Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Ganassi drives Indy

By now I suspect that everybody’s painfully aware that Chip Ganassi’s two Tarz-chey”Indy Car drivers Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon have secured the first two grid positions for this year’s Indianapolis 500, with Dixon becoming the very first Kiwi to ever claim the Pole Position at the Speedway…

But were you aware that once, long ago, in what I’m sure feels like a different lifetime… Their Team Boss, a.k.a. “The Cheepster” actually was an aspiring Champ Car racing driver? (Otay, I suppose some of you Die Hard Indy Car fanatics out there did indeed…) But quick! How many Indianapolis 500 races did “Cheep” contest?

Even more impressive is Ganassi’s Rookie Class alma matter of 1982, for which I count there being nine fresh face Rookies joining the ranks of the CART Championship, as this grouping has some fairly well known names upon it.

Notice from the list below the names of Rahal, Sullivan and Unser Jr. for starters… Other notables are Hector REbaque and Chris Kneifel. As of course we could debate tirelessly over who was the most successful of this group?

Consider Bobby Rahal who burst onto the scene, finishing runner-up to Rick Mears in the championship in his debut season. As we all know, Rahal would go onto win three CART/PPG Championships (1986-87, ’92) along with winning the 1986 Indy 500. Interestingly, Michael Andretti finished runner-up to Bobby during all three championships along with his Indy 500 victory. Rahal won an impressive 24 times and has since won the 2004 Indy 500 as a team owner with David Letterman and Buddy Rice as the driver that year…

Or how about Al Unser Jr.?As ‘Lil Al would win the Indy 500 twice, 1992 and 1994, (Galles, Penske) along with two CART/PPG Championships in 1990 and 1994 for Galles and Penske respectively. And while last years running aboard AJ Foyt’s second entry at Indy was a very sad state of affairs, I’m sure we all recall that ‘Lil Al’s 1992 Indy 500 victory aboard the Galmer chassis was the closest finish in Indianapolis history. (0.043 seconds) Over some ABC Broadcaster named Scott “What Pace Car?” Goodyear…

Another sentimental favourite has to be Mr. Hollywood, a.k.a. Danny Sullivan, who began his IndyCar career driving for Forsythe in 1982 before completing a tough season in Formula 1 driving for Ken Tyrrell in 1983, returning to IndyCars with Doug Shierson’s outfit in 1984.

To most, I’d assume that Danny’s most defining moment was becoming the victor of the 1985 Indy 500 during his famous Spin ‘N Win drive, passing race leader Mario Andretti not once but twice.

At this time, “Sully” was driving for The Captain and would continue on until 1990, having won the 1988 CART/PPG Championship before becoming part of Penske’s “Super-team,” consisting of Emerson Fittipaldi, Rick Mears and Sullivan. (With Emmo bringing Marlboro sponsorship)

While playing third fiddle, Sully ended-up odd man out and moved onto Pat Patrick’s fleeting operation with the recalcitrant Alfa Romeo turbo power plant in 1991, a derivative of the stillborn Ferrari CART 2.65 liter turbo engine project.

Danny then moved onto partner “Lil Al at Galles before finishing his CART career with the fledgling PacWest Racing team…

As I’ve previously scribbled in Cinco de Mayo, Hector Rebaque was one of four Mexicali’s to contest Formula 1 before trying his hand at Open Wheel Racing stateside. Driving for Gerald Forsythe’s own “Super team” (Rebaque, Sullivan and Unser Jr.) he won a lone race at Road America before having a big shunt at MIS and deciding to hang-up his helmet. Interestingly, Forsythe’s triumbrant was headed by REbaque, finishing ahead of Unser and Sullivan.

Jim Hickman, Chris Kneifel, Patrick Bedard and Chet Fillip are lesser known talents who briefly plied their trade behind the wheel of various high speed machinery, while Indy only rookie Dale Whittington is a sad story…

Hickman, an ex-Air Force fighter pilot and Car dealer was the Rookie of the Year at Indy (1982) but would lose his life at the Milwaukee Mile on August 2nd, 1982 with just five minutes remaining in the final practice session and was the second driver to perish that season, as Gordon Smiley died while trying to qualify at Indianapolis.

Kneifel’s name was familiar to me from the Trans Am days, but interestingly holds the honor of being the very last driver to qualify for Indy under 200mph, as he took Jacques Villeneuve’s Sr. (“Uncle Jacques”) starting slot when the Canadian injured himself prior to the 1984 Indy 500 and was forced to withdraw.

Kneifel’s name was also familiar to me as he became the Chief Steward for CART from 2001-04 after finishing his racing career by winning the 2001 Daytona 24hrs with Ron Fellows, Frank Freon and Johnny O’Connell and if memory serves me correct, Chris was in the Justin Wilson over six foot club, may be even taller than Justin?

I guess if I went into the way back machine I should recall Bedard’s name, since he’s been employed by Car and Driver magazine since 1968 as a contributing journalist. Patrick drove for Jaguar in endurance racing before switching to CART and contested the Indy 500 twice from 1983-84, finishing 30th both times. He was involved in a massive shunt during the ’84 race, cart wheeling several times and decided to retire afterwards…

Fillip is a name that doesn’t ring a bell with me, having driven briefly in CART (1982-85) before moving to RASSCAR for two years. Next Chet raced USAC Sprint cars, winning eight times including the prestigious little 500. (1999) in 2006 after 28yr’s of competition he won his very first Championship in the inaugural Premiere Racing Association (PRA) series…

Whittington is apparently another “One Hit Wonder,” as apparently he made only one dubious start at Indianapolis in 1982, when the Whittington Brothers made history by being the only trio of brothers to qualify the same year.

Recall this was the year that Kevin Cogan broadsided Mario Andretti just prior to the green flag being thrown. Whittington, who was starting from 23rd position incorrectly assumed that the slowing cars trying to avoid the accident were an opportunity to pass them and slammed into a slowing Roger Mears.

Allegedly Mario was so incensed by the results of what triggered the four cars being retired that he threatened to expose Dale and his brothers smuggling hi-jinx, thus Dale never returned to Indy.

Unfortunately the Whittington Brothers along with the John Paul’s (Jr. and Sr.) and Randy Lanier were part of IMSA’s notorious 1980’s “International Marijuana Smuggler’s Association” which later led to several arrests, with Dale being the only suspect to not go to jail.

Whittington died of an apparent Drug overdose in 2003 after being found deceased by his son on Father’s Day…

And while I cannot recall what I was searching for last year, I stumbled upon an interesting article reflecting upon Bill Papis in Bob Jennings Indy 500 Diary (Feb. 2002) with some interesting tidbits on the Cheepster’s first attempt at the Speedway…

“Jack Rhoades, an airplane dealer from Columbus, Indiana, entered a 1981 Wildcat chassis in the 1982 "500" for rookie Chip Ganassi. The young driver from Pittsburgh qualified eleventh for the 1982 race with an average speed of 197.700 mph. That was the fastest qualifying speed by any member of the 1982 Indianapolis rookie class which also included Dale Whittington (197.690), Danny Sullivan (196.290), Jim Hickman (196.210), Herm Johnson (195.920), Hector Rebaque (195.680),Chet Fillip (194.870), Bobby Rahal (194.700) and Roger Mears (194.150). Ganassi finished 15th in the 1982 "500," falling out of the race after 147 laps with engine problems.”
Note:Herm Johnson: Drove in 1981 for Menard/Cashway and Kraco Car Stereos in CART.
Roger Mears: Competed in USAC/CART from 1978-84.
Dale Whittington: Apparently a “One-off” at Indy in 1982. Part of the only trio of brothers to ever qualify for Indy.

1983 Indy 500 Rookies
Patrick Bedard; Steve Chassey; Derek Daly; Teo Fabi; Chris Kneifel; Al Unser Jr.

(The Indy 500 was NOT part of the CART Championship calendar in 1981-82, due to the CART-USAC WAR, precursor to the CART-IRL SPLIT; 1996-2007)

Interestingly Jennings notes that Ganassi’s mount was apparently an ex-Mario Andretti chassis;

Allegedly the Jack Rhoades entry driven by Ganassi was the same Patrick Racing STP Wildcat chassis driven to second place in the 1981 "500" by Mario Andretti. Perhaps you remember Mario's "500" car in 1981. It was a beauty, painted in a dark shade of (almost navy) metallic blue that sparkled in the sunlight like a deep blue diamond. With the contrast of the STP day glow red trim, Andretti's car 40 had one of the all time great paint jobs in racing in my opinion. Remember Mario was declared the winner of the 1981 "Indianapolis 500" the day after the race when a penalty was assessed to Bobby Unser by USAC officials for passing cars coming out of the pits. In October, 1981 a three man panel voted to restore the victory to Unser, reversing the earlier USAC decision. But for nearly five months Andretti's STP Wildcat was the winning "Indianapolis 500" car. “
Ganassi would go onto race in a total of five Indy 500’s (1982-86) and graduated from college the week after his debut at the Speedway. In ’83 Floyd “Chip” Ganassi signed to drive for Pat Patrick and showed some signs of driving prowess with a second place finish before having a major accident at Michigan International Speedway (MIS) with Al Unser Jr. Although I’ve never seen any footage of this, it’s fairly spectacular and Ganassi was lucky to get away with it…

Pat Patrick replaced the injured Ganassi with some guy named “EMMO,” while Chip recovered and competed in the ’85 Indy 500 for AJ Foyt, followed by his last Indy in the Machinist Union car. Afterwards, Ganassi first was a partner of Patrick’s, with Fittipaldi winning the 1989 CART/PPG Championship along with that year’s Indy 500 in a customer Penske chassis, before going on to form his own team which subsequently won four consecutive CART/PPG championships, before jumping to the IRL.

And while Ganassi’s reign as a team owner has been much more successful than a fellow competitor’s at least Dale Coyne has beat the Cheapster” in one category, by racing at Indy six times…

1982 CART RookiesBobby Rahal; Hector Rebaque; Al Unser Jr; Danny Sullivan; Jim Hickman; Chip Ganassi; Chris Kneifel; Patrick Bedard; Chet Fillip.

(Team/SR*/Driver/Chassis/Engine)Truesports/Red Roof Inns
(2) Bobby Rahal
March 82C/Cosworth

Forsythe/Carta Blanca/Newsweek
(15) Hector REbaque
March 82C/Cosworth

Forsythe Racing
(21) Al Unser Jr
March 82C/Cosworth

(22) Danny Sullivan
March 82C/Cosworth

(26) Jim Hickman
March 81C/Cosworth; March 82C/Cosworth

Rhoades/First Commercial Corp.
(34) Chip Ganassi
Wildcat Mk. VIIIB/Cosworth

(36) Chris Kneifel
Eagle 82/Cosworth

Escort Radar Detector
(41) Patrick Bedard
Penske PC7/Cosworth; Wildcat Mk. VIII/Cosworth

Circle Bar Track Corral
(44) Chet Fillip
Wildcat Mk. VIII/Cosworth

1982 CART Season Standings
SF Driver2nd Bobby Rahal
15. Hector REbaque
21. Al Unser Jr
22. Danny Sullivan
26. Jim Hickman
34. Chip Ganassi
36. Kris Kneifel
41. Patrick Bedard
44. Chet Fillip

SF = Season Finish (Overall Points Standings)