Chip Ganassi Racing goes to the Extreme E in new electric SUV series
It was during a visit to England last August that Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull became convinced his team needed to join the Extreme E Series.
Inside an ultramodern and LEED-certified office of 130 people (30 recently added just to work on the new circuit), Hull was given a virtual tour of Extreme E’s blueprint to race around the world across vastly different topography (deserts, rainforests, mountains, glacial ice sheets) to highlight areas affected by climate change.
Hull had yet to see a track in person for the new series of electric SUVs that will debut in 2021.
But he thought he’d seen racing’s future.
“These guys have their shit together,” Hull told NBCSports.com. “It’s unlike any other sanctioning body I’ve ever gone into. Just the culture in the office is amazing. The average age might be 30 -- maybe. But you walk in, and it’s people who have their heads up, not down. They have one very clear mission statement that they’re onto, and it represents that generation of people very clearly and what they think is important, and I was really impressed with that
“This group represents where racing is going next.”
It’s where Chip Ganassi Racing will be heading next, too, after Hull convinced its namesake of Extreme E’s merits, which extend beyond just being socially conscious.
No one would characterize Chip Ganassi as a tree-hugging environmentalist (though the no-nonsense Pittsburgh native is a voracious consumer of the news who was attuned to climate change and reducing the globe’s carbon footprint during meetings with Extreme E). But the longtime car owner in myriad series has been forward-thinking about re-emphasizing relevance for motorsports.
Dating back to a 2010 induction speech to the Motorsports Hall of Fame in Detroit, Ganassi has been outspoken about racing’s need to appeal to teenagers who are less interested in getting driver’s licenses. Instead of chasing after the cutting edge, Ganassi believes racing should be leading as it did when the Indianapolis 500 was an automotive test bed in the 1960s (his investment in developing the DeltaWing project would be another example).
In a YouTube conversation with Alejandro Agag, who founded the Formula E Series before starting Extreme E as its CEO, Ganassi said he was attracted by the series’ commitment to innovation (which his team uses as a core principle along with performance, integrity and partnership).
“Innovation takes a lot of forms, and in motorsports, it often follows what’s happening in the global automotive industry,” said Ganassi, who also explored racing in Formula E. “We need to recognize that and stay relevant in the industry and the sport but also in social landscapes. That’s so interesting about this formula. Whether we go to the desert, the rainforest or the arctic, these different ideas are all right in line with innovation and where the global automotive industry is headed. I want to be part of it.”
There naturally is a large social and environmentally conscious component to Extreme E that will appeal to youth, which Hull said was important.
“Certainly you always have individual agendas no matter where you go, but this group had a very, very clear agenda, and the people managing the program are on the same wavelength,” Hull said. “I came back and told Chip about all that, and we talked about it for a little while, and Chip did a little of his own research and decided it was a good direction.”
Extreme E will be both a departure and a return for Chip Ganassi Racing, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2020. The team’s diversified history includes 19 championships and more than 220 victories in sports cars (Rolex 24, 12 Hours of Sebring, 24 Hours of Le Mans), NASCAR (Daytona 500, Brickyard 400) and IndyCar (four Indianapolis 500s).
That resume includes a successful run in Global Rallycross, too, but Extreme E will be significantly different than just “an electrified Dakar Rally” as some have described it.
The series will be contested with 3,600-pound electric SUVs with peak 400kw (550 horsepower) battery-powered output that go from 0 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds. Teams can use series bodies, build their own or align with a manufacturer to outfit the common chassis with a body.
Teams will take delivery on the cars at the end of the year, and they will be transported between races on a “floating garage” called the RMS St. Helena (Hull said Extreme E determined transport by ship was 30 percent less harmful to the environment than air travel).
The series will race next year in Lac Rose, Dakar, Senegal (Jan. 23-24); Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia (March 5-6); Kali Gandaki Valley, Mustang District, Nepal (May 14-15); Kangerlussuaq, Greenland (Aug. 28-29); Santarem, Para, Brazil (Oct. 30-31).
In a post-pandemic world, Extreme E already was planning to race without fans as a TV-only event (it likely will be on Fox, Hull said) that also will produce a Netflix-style documentary series on the season.
Hull said Ganassi probably will hire a half-dozen members to staff the team and also will need a male and female driver. To promote gender equity, Extreme E will have a man and woman compete together in every two-lap race, taking turns behind the wheel.
Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti, whose team announced its Extreme E entry last month, said in a release last week that his organization was “equally as excited to share in the news of the new sporting regulations promoting gender equality. As the mindset of motorsports continues to evolve, it is efforts like these from Extreme E that will help bring new opportunities to light.”
Extreme E has a list of drivers who have registered with the series.
Ganassi has had preliminary conversations with candidates, and Hull said the team was seeking those with “an off-road background in shale, asphalt, dirt, gravel, uneven terrain and riverbeds” and noted drivers could come from racing on two or four wheels (noting Jimmie Johnson and Robby Gordon started motorcycles before entering off road).
Hull said he, Ganassi and chief operating officer Doug Duchardt are hoping to attend one of the five races next year to see that “the love of what we do can make a difference.
“There’s lots of locations they scouted that our civilization can make a difference if we choose to do so,” Hull said. “If you think about the amount of time it’s taken for the climate to change, it takes the same amount of time for it to be reversed.
“And so it doesn’t really matter to me which side of the political fence you’re on, or what your ideology is, you’d have to have stepped onto the earth today from Mars not to understand that changes are happening, and our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, if this doesn’t change and go back in a different direction, are going to be adversely affected by what’s going on today.”