Chip Ganassi Racing’s veteran leadership preparing rookie class for first Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS – Although the 23-year-old Marcus Armstrong did not compete in the Indianapolis 500 last season, he stayed around the Chip Ganassi Racing team to soak up any knowledge he could about the month of May. The New Zealand-native said he spent most of his time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway around three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti, who’s current role with CGR is a mentor/coach.

Two of Franchitti’s three Indianapolis 500 victories came as a CGR driver, accounting for two of CGR’s five total wins at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Armstrong felt that he and Franchitti have a similar approach to racing, both using a detail-oriented mindset toward achieving success.

“There's so many variables in this sport. A lot of it is trying to cut out the distractions and focus on the things that really matter,” Armstrong said. “For us, everything is performance driven. If it's not giving us that time, at the end of the day, we're not going to do it.”

Álex Palou, the winner of May 11’s Sonsio Grand Prix at IMS and last season’s pole position winner for the Indianapolis 500, said Franchitti helped him tremendously during his first season with CGR too. Five seasons later, Palou said Franchitti is still providing professional guidance whenever he sees an area of potential improvement.

Scott Dixon, who led the limited action on Day 1 of official Indianapolis 500 practice, said his conversations with Franchitti are more simple. His discussions with the four-time champion are more based on timing passes and using the sanctioned technology to your best advantage in the car, and Dixon said he has been impressed with Franchitti’s ability to spot issues from afar once his racing career came to an end.

Mike Hull, who has been with CGR since 1992, was the team’s manager or managing director during Dixon and Franchitti’s three Indianapolis 500 wins during the late 2000s and early 2010s. Comparing “Driver Dario” to Franchitti’s role as a mentor, Hull said the biggest reason Franchitti is so valuable to the three CGR Indianapolis 500 rookies is down to his winning pedigree.

“He dissects the racetrack totally, inch by inch, not corner by corner,” Hull said. “He emphasizes that fully, and he sees in them what they don't see in themselves.”

As far as the leadership Dixon and Palou provide to the three Indianapolis 500 newcomers, Hull said their willingness to help is more uncommon than they make it seem.

“Racing is a very selfish sport,” Hull said. “But that’s how Chip has defined the operation of