INDIANAPOLIS — Team owner Chip Ganassi topped his epic 2010 season that earned him NSSN’s Economaki Champion of Champions award with Thursday’s blockbuster announcement at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball will headline his expanded IZOD IndyCar Series operation.
In a still-wobbly economy, Ganassi’s announcement of the new Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing team scored not only an economic triumph but also a victory for those who favor a resurgence of American driving talent.
Rahal, 21, from Dublin, Ohio, will drive the No. 38 Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing entry. Already with 60 starts at the top levels of American open-wheel racing, the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART champion Bobby Rahal, has one victory, two pole positions, and 12 top-five and 32 top-10 finishes.
TBC Retail Group announced in October that it inked a multiyear spokesperson and sponsorship association with Rahal to represent its family of tire and automotive retail brands, which include Service Central, Tire Kingdom, Big O Tires, NTB (National Tire and Battery), and Merchant’s Tire and Auto Centers.
Kimball, a 25-year-old from Camarillo, Calif., will continue his association with diabetes care world leader Novo Nordisk, his two-year sponsor in the Firestone Indy Lights Series. Kimball will drive Ganassi’s No. 83 Novo Nordisk entry.
The partnership between Novo Nordisk and CGR makes Kimball the first driver from the 2010 Firestone Indy Lights Series to move up the official “Mazda Road to Indy” with a full season sponsorship.
He likened his expanded organization to that of NASCAR’s Hendrick Motorsports.
“That was the template,” Ganassi said. “It’s not a four-car team. It’s two two-car teams. I would compare it much like the Hendrick NASCAR operation where they have the 48, the 24 and the 5 and the 88. We think that’s a model that might work a little better than just doing straight four cars.”
Mike Hull, CGR managing director, said the new arrangement will operate seamlessly with the established team, just as the Grand Am/Rolex sports-car team of Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas do alongside the Target-sponsored IZOD IndyCar Series duo.
“What we’re all about is direct communication, and that is the culture at Chip Ganassi Racing, plain and simple,” Hull said. “It’s an open dialogue from the time we get up in the morning until we dream about it at night. So it will be a very open-book situation between everybody that works for Chip Ganassi.
“Under our roof here in Indianapolis, we currently run two programs. We run a Rolex Sports Car team and an IndyCar team. Those people totally interact with each other. What we’re doing today and Chip said it the best way, I think. What we’re doing is creating a new team. It’s an expansion of what we currently do at Chip Ganassi Racing. So this team will be treated in exactly the same manner as the other two teams. We simply have three groups of people that operate as one.”
However, they’ll be in two separate buildings. The Kimball-Rahal operation’s home will be the Brownsburg, Ind., shop that belongs to NHRA drag-racing legend Don Prudhomme and once housed his Top Fuel and Funny Car operations.
“Mike has a great way of just focusing,” Ganassi said, expressing faith in Hull’s ability to execute everything properly.
“It’s going to be case study for the Harvard Business Group,” Hull joked. “We have a distinct managing system. Communication flows immediately between our teams. What has made us good is that each driver learns from each other, wins with each other, and applauds each other.”
Alluding to the Henrick model he used, Ganassi said, “We always look at growing our business. We want to grow it in the right manner,” he said.
He insisted that, “I’ve never been the most nationalistic guy” when he chooses a driver, saying, “We always went for the most talented guy.” However, he acknowledged this “surge of American drivers right now” and suggested that IRL CEO Randy Bernard and the media can exploit that, if they wish, but “I’m in the business of racing cars.”
Ganassi indicated his desire to embrace his current open-wheel champions, who have grabbed the four most recent series titles and five of the past eight, while developing the next generation of headliners.
“Not to take anything away from Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, but we have to keep a keen eye on the next generation. And what better way than to have our finger on them?” Ganassi said.
“I’m not pushing Dixon and Franchitti out the door yet, but they are of a different era, you might say, than these two guys up here today,” he said. “So I think it’s obvious that we need to, as a company, we need to keep our — we need to keep current with people coming along. We as a company need to stay competitive, stay in the forefront and look at what drivers are coming along,” he said. “Who better than to have two Americans come along like this? We wanted to make sure we had an opportunity, if at all possible, to work with them.”
That’s exactly what Rahal said he wanted, as well.
“There’s no one that’s been better,” Rahal said of CGR. “It’s the perfect opportunity for me. You want to be in a position to be as successful as you can every single weekend. The future of the IRL is very bright right now. I hope I can be here a long, long time. Of course, you have to succeed to do that. There’s not a better place you can be. It’s an honor to have the opportunity.”
Even with his pedigree, Rahal had to earn his chances. He said that struggle to land a home in the series actually has benefited him.
“When you getting to through four or five different teams in one year, you see how everybody operates, different mentalities, work ethics, all of those things. So it really makes you appreciate when you get an opportunity like this,” he said. “So it’s a huge breakthrough. Now it’s time for us to put our heads down.”