- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Sponsors come and go in motor sports, where even the strongest partnership can quickly unravel because of the economy, a difference of opinion or a change in marketing strategy.

There have been no such speed bumps for Chip Ganassi Racing and sponsor Target Corp., which celebrate 25 years together this season. The relationship has developed far beyond the funding of race cars, and to this day Ganassi credits Target for the growth of his race team and the team owner himself.

Upon completing his own, brief driving career, Ganassi formed a one-car Indy team in 1990 with Target as his sponsor. That has turned into four full-time IndyCar Series teams, two full-time Sprint Cup teams, a full-time entry in the Tudor Sports Car Series and a NASCAR driver development program.

“Professionally of personally, no way I’m where I am today without Target,” Ganassi said last week at a 25th anniversary celebration in Las Vegas. “You aren’t around people 25 years, a great company like this, and not have some things rub off on you.”

Ganassi cites his Pittsburgh upbringing with giving him the same shared values as Minneapolis-based Target.

“If you are in Minneapolis, you probably don’t think of Pittsburgh as the Midwest. But the core values, probably in the beginning of the relationship, sprinkled over that cell 25 years ago is what grew into this,” Ganassi said. “I think racing has a Midwest sort of feel about it, and it all just aligns.”

The sponsorship of two cars in the IndyCar Series and one in NASCAR’s top Sprint Cup division is Target’s longest standing marketing partnership. It exists even though racing might not seem a natural fit for Target the same way the sport is for car-related companies.

But it works for Target for a variety of reasons.

“Sports are inherently social, and being part of the conversation is very important to us,” said Dan Griffis, vice president of experiential marketing and alliances for Target. “You want to be around things that people are passionate about, and sports bring up passion. And the thing we’ve noticed in motor sports is that people are actively rooting for Target. There’s no such thing as the Target Lakers or the Target Yankees. But Target Chip Ganassi Racing exists and the team-member engagement it creates is huge.”

The relationship is so secure that Griffis said the auto racing sponsorship is not being re-evaluated as part of any fallout from the recent data breach that exposed millions of Target customers’ credit card numbers.

“Totally unrelated,” Griffis said. “The partnership with Chip, with IndyCar and NASCAR and auto racing, it still resonates with guests. As long as it resonates with guests, it works for Target.”

Winning might have something to do with that.

The organization won its first CART title in 1996 with Jimmy Vasser, and has added 16 more titles across IndyCar and sports car racing since. Ganassi drivers have also won four Indianapolis 500s and the Daytona 500.

Although the success with the Target car hasn’t come in NASCAR, the organization is excited about the addition of rookie Kyle Larson, who replaced Juan Pablo Montoya this year. Montoya won the Indy 500 and the CART title for Target, so parting with him wasn’t easy, but in Larson the organization gets a 21-year-old who resonates with younger fans.

“Sponsorship is just about putting a logo on a car - a partnership is where you’re developing a mutually beneficial relationship,” Griffis said. “Sponsors will put a logo on a car. Partners will really dig in. We want his organization to be the best on the planet. We want to partner with the best, whether it’s design or fashion or technology or racing. Chip is a true collaborator and we draw a lot of parallels with the race team.”

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