2005 INDYCAR SERIES CHAMPION WHELDON JOINS GANASSI TEAM
INDIANAPOLIS, Monday, Nov. 28, 2005 -- After the 2002 season, Chip Ganassi passed on signing a hungry Dan Wheldon for his IRL IndyCar® Series team. Wheldon's ensuing results with Andretti Green Racing gnawed at the veteran team owner.
Three seasons later, Ganassi was afforded another opportunity to sign a still hungry but significantly richer Wheldon to drive for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. After an extended period in which Wheldon also entertained Formula One team offers, Ganassi got his man. He doesn't envision any regrets.
During a press conference on Nov. 28, Ganassi introduced the reigning IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 champion as the newest driver of his Indianapolis-based team. Wheldon, 27, will be paired with 2003 IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon during the 14-race 2006 season and likely in some Grand American series events.
Ganassi also announced the team's switch to the Honda engine and Dallara chassis from the Toyota-Panoz combination it had competed with the past three seasons.
"One mistake I've made in this business was passing on Dan in an early time in his career," Ganassi said. "Obviously, he has the history, has shown he can adapt very quickly to this formula of racing and is very comfortable racing at the front. I think it's going to be a great team.
"It's been a long time since we had two champions on this team, and I think it's something the team sorely needs," Ganassi said. "The addition of Dan gives us a good one-two punch. I'm more comfortable working with guys who know how to win."
Wheldon recorded a series-record six victories, including three in a row and four of the initial five races, on his way to the title. His season was punctuated by moving from the 16th starting spot to win the 89th Indianapolis 500 in May. He took over the points lead for good after the inaugural street-course race in St. Petersburg, Fla. -- the third event of the season.
"I'm really excited to be here," said Wheldon, who noted he'll likely drive car No. 10 ("it has the No. 1 in it"). "Andretti Green Racing gave me a great opportunity and enabled me to reach a dream and win the Indianapolis 500 and the championship along the way. This is a new challenge for me and one that's I'm very excited about.
"Scott and I already were talking that we want to make a big impact next year. That's a goal. I had a lot of success this season, and I'm looking to do the same (in '06). It will be a very exciting season in general. There will be a lot of competitive cars, so we'll have to be on top of our game."
Wheldon, a St. Petersburg resident, also led the series in laps led (752) and races led (15). Aside from two races in which he finished outside the top 10 -- when mechanical issues forced early retirements at Nashville Superspeedway and Infineon Raceway -- Wheldon's lowest finish was sixth. He leaves friends and compatriots at Andretti Green Racing, but doesn't expect the relationships off the track to be altered.
"I achieved a lot at Andretti Green Racing," Wheldon said. "I came to end of my contract, talked with Chip and was excited by what he had to say. For me, it's a new chapter. I'm not coming here to run second. I want to win more races, more championships and more Indy 500s.
"This team has a great history; it wins the big races. And that's what I love to do."
He will compete Dec. 3 in the Race of Champions at Stade de France in Paris and the next night will attend the Autosport Awards in London. Wheldon is nominated for International Racing Driver of the Year and British Competition Driver of the Year. Also this weekend, Wheldon is eligible for the Jerry Titus Award as "Driver of the Year" at the annual American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's dinner.
Wheldon is tied with Scott Sharp for second on the all-time victory list with nine; five behind two-time series champion Sam Hornish Jr. All of his victories (three in 2004, six in '05) came with Andretti Green Racing. Wheldon, who has made 49 starts, was the 2003 Bombardier Rookie of the Year when he recorded nine top-10 finishes in 14 starts. The former U.S. F2000 champion made his IndyCar Series debut at Chicagoland Speedway in 2002 with Panther Racing.
This past season, Dixon won the inaugural race at Watkins Glen International and had four other top-10 finishes in 17 races. The New Zealander led the series in 2003 with three victories, five pole positions, 14 races led and 748 laps led.
"We had some strong cars throughout the year, but it seemed we were never able to piece it together," Dixon said of 2005. "I think the big thing for next year is to carry the momentum. Obviously, with Dan coming to the team will be big for everyone's confidence. And Dan having the same package as he did last year will help the team learn a lot and quicken the process for myself.
"I'm just excited to start a new year and hopefully we'll be able to bring the championship back to Ganassi Racing."
The IRL IndyCar Series opens the 2006 season with the Toyota Indy 300 on March 26, 2006 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The race will be broadcast live on ABC Sports and the IMS Radio Network. The fifth season of Menards Infiniti Pro Series competition also opens on March 26 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.