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‘What else?’ A lot for Chip Ganassi, whose racing teams are off to a strong start in 2023

Chip Ganassi

#02: Cadillac Racing, Cadillac DPi, DPi: Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn, Neel Jani Podium

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – It’s the signature Chip Ganassi catchphrase known to those lucky enough to witness another side of a self-described ordinary guy whose teams have done extraordinary things in auto racing.

Though he often comes across as gruff and occasionally standoffish in interviews, Ganassi actually enjoys holding court with small groups of reporters, challenging their assertions and questions with an acerbic Pittsburgh wit honed through decades in garages and paddocks around the world.

The namesake of Chip Ganassi Racing frequently peppers his phone calls and conversations with two words that cut to the chase while inviting further conversation.

“What else?”

During a March 3 sitdown with four reporters inside his IndyCar team’s hospitality trailer -- two days before Marcus Ericsson opened the 2023 season with a victory in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg -- there was no clearer indication that Ganassi greatly enjoyed his return to jousting with the media (especially after he did no interviews for months during the 2022 season while embroiled in contract litigation with Alex Palou).

“What else?” he asked a half-dozen times in between at least a dozen deadpan quips and razor-sharp jabs:

On the future of his IndyCar driver lineup: “We never look forward and plan. We just throw darts.” And after being pressed about Scott Dixon’s future, “Oh, I’m not going to have him forever? OK. We’re signing Dixon to an 11-year deal.”

On this year’s sellout of the 24 Hours of Le Mans: “How is there no parking on the infield? The whole infield might be as large as Marion County.”

On being interviewed for the new “100 Days to Indy” docuseries: “That’s why I got in the sport. To be on TV.”

On the rebranding of Indy NXT: “Yeah, that was the problem with that series. It was the name! God, why didn’t we think of that? All caps!”

On the U.S. judicial system: “That’s why you never want to go to a jury trial. You’re putting your life in the hands of 12 people that can’t get out of jury duty.”

If it wasn’t clear from his upbeat mood, the state of Chip Ganassi Racing is strong early in the 2023 season.

Aside from winning the IndyCar opener March 5 and top fives in the Extreme E opener last weekend, CGR has prepared Cadillacs that will race in the world’s two biggest sports car series this week at Sebring International Raceway.

The winning organization in the 2022 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring will defend its title Saturday with the No. 01 Cadillac V-Series R.

A day earlier in the 1,000 Miles of Sebring, Ganassi will be watching the No. 2 Cadillac Racing V-Series R begin its first season in the World Endurance Championship. Ganassi and Roger Penske are the only team owners supporting full-time entries in the WEC and IMSA this year.

The WEC’s signature event is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, whose June 10-11 field will include both the No. 01 and 02 Cadillacs. That will give Ganassi (and Cadillac Racing) two shots at winning Le Mans again after he captured a GT category victory with Ford in 2016.

TWELVE HOURS OF SEBRING: Details, schedules, and information for watching Saturday’s race

Just don’t bother asking if the overall victory would mean even more.

“Here’s the thing people don’t understand about it,” Ganassi said. “We don’t race any different because you’re in a different class. We’re racing as hard as we can no matter what class we’re in, It’s just another race. We’re racing. You look at the rules. You try to maximize the rulebook and give it your best effort. We do that every week.”

OK, but doesn’t it feel a little different? The overall prototype win at Le Mans is bigger than GT.

“Because people like you say that it is.”

But isn’t that what the WEC and the ACO say, too?

“It is for some reason,” Ganassi said with a smile. “It didn’t feel any different to win our class in GT with the Ford. It felt as big a win as ever, believe me. And it was! We beat everybody who we were racing against. And that’s what we want to do in the current class we’re in. We want to beat everybody else that’s in the class.”

That hasn’t happened in a while, though, for an American-based sports car teams to take on the best of the European squads. Isn’t that a tall order?

“Yeah, and if I didn’t think I had a good shot, I wouldn’t go,” he said. “We’re up for it.

“What else?”

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During the 1 hour and 4-minute session, Ganassi touched on topics across virtually every major racing series (IMSA, NASCAR and Formula One among them), and he saved one of his thickest riffs to ruminate on the current state of IndyCar.

“Everyone wants to take a snapshot that in 1996, we had three chassis, three engine manufacturers and two tire companies fighting for the championship at the last race” of the CART Champ Car season, Ganassi said. “Was that great? Unquestionably it was great. But times are different today. I remember there were 60 driver-car combinations when I tried to qualify (for the Indy 500) in 1982. There were 60 (expletive) drivers there, OK? I mean, it’s different today.

“But I don’t sit there and say we need to go back. These are the glory days. The days we’re in are the glory days, OK? Can we do a better job? Sure we can do a better job. I’ll come over to your office and show you how you can do a better job. You can come over to mine and tell me how I can do a better job. We can all do that. But that’s not the benchmark for me. The benchmark for me is we are where we are, and we want to go to that next step. Doing a better job marketing, getting the word out that this is a great racing series and some of the greatest racing. It’s real racing. The real thing.

“It’s not NASCAR. It’s not Formula One. I mean, let’s face it: Formula One is about everything but the racing. OK? It’s like the racing is almost an afterthought.”

Some other Ganassi nuggets:

• He confirmed that the team wants to run Takuma Sato in all the oval races but currently has funding only for Texas Motor Speedway and the Indy 500. “We’re trying to get it all together,” Ganassi said. “I don’t have the sponsorship right now.”

