CONCORD, N.C. (AP) - The celebration of Chip Ganassi’s success was supposed to be a surprise, an opportunity to gather his great champions and toast their remarkable runs.
The surprise was ruined, but the celebration will stay etched in Ganassi’s memory.
“It was one of the more special moments of my racing career,” Ganassi said Tuesday, searching for the words to adequately describe his emotions.
Longtime partner Target last week brought Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti together for a two-day event in Minneapolis honoring their title runs. Vasser gave Ganassi his first championship in 1996, Zanardi added two more in `97-98, and Montoya made it four consecutive Ganassi titles in 1999.
The core group had an enthusiastic reunion dinner on the first day, and a large luncheon with their Target partners the next. The luncheon included a tribute video to the late Dan Wheldon, who drove for Ganassi for three seasons in IndyCar.
It was an emotional two days for almost everyone involved for various reasons. Vasser and Zanardi built an incredibly tight friendship during their time as teammates, and although Zanardi now lives in Italy, the two remain close even though they don’t see each other often.
“Other people could live 1,000 years and not experience the intensity or the emotions of the three years I spent with Jimmy driving for that race team,” Zanardi said. “It is by far the best memories of my racing career.”
For Dixon and Franchitti, it was a chance to sit back and watch the comedy routine of Vasser and Zanardi. While it was a walk down memory lane, it was yet another move toward getting on with business again after Wheldon’s fatal accident in the Oct. 16 season finale. Both were close friends with Wheldon, and his accident lingers over the championship, Franchitti’s fourth overall, and the ninth for Ganassi’s open-wheel teams.
“We’ve reflected on the championship, and when I went to the Christmas party with the whole Target team, there was a lot of congratulating each other and all those sort of things,” Franchitti said. “But I don’t think we celebrated it. When we think about it, we are always going to be connected (with Wheldon). That’s just the way it’s going to be.
“So celebrating or not celebrating is not that important. We’re really just motivated to go out and win another.”
Motivation to win races and championships has always been what’s driven Ganassi, and he’s still searching for that formula in NASCAR. It’s the only series he’s yet to find consistent success, and last season was a black eye for an otherwise banner Ganassi year.
Aside from Franchitti’s title in IndyCar, Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas combined to win their second consecutive Grand-Am title and were the anchors on yet another Ganassi victory in the prestigious 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race.
However, Ganassi’s NASCAR teams went winless. Montoya finished 21st in the final Sprint Cup standings, Jamie McMurray was 27th and Ganassi on Tuesday called the overall organization effort “just pathetic for a team with our ability and resources.”