BY BRUCE MARTIN
BALTIMORE, Maryland – While IZOD IndyCar Series drivers Dario Franchitti, Will Power and Scott Dixon are fighting it out for the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series championship heading into the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16 it’s a classic matchup between the two most successful team owners in the sport.
Roger Penske is the standard bearer of the sport and holds career records for team owners in all of the major categories of IndyCar racing. But since 1996, team owner Chip Ganassi has challenge Penske for supremacy in the sport. That was the season when Jimmy Vasser gave Ganassi his first series championship in what was then the CART Series. Since that time, Vasser and Alex Zanardi won four-straight CART titles, Scott Dixon gave the team owner IZOD IndyCar Series championships in 2003 and 2008 and Dario Franchitti has won the series title the past two seasons.
Conversely, Penske won two CART titles in 2000 and 2001 with Gil de Ferran and the IndyCar crown in 2006 with Sam Hornish, Jr.
That means since 1996, Ganassi has eight championships to Penske’s three which has raised the stakes as the two team owners head to Las Vegas for the IZOD IndyCar Series World Championships.
Over the history of the sport, Penske and Ganassi have combined for 20 IndyCar championships counting USAC, CART and IndyCar competition, 18 Indianapolis 500 wins with Penske’s drivers winning the world’s biggest race 15 times to Ganassi’s three trips to Indy victory lane and 274 poles.
Since 2006 a Ganassi or Penske driver has been in the championship battle that has come down to the final race of the season and this is the fourth year in a row that a Penske and Ganassi driver are involved in a head-to-head battle for the IZOD IndyCar Series championship.
“To have a team that sets the bar like Roger's team does makes it possible for people like me to come along and challenge him,” Ganassi said. “He's the guy that's set the bar, and he's the guy that I wanted to model my team after. So it's been a great rivalry. But I think it's important to have leadership, and that's what this guy next to me has been for so many years around IndyCar racing is he's shown the leadership and the foresight to see these speed bumps along the way that we've had over many years in IndyCar racing, but yet he always keeps the bar at a high level and doesn't get caught up in the minutiae of things and is really ‑‑ I can safely tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that we have IndyCar racing today because of this guy sitting next to me, Roger Penske. The longer I'm in this, the longer I realize that.
“Having said that, I do want to kick his ass every week on the track, but I think the feeling is mutual. He's a great friend of mine, a great competitor, and a great mentor to many people in this sport, not just myself. And I look forward to seeing him here week in and week out at the racetrack.”
Penske may have all of the records over his career but the famed team owner admits that Ganassi has had the edge over the past 15 years. That’s why he wants to try to “Settle the Score” with a “Shootout at Las Vegas.”
“I think that Chip and I have raced each other side by side for a long time,” Penske said. “Obviously he's put together a terrific race team and one that has demonstrated they can win at any level. But at the end of the day, I know Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, they're friends of mine; I talk to them, he knows my guys. We have a very open dialogue, mechanics on the team. But when it comes down to race day, I'll tell you, the friendship goes out the window, and there's one guy we're trying to beat and that's the 9 and the 10 car, and they're tough.”
“I think the support that we've had has kept the series strong, and more important is a team like Chip's has been able to attract a sponsor like Target, which helps us as we go out to try to get sponsors. To have a company like that in the sport for as long as it has makes a huge difference. I think the continuity of the sponsor, you can commit to your drivers, your crew chiefs, your engineers, all that is important. He's done the best job of that.”
The two best at fielding teams in the IZOD IndyCar Series will fight this battle all the way to Las Vegas. The stakes are high and both believe Las Vegas is the perfect place to settle this bet.
“I'd like to have it settled before then if I could,” Penske quipped. “But I think having the final race in Las Vegas is terrific. From what I understand from Randy Bernard (INDYCAR CEO), they're going to have `The Strip’ opened up for the cars to be running down the road there on Thursday night. That's the stuff we need to get visibility. That's going to be terrific.
“I think it's a great venue, and I think Vegas is the right place to have the final race and have the banquet.”
Finishing the season “Vegas Style” is something these two rivals agree on.
“Going down to Vegas, I think it makes a lot of sense for any sport,” Ganassi said. “It's our kind of town, and everything that goes on there sort of parallels what goes on in auto racing, I think. I'm looking forward to it. It's a great venue, and they understand promotion in that town. They understand the visual aspect of sports and the impact that it can have. And I think it says a lot about the team that put that program together out there for us.
“It's going to be an impactful event, the final there in Vegas.”