The car isn’t in the Leader’s Circle program that brings bonus money, so Ganassi conceded it’s possible it could be sidelined. But he also indicated that Marcus Armstrong could expand his schedule of road and street courses if the rookie (who paced a session of preseason testing at The Thermal Club) continues to show flashes of great promise.

“I want to temper my enthusiasm,” Ganassi said. “He’s not doing all the races. But if he’s not careful, he may find himself in more races.”

• He championed the second year of the team’s Women in Motorsports program that is designed to provide more opportunities at racing careers for women. Angela Ashmore is the engineer for Ericsson’s No. 8 Dallara-Honda that won at St. Pete and in last year’s Indy 500. Danielle Shepherd was the lead Ganassi engineer on the No. 01 Cadillac that won Sebring last year.

“I’ve never been one to want to go and say, ‘Hey let’s go check that box of equity and diversity,’ ” Ganassi said. “I think it’s got to be somewhat authentic as opposed to checking the box. I think this is authentic, No. 1. But more importantly, you have to generate new thought and new approaches and new ideas.

“And hey, we’ve shown whether it was at Indianapolis last year with Angela Ashmore or at Sebring with Danielle. To have these women in key positions. It works. It happens. We’re not just checking the box. I don’t call winning the Indy 500 or the Twelve Hours of Sebring as a chief engineer checking the box.”

• With new team manager Taylor Kiel (who called strategy for Ericsson at St. Pete) joining the team from Arrow McLaren, Ganassi said he and managing director Mike Hull actively have been “looking at ourselves in the mirror saying, ‘Where are we weak? Where do we need to get stronger? What do we need?’ All the time.

“We’re kind of in a mode now that, dare I say, we need to get a little younger. Let’s face it, (Kiel) runs around with a different crowd than Mike Hull and myself. He has a different perspective of the sport. I said to Mike one day, ‘He plows different fields than we do.’ When it comes to the people he knows in the sport, everything is different.”

• There are no hard feelings about the NASCAR departure of Jimmie Johnson, who still could return for the 2024 Indy 500.

“I thought we were OK there for another year,” Ganassi said of keeping Johnson in the No. 48 Honda. “I don’t want to say it caught me off guard. I could have gone another year there with Jimmie and Carvana. We talked about (the 2023 Indy 500) with him a little bit. I think we all said gee, that would be great. Let’s do it, but he’s got a lot going on with his new deal. We’d have to come up with some guys. It wasn’t just a layup to do it.

“I’m not saying I wouldn’t want to do it. Or I won’t do it in the future. I think Jimmie was fully aware he could do Indy with us this year, but it wasn’t a glove fit. … The takeaway there is he and I are on as good of terms as ever. We’ve never been on bad terms.”

• Though happy for team owner Justin Marks and team president Ty Norris, Ganassi naturally is most proud of the team members at Trackhouse Racing – most of whom were holdovers from his Cup organization that was sold in 2021.

He also recounted what it was like watching Ross Chastain’s “Hail Melon” move (now outlawed) at Martinsville Speedway last year.

“Look, I’ve been to Martinsville more times than I care to think about,” Ganassi said. “At least 40. I saw that, and I literally thought my eyes were deceiving me. What am I looking at here? Because I’m watching it and not paying attention and the race is about over, who’s in, who’s not. I saw it and thought to myself, ‘Did they just go back to some replay and speed it up or something? I was literally confused for a second when I saw that.’ ”

He then devilishly referenced Chastain’s dust-up with Kevin Harvick at Darlington Raceway in 2018.

“I just wonder what Kevin Harvick thinks of Ross now,” Ganassi said with a chuckle. “How we doing now, Harv? Are we OK now? Tell him I asked about that. Tell him I had a smile on my face!”

Despite their contentious squabbling last year, Ganassi said things are good now with Alex Palou, and that the 2021 champion is welcome to stay at Ganassi beyond 2023 (though it’s been reported he has an agreement to join Arrow McLaren next year).

“He knows that,” Ganassi said when asked if Palou could return. “Maybe he already has a deal. I don’t know. Hey, I never flinched one minute on Friday, Saturday, Sunday last year about his car. And I think that showed. I’ve got to hand it to him for all he put himself through to do that. That’s no small feat.”

Just don’t ask Ganassi about “suing” Palou.

“There was never a lawsuit filed,” he said. “I don’t know what you guys keep saying a lawsuit was filed. There was never any lawsuit filed. There were certainly lawsuits written, but I never sued him. There was never a lawsuit filed. We went to arbitration, which is in the contract. You don’t sue somebody to go to arbitration. That was spelled out in the contract.”

Why did Ganassi hold Palou to his option year when many other team owners say they would let a driver walk before the end of a contract if ready to move on?

“How many other owners that don’t want to hold on to their drivers have 14 championships and six Indy 500 wins?” Ganassi retorted. “Talk to me about those owners. OK. When those owners (win 14 championships and six Indy 500s), tell me how they feel. Then we’re talking apples to apples.”

That’s not to say Ganassi holds himself above the masses.

During the interview, he was happiest as he proudly described swimming a mile in an outdoor public pool just around the corner from the posh Vinoy Renaissance hotel in St. Petersburg.

“Where else are you going to swim,” Ganassi said with a shrug. “It’s a great pool, a 50-meter pool. There aren’t many of those around. I made 16 laps in a 50-meter pool. I’m hardly an Olympian.”

Maybe, a team representative suggested, he could have brought Michael Phelps.

“I like winners,” Ganassi said.