Penske Racing's superlative record of 15 victories in the Indianapolis 500 seems unassailable, like John Wooden's 10 NCAA Division I basketball championships. Just as it was with Wooden, it has been a dynasty built with the leadership and vision of one man, Roger Penske, who has surrounded himself with great talent.
Chip Ganassi is second among active owners, and third all-time (behind Lou Moore's five, won from 1938 to 1949), with four victories in the Indy 500.
It's a long way to go to challenge Penske, but Target Chip Ganassi Racing has won two of the past three Indy 500s, with Scott Dixon in 2008 and Dario Franchitti last year. Penske's Helio Castroneves won in 2009.
Ganassi and Penske have pushed each other for the past decade. The primary battlefield has been Indianapolis, but it's been contested in the series championships, too, in the disbanded CART and IndyCar Series. After CART teams stopped coming to Indy in 1996, Ganassi was among the first to return in 2000 and won the 500 with Juan Pablo Montoya. Penske came back to Indy in 2001 and won three straight, two with Castroneves and one with Gil de Ferran.
Ganassi, with three, and Penske, with five, have combined to win eight of the past 11 Indy 500s. Their rivalry is fierce and it has fueled making them tougher for the rest of the field to beat. It's possible to beat these two teams, as proved by Andretti Green Racing's (now Andretti Autosport) Dan Wheldon in 2005 and Franchitti in 2007 and Rahal Letterman Racing's Buddy Rice in 2004. But Ganassi, with Dixon and Franchitti, and Penske, with Castroneves, Will Power and Ryan Briscoe, will go into Sunday's 100th anniversary race as the teams to beat.
Penske and Ganassi have won steadily in an era of equal equipment, particularly since 2006, when all teams have used Dallara chassis, Honda engines and Firestone tires. IndyCar rules allow areas of limited development to the chassis -- nothing aerodynamic -- but it's been in use since 2003 and any gains are minimal. Reliability, once a serious issue at Indianapolis, also is less a factor. There were 20 cars running at the end of last year's Indy 500 and only two went out with mechanical failures.
The most demanding 500 miles in racing, with top speeds of 230 mph entering the slightly banked Turns One and Three and race laps that will average in the 220s, is won by the teams with the best drivers. Engineering, pit crews and race strategists play vital roles, too, but once the race starts, the driver plays the critical role in ever-changing track conditions to adjust the car.
"I think [the advantage] has been the drivers we've had," Penske said. "You'd have to put all the drivers from our team and Ganassi's team in the very top-10. If you've got one of the top-10 drivers and the right equipment and they've shown on ovals they can win, that's good odds. Dario and Scott are first class drivers. I'd have them on my team any day, that's what I think of them. They're professional and they race fairly and squarely, which is important."
Managing Director Mike Hull has been with Ganassi since 1996 and played an integral part in building the organization.
"You're only gong to win this race by having a driver who is going to become great by winning it," Hull said. "You are not going to win this race with a guy who doesn't have the ability to carry the car around the race track. It's not going to happen."
Ganassi drove in five Indy 500s, from 1982 to 1986, with a best finish of eighth in 1983. After a relatively early retirement, Ganassi become co-owner of Pat Patrick's established team in 1989 and won his first Indy with Emerson Fittipaldi, a two-time Formula One world champion. Ganassi bought the remaining assets from Patrick, landed Target as a sponsor and launched his team in 1990 with Eddie Cheever as driver.
Building a team capable of challenging Penske is an enormous task that takes years of constant effort and investment. Penske also was an outstanding driver from 1958 on, before retiring in 1964 to concentrate on his business career, which he has built into an automotive-industry based empire. Penske began his race team in 1966 and entered Indianapolis in 1969 with Mark Donohue, who won in his and the team's fourth 500 in 1972.
"The things we've learned each year have added to our knowledge base," Penske said. "We go into the race this year with 650 years of experience, that's the knowledge base we have coming to the race."
Ganassi, starting 20 years later, has followed the Penske model. The stability and continuity of sponsorship has allowed him to build a team deep with talent that most organizations don't have. It provides them the opportunity to prepare for Indianapolis 12 months a year.
"We go to the race trying to take the checkered flag first," Ganassi said. "It's 11 months and 31 days of agony to be ready for the next race. It's still the most important race in the world."
Hull says it takes having the organization to attract drivers capable of winning the race.
"When Target Chip Ganassi Racing really got after it, Penske Racing was clearly the established blueprint for what you needed to do to devote yourself to winning the Indy 500," Hull said. "What you try to do in motor racing is put a team together that world class drivers are willing to drive for. The better you are as a team, the better opportunity you create for a driver and then drivers of that stature will drive your race cars."
Ganassi likely would have won more 500s in the late '90s if his team had entered at Indianapolis. It was a period when the team won four straight CART championships with Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Montoya. They came back with Montoya in 2000 and, in his rookie race, led 167 laps.
Dixon has raced at Indy with Ganassi since 2003. Franchitti was with Team Green, the ancestor of Andretti Green, in 2002, didn't enter in 2003 and has been a regular since 2004. With exceptions like Montoya and Castroneves, also a rookie for his first Indy victory, it takes experience to win at Indianapolis.
"I think you need a year or two under your belt," Ganassi said. "Obviously, guys like Montoya don't need it, but you need two years of IndyCar racing prior to being able to win at Indy."
Rick Mears, driving for Penske, won in his second Indy start in 1979 and went on to become a four-time winner. Castroneves has won three. Their talent put them at the front early in their careers and has kept them there.
Mears was an unknown when Penske hired him to be a part-time driver in 1978, but three wins in the CART series promoted him to full-time status in 1979. Castroneves had shown potential in the CART series when Penske hired him in 2000. But Al Unser Sr. and Jr., Bobby Unser and Emerson Fittipaldi had won Indy before being winning for Penske, too. Danny Sullivan was brought in by Penske primarily for his road racing ability and his famous spin-and-win victory in 1985 was in his first Indy with the team.
Franchitti won in his fifth start at Indy and again in his seventh. Dixon won in his sixth in 2008 after finishing second the previous year.
"Experience does help," Franchitti said. "The last two years have been really good with the Target team. It just keeps challenging you, this place.
Every time you run, it keeps challenging you. It's about gathering information about the weather conditions, situations out on the track. Every time you come back, it doesn't matter what happened last year, you've got to do it again. You've got to start from zero almost. You've got to get the car working right with the conditions this year with the tires, the regulations, each time you come back, you have to do that. Experience is one thing, but you have to lay it on the line, too, be absolutely on the limit.
"You've got to have a fast car, first of all, you've got to be driving it well. That puts you in the position to challenge. Then, you've do the right job behind the wheel, absolutely. No mistakes, drive the thing absolutely on the limit, make the right adjustments on the car, great pit stops, great strategy, a little luck too, all those things and then you might have a chance to win the race."
The Penske/Ganassi rivalry will be on center stage Sunday.
"The Target team and Penske guys tend to fight it out," Franchitti said. "The experience they've gained as well has given them the momentum for these cars, they do a good job. You can see last year when other teams do a good job and figure out, the drivers, engineers, then they come up to challenge. But I think into the long run, it's these two teams [to beat] because they work hard."
Penske is well aware of who his main competition will be in the 100th anniversary race.
"Obviously, we watch what Ganassi does every day and I'm sure they're watching us," Penske said. "He's a great competitor and the quality of the team, the sponsors and drivers they're associated make for great competition. We race them hard and they race us hard.
"I'm not going to let them get away with anything and it goes the other way. We kind of respect each other on a daily basis."