IRL: Don't count out Ganassi's team at Indy

IRL: Don't count out Ganassi's team at Indy

In one alcove of the Target Chip Ganassi Racing workshops in north Indianapolis, there is a sign that declares: "The path to greatness goes through this room." That sentiment pretty much sums up the focus at Team Target, which garnered the 2003...

In one alcove of the Target Chip Ganassi Racing workshops in north Indianapolis, there is a sign that declares: "The path to greatness goes through this room."

That sentiment pretty much sums up the focus at Team Target, which garnered the 2003 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series title on the strength of Scott Dixon's three wins, five pole positions, nine top-five, 11 top10 and 14 races led last year.

Darren Manning.
Photo by Dana Garrett - IRL.

With a new teammate to Dixon in Darren Manning for the 2004 season, Chip Ganassi thought he might be looking at another title, but things haven't gone Team Target's way thus far in the 16-race campaign. "Am I disappointed? Yeah, but I've been disappointed [with the team's engines] since the start of the year," Ganassi said.

Manning has earned sixth, fifth, and a fourth-place finishes in the three races he has contested, but Dixon's had a tough row to hoe.

"This is the most disappointing qualifying attempt I've ever had in my IRL career," Dixon said this afternoon. The Kiwi waved off his first try last Saturday after three 219mph-plus laps around 5:15PM. Manning, the next guy to the line did the same after two tours of the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval averaging 218mph.

The duo ended up qualifying half an hour later but neither was terribly pleased with their times. Dixon's average of 219.319mph placed him 13th for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing; his worst qualifying prior to that was 12th at Homestead-Miami Speedway this February and 12th at the same track one year earlier in his spectacular debut.

"But I still think we'll be fine for the race. The guys up front had power," Dixon noted as he insinuated that his Toyota Racing Development- built 3-liter engine didn't, by comparison to the Honda contingent. "What really hurt is the focus on the 3-liter engine," Dixon said. "We were told we'd have a lot more power but I think the trucks (NASCAR Craftsman Truck Toyota Tundra effort) are killing it."

While Dixon thinks it's good Honda put in the effort, he also believes that the worst thing for Toyota was winning at Twin Ring Motegi, winning at the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race and, ultimately winning the championship with him and Team Target. Did complacency set in? Or did Toyota change its focus?

Those answers don't lie within Team Target, who are simply moving along in an effort to win the Indy 500's 88th race and win the championship again, neither of which are out of their grasp. At this point last year, Dixon had one victory, but also left competition at Phoenix with a gearbox problem and Japan after crashing with Tony Kanaan. In 2004, Dixon crashed in the first race but also finished second in the desert at fifth at Twin Ring Motegi.

Scott Dixon watches qualifying.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.

Dixon already has his strategy planned for the big race on May 30th. "I think it will be important to get up in the top five or six pretty quick, cruise the first 400 miles and be in position before the last pit stop. I think to win this thing, we'll have to be in the top three after the last pit stops. I think we'll be good at Indy in race trim," Dixon explained.

Manning intended to push for the pole but "circumstances went against me all week," alluding to weather and other setbacks. "It took a lot of time to get up to speed. Scott was more trimmed out and fast so I thought it wouldn't be a big problem for Saturday," Darren said. Taking his teammate's spare #1 Panoz G Force/Toyota out in the waning hour of practice on Thursday, Manning ended up in a popular spot: the Turn 1 wall.

The IMS staff called it a "whitewall" for the British rookie between Turns 1 and 2, damaging the right rear suspension a bit. "We were about ready to put on tires," before that happened and then there was no Fast Friday practice when rain left the circuit too wet. "On Saturday morning the engine let go after only ten laps. I thought the line [for qualifying] might break so we could get some practice in, but it never did," Manning said.

"I had a moment in Turn 1 on my first run but the second was pretty good. If we'd waited until Sunday, that would have cost us 10-12 spots," so the team opted to put both cars solid in the field and bring them back to the shop for the traditional go-through before Carburetion Day on May 27th. "I might have had a better car than Scott [on my second run]," Manning noted, "but I lifted in One on my first lap."

Scott Dixon and Darren Manning.
Photo by Tony Johns.

Both Manning and Dixon believe Honda's had an advantage since Homestead but the Indy rookie thought he could get past the Honda cars. "We set up for the race and I could pass at Phoenix and Japan. We had one of the best cars out there."

Manning's keys for his first Indy 500 race are "patience as always. I think I'll have to keep it on the lead lap in the lead pack and keep making progress" from his 15th place starting spot outside the fifth row. "Nine or ten stints offer plenty of passing opportunities."

While their personalities are somewhat similar, Dixon and Manning have equal ways of going about their de-briefing with Ganassi's engineering staff "and how we go about racing. This is the first time I've had a fast teammate and it gives me confidence," Manning reported.

Both drivers expect to race hard all day and believe their Toyota engines might have the edge in terms of fuel economy. Manning hints that, driving flat-out the Toyota (and Chevrolet) mills might get a couple of laps more per thankful than Honda's 3-liter engine. But they won't know until practice resumes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway tomorrow.

Team Target took Sunday off from the track. "You've got to give the guys some rest before they get the spare and race cars ready," Manning insisted. "We'll have four days of testing and we pretty much know what we need to do," he revealed.

As a newcomer to the greatest American race circuit, Manning finds the "toughest part of the track is Turn 1. Both the track and the wind direction change there every day. Turn 3 is really open and the wind doesn't affect the car as much there. Still, 3 and 1 are the most difficult entries" on this track.

The Ganassi shop is always a work in progress, organized so that the central area of the building is where twin Indy Racing League IndyCar Panoz G Force chassis and the pair of Grand-American Series Riley & Scott machines are assembled for each race. On the IRL front, there are nine chassis, the newest one arriving just this past Monday.

Ganassi's crew are making more and more pieces for the cars, always paying attention to details. In fact, they now paint on their decals rather than applying them, to aid airflow. They call the bits they amend "Ganassi- ized" pieces.

Perhaps Team Target is flying below the radar this May, something different for the team that captured four CART titles in a row along with the 2000 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. While they consider Marlboro Team Penske the team "our rivals", Target Chip Ganassi Racing won't stop until they own more checkered flags than even the dean of open wheel motorsports, Roger Penske.

That type of hard-boiled competitiveness breeds greatness. Team Target has it in spades.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Darren Manning , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Chip Ganassi
Teams Team Penske , Chip Ganassi Racing , Toyota Racing