By Bob Pockrass — Associate Editor
Friday, March 20, 2009
Team owner Chip Ganassi bristles at suggestions that financial turmoil sparked the combination of Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing.
Instead, he contends that the creation of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing was driven by the desire by both teams to improve their performance, which, of course, helps attract sponsors, which, in turn, often translates into even more success.
But Ganassi, whose teams had just one win and no top-10 drivers in the last six years, was facing the prospect of having just one sponsored Sprint Cup car this season.
On the other side of the table sat DEI, which had just one sponsor (Bass Pro Shops) for four teams and drivers, despite 13 victories and three Chase appearances in the last six years.
The result was a partnership that raised as many questions as answers: Can two teams that didn’t win a race or put a driver in the Chase in 2008 turn things around in 2009? Can the new organization perform well enough to attract sponsors to rival the elite NASCAR teams?
And perhaps the most intriguing question: Can Ganassi and DEI owner Teresa Earnhardt, two owners who seem as different as night and day, work together as partners and co-owners? And, if so, who fills what role?
The answers to those questions will determine whether the pairing of two midpack teams can produce one elite organization.
Teresa Plus Chip
While the partnership brings together two respected drivers in Martin Truex Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya, the more intriguing pairing is that of co-owners Ganassi and Earnhardt, both known for being strong-willed, successful business people. Ganassi, a former minority owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, is one of the most successful team owners in open-wheel and sports car racing. Earnhardt, meanwhile, ran many of the business affairs for Dale Earnhardt, her famous husband, before taking over the team following his death in 2001.
The pairing of two of the most recognizable names in racing only adds to the intrigue and interest in the new organization.
Ganassi is the managing partner. “The day-to-day responsibilities stop right here,” he says. Nearly all of Ganassi’s key executives have remained in their positions. Steve Lauletta, a former Miller Brewing executive, is the team president.
DEI had an entertainment lawyer/agent (Max Siegel) as its president and a marketing executive (John Story) running its motorsports program. They are gone. The main executive left from DEI who is working with the Ganassi operation is Vice President/General Counsel Chad Warpula. The former DEI shop is used only to make parts and run the seven-post machine.
“Just from economic necessity and really trying to find a principal partner that was a good fit for DEI to go into tough economic times, I reached out to Chip,” says Siegel, who is now running his own marketing firm. “Chip is a hands-on owner. He’s something that DEI hasn’t had and needs from the principal [owner] standpoint.”
Truex, who had driven for DEI since 2004 and made the Chase in 2007, notices the difference.
“Chip’s around there a lot and I think that’s important to a lot of the guys, especially our guys that maybe haven’t seen that type of leadership before,” Truex says.
Truex, who won two titles in what is now known as the Nationwide Series titles with DEI, says he never expected Teresa Earnhardt to be involved the way Ganassi is. They have different styles and different areas of expertise. Ganassi is a former racer and hands-on owner. Earnhardt, the widow of the seven-time champion, has been around racing her entire life but has been involved more from the business and administrative end. Since taking over the team, she has often been criticized for not being more visible at the track and in the race shop.
“She was always there, but she’s like the ghost that walks around in the upstairs,” Truex says. “She’s upstairs taking care of the business stuff and you never see her. She doesn’t go in the shop much. Can you blame her? What’s she going to do? Does she understand how to work on the cars? Is she going to make them fast?
“Probably not. So I can understand. But it definitely has been a little different. I think it’s definitely going to help for sure. She still is a big part of the team, obviously, making business decisions and all that.”
Ganassi refuses to talk about how involved Earnhardt, who shies away from talking to the media or appearing on pit road, is in the team or how often she comes to the track. He has heard and read the scrutiny and recently lashed out at reporters when questioned about her role with the team.
“She could have walked away from the sport in 2001 [when Dale Earnhardt Sr. died] and nobody would have said a word,” Ganassi says. “Here she commits herself to the business, commits herself to the industry and because she’s not what you want her to be, then she’s not good or she’s no good or she’s this or that.
“Whether she wants to be at the race track or not is not a measuring of her interest in the sport. Because she doesn’t walk up and down the pit lane with a hat on like Jack Roush, she’s nothing? She can’t be any good then? It’s just ridiculous. … She’s committed to the sport and she’s my partner. So lay off her, OK?”
Ganassi is used to the media and fans questioning him as well, especially since his move to NASCAR in 2001. With his successful programs in the Indy Racing League and Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, some have questioned whether he’ll achieve that same success in NASCAR.
“He’s more determined than ever to get this team where it needs to be,” says Montoya, who won the CART championship and 2000 Indy 500 for Ganassi. “You can see it. You can see his involvement and you can see his determination. It’s good because it runs down the whole team.
“He’s paying a lot of attention to little details. He understands how everything is going on, how everything is working. He did before, but he knows more details than he did before.”
Ganassi seems determined to make the new venture succeed.
“I’m very excited about this year,” Ganassi says. “I’m excited about our new partners, I’m excited about our new affiliations, I’m excited about our new teammates. Sure, I guess I’m paying more attention to it. It’s easier. It’s fun.”
Easier but not easy. And it won’t be.
“There were certainly a lot of things on the fast track,” Ganassi said. “I’m sure we’ll have little time bombs that will go off in June or July that we didn’t see coming or we didn’t properly plan for. It’s not all beach with sunblock every day.
“It’s a lot of work. It will continue to be a lot of work. I’m very excited. We’ve got some great people. We’ve got some great components. We’ve got some great sponsors. The core of the team is certainly solid and certainly looking forward to a better year than we had in the past.”
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing will try to become stronger at first by being smaller than the two previous organizations. Ganassi started 2008 with three teams. DEI had four.
Now there are full-time teams for Truex and Montoya. A third team for Aric Almirola probably won’t make it to the midway point of the season unless it obtains additional
Ganassi gutted his engine program and is now using Earnhardt Childress Racing Technologies engines. His main engine builder, Tony Santicola, heads the at-track efforts.
Steve Hmiel – who was sent packing from DEI in 2007 and landed at Ganassi – has been reunited with many of his former employees as the team’s technical director.
“I expect to win, get back to victory lane and I expect to [make] the Chase – both things that we should have done last year and didn’t,” Truex says. “It’s pretty simple really.
“I think they [at Ganassi] bring a different approach than we’ve had. I think they’re more engineered-driven. … The biggest thing I think is just bringing together two groups of people that have done things differently for a long time. I think we’re going to have more ideas flowing. Everybody is going to look at things differently.”
If there is a key in this merger on the track, it is how Truex and Montoya work together. They can’t have the underachieving seasons they had last year.
“[Truex and Montoya] are more guys that have the same attitude,” Ganassi says. “It’s nice to have two drivers on your team that apparently see things about the same. Boy, that’s really nice. We just haven’t had that in my opinion.
“You can see how putting a Jimmie [Johnson] and a Jeff [Gordon] together speeds [things] along, or an [Carl] Edwards and [Matt] Kenseth. You saw how that … brings along a guy a lot faster. We never had that opportunity the last couple of years with Juan. To have Martin there alongside is just huge. You can’t put into words or a dollar amount [on] how valuable that is.”
Ganassi will have to determine just how valuable Truex is within the next few months. Truex agreed to a one-year option on his contract last year and he finds himself in another contract situation this year. Ganassi said prior to the Daytona 500 that he would like Truex to stay. Truex says he wants to make a decision earlier than he did last year, when he flirted with leaving DEI before signing a one-year extension in August, about three months before the merger.
“Last year was just so different,” Truex says. “I was so focused on what I was doing with the races and the cars and the tracks that I just really didn’t know what I was going to do. … [But] as of right now, I don’t have a clue [what I’m going to do]. It’s only fair that I have to keep giving it my all and hope things could be great.”
Truex and Montoya have only worked together for a few weeks. Before the season, they went to lunch together once.
But it’s not so much how they relate to each other as how the teams work together and whether they can bounce ideas off each other, Montoya says.
“This year, the team is more focused on all three cars,” Montoya said. “Before, they were very separate. Everybody was doing what they want. Everybody is working more together and each side is pushing the other side harder.”
Maybe for the first time, Montoya has started the season with a crew chief that he is comfortable with – Brian Pattie can be as fiery as Montoya and they can lay their feelings out on the table. Pattie also has been able to build cars that Montoya feels more comfortable driving.
Montoya was 21st in the standings after four races.
“I think in a way they gave us a little burst of speed and we gave them a little bit of handling,” Montoya says. “I think we both helped each other. I think there’s going to be race tracks where they’re going to run better than us and we’re going to have to look at [what they’re doing]. This is what every team does. If you look at Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, Jimmie runs better and Jeff goes and looks and the other way around.”
Truex, who sat on the pole for the Daytona 500, is still in a wait-and-see mode.
“We haven’t seen a whole lot yet,” he says of results from the merger. “I think the further we get down the road, the more we are going to see it as we put our stuff together more. Right now today, all of our cars are fairly different.
“I think we will keep working through things as a team. We will figure what each other likes and doesn’t like. Hopefully one of us will come up with a combination that works really well and we can all adapt to it. That is the plan.”
The plan is to have a team that can make the Chase and attract more sponsorship.
“Often times in this business, it’s like climbing a mountain in the fog and you don’t know sometime where the top of the mountain is,” Ganassi says. “You may want to give up. It sure is reassuring to be with some other people that have been there and done that. … I’d like to think we’re a group of serious racers. And I can tell you there’s some serious racers in their organization.”