In an era when exclusive contracts stifle versatility, multi-faceted team owner Chip Ganassi likes his drivers well-rounded. That's an enticement to young, talented chargers with a eye on other forms of racing.
By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
Published March 31, 2006
HOMESTEAD - There are incentive programs, and there are Chip Ganassi incentive programs.
When Casey Mears signed with Ganassi and began a Nextel Cup career in 2003, he was quite aware that his new boss was a major player in several motorsports series, including NASCAR, the Indy Racing League and Grand Am. As a five-time championship open-wheel owner, Ganassi was as historically invested in IndyCars as Mears, the nephew of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears.
So when Ganassi dangled a carrot before Casey Mears in February, he knew the boss was in a position to make good.
Win the Daytona 500, Ganassi said, and get a car for the Indianapolis 500 on May 28. Sure, Mears already has commitments to the Nextel Cup event half a country away in Concord, N.C., just four hours after the Indy start, but Ganassi has the wherewithal to make good on promises.
Mears obviously took him seriously, finishing a career-best second at Daytona. If he decides to re-sign with Ganassi after this season, he might get his chance yet at a first Indy 500 start, becoming the third Mears to do so.
"If things go well, you never know what will happen in the future as far as running the (Indy) 500," Mears said. "It's been discussed, it's been talked about. I think if it becomes convenient at some point where the (start) times change, I think maybe that'll happen, too."
Driving for Ganassi means being ready to accept a challenge, not asking for something in which you're casually interested. And it means being versatile. Grand Am driver Scott Pruett has competed in NASCAR events on road courses for Ganassi. Mears and Ganassi's IRL drivers, Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon, won the Grand Am 24-hour race at Daytona together in January.
"Chip loves to win the big races and the big events," Wheldon said.
Wheldon openly discussed a NASCAR interest last summer before signing with Ganassi. The new, compressed IRL season would give him 10 weeks worth of Cup races to explore if he and Ganassi choose.
"It's fun to know that there's options out there within the team and to do different types of sports," Mears said. "If I was with another race team this year, I don't know if I would have had the opportunity to win the 24-hour race and run a full series of Nextel Cup. It's been a lot of fun."
Wheldon and Dixon were to split a ride in the Grand Am series this year, but sponsorship fell through.
Though the drivers have the ultimate choice of moonlighting in Ganassi's other cars, Dixon said, Ganassi's enthusiasm for winning in every form of racing encourages them to participate. Having the chance to race and race a lot is always a bonus, he said.
"It comes down to, it's our decision if we do those races. It's not his," Dixon said. "I think it's great from a team owner that he includes us in those different events, because as race drivers we just want to go racing."