Kenny Davis, a former Army helicopter mechanic. "The little things add up, and it can be very stressful because you know everything you do can make a difference in how the cars perform."

Finished product

Ganassi's drivers will have a primary and backup car at the Brickyard. Mostly, they are the same cars Franchitti and Dixon piloted at IMS last year. In fact, Franchitti's and Dixon's Indy 500 winning cars are still on the shop floor; not among the stack of trophy cars.

"One of the unique things about these cars is they carry over year after year," Wanser said. "Even though we pride ourselves on having these cars as reflection of the team's history, we won't build those as replica or show cars until the end of the year.

"You wouldn't want to take a car worth a half-million dollars and stick it on the wall because Indy's very expensive. When you factor in the various mechanical components, engineering, research and development, the cars are more than $1 million each. We won't put them on the wall if we can race them."

However, this will be the final year of the current Dallara-Honda package. The new car will have three manufacturers — Honda, General Motors (Chevrolet) and Lotus — in 2012. There are few components, Wanser said, that are going to carry over — except the wheels, which cost an estimated $120,000 for 10 sets of race-day tires.

Even though the IndyCar Series has committed to making some changes, Ganassi and Hull envision more championship cars wrapped around the showroom — one atop another.

"It's inspiring," Hull said. "It represents winning, but if you devote much of your time thinking about that, you'd be paralyzed. Looking back, we understand how special those wins are. It shows how it propelled us to where we are now."

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