NASCAR, IndyCar legends meet for first time

The legendary Harley J. Earl trophy, awarded to the winner of NASCAR's premier 500-mile race, left its Daytona, FL home on Friday to stand alongside the Borg-Warner trophy, awarded to the winner of the Indianapolis 500, as the only two men ever to...

The legendary Harley J. Earl trophy, awarded to the winner of NASCAR's premier 500-mile race, left its Daytona, FL home on Friday to stand alongside the Borg-Warner trophy, awarded to the winner of the Indianapolis 500, as the only two men ever to win both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 addressed the media at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"I never thought I'd see the day those two were side-by-side," said Roger Penske on Carb Day as he sat alongside Chip Ganassi of the iconic trophies that represent the pinnacle of each series' sport. "I'd just like to get one of them," he added with a nod toward Ganassi's attempt to garner the pair as his own in 2010 for the first time in history. Ganassi's NASCAR team won its first Daytona 500 in February of this year with Jamie McMurray at the wheel, and is a strong contender for the 2010 Indy 500 championship as well.

It's a chase the younger man savors, one that would trump Penske's domination at Indianapolis where he owns 15 victories, most of any man in the history of the 94-year old race. "It's a good problem to have," said Ganassi of the task. "The situation is pretty simple, though. Indy is what I want to win now. Daytona was what I wanted to win last winter. Winning both would indeed be huge, but right now my focus is entirely on the Borg- Warner trophy."

The parallels of fostering championship-winning efforts at Daytona and at Indianapolis runs deeper than capturing the two legendary pieces of hardware in the same year. Both Penske and Ganassi embrace the plans to modify the existing IndyCar Series racing package within the next two years. In that vein they are ready to see rules changes as well as equipment changes. "My ideal would be a unifying set of rules for all of auto racing," said Ganassi. "When you watch a Little League baseball game it's the same rules basically as the major-leaguers. Some of the things NASCAR does, like bringing the top cars around lapped cars to put them together on the track would compliment both series and simplify racing for fans. We should explore adopting side-by-side standards in both series."

"Improving our television exposure, improving our TV ratings, insuring full fields like we have this year at Indy," said Penske, "these are all things that we can learn a lesson from NASCAR. In some respects it's about better showmanship, about taking better ideas from NASCAR and making them our own."

Chief among the upset-making rivals both identified to their Memorial Day success are teams and drivers who have made a big impression in practice and qualifying this year. "Alex Tagliani and his FAZZT Racing team, Danica (Patrick), and Tony Kanaan are all dark horses to win this thing," said Penske of the competition beyond the red and white Ganassi Racing machines.

The notion that anyone can win at Indy this year bears great weight in a series where some feel the machinery is already over-developed, maxed-out, at its limit of potential for improvement. "It is a level playing field," said Penske of the current chassis and engine combination mandated by Indy Racing League rules. "Everything now is very transparent. In the end it comes down to who has the best strategy, the best drivers making decisions in the car." He offered a studied point of view about the May 30 Greatest Spectacle in Racing adding, "It will be won by the team that doesn't make mistakes."

The two team owners anticipate a huge crowd of spectators to witness this year's race, a testament to the uplifting "buzz" created around the IndyCar Series by new sponsors IZOD and Sunoco. "My barometer of how well we are reaching the public is crowd traffic," said Ganassi, "and there's a lot today. There is something different in the air this year, with the new qualifying format and a new, different way of doing things. We're on an uptick here." Ganassi's hunch was quickly borne out as the expansive Indy infield and North parking lots filled to capacity on Carb Day within minutes of his remarks.

As the only other current member of the "500 Club" Penske holds his adversary on the racetrack, Ganassi, among the men in racing he most respects. Apparently the feeling is mutual as Chip Ganassi added, "We try to rip each other's hearts out on the track, but off of it we maintain a friendship and mutual civility that is terrific."

Both team owners are masters of the art of managing people well, as witnessed by each man's huge success in conducting world-class drivers like Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves into their racing programs much like a maestro integrating a virtuoso into a symphonic whole. "It's our people that make us successful," said Penske, whose business acumen spans a broad swath of automotive enterprise from production of diesel engines to mega- scale car dealerships.

Both men also admit their on-track competition is a game of spy eyeing spy as both teams compare their field-leading racecars any time the other is within sight. "We watch each other, and focus on ourselves," explained Ganassi of the scrutiny and head-scratching both teams employ to best the other. "Some things you see, some things you don't or can't see. Competitors like Roger keep us sharp, They push us. They drive us to a higher standard. Roger sets the pace in raising the bar."

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Series IndyCar , NASCAR
Drivers Helio Castroneves , Alex Tagliani , Dario Franchitti , Tony Kanaan , Jamie McMurray , Chip Ganassi , Roger Penske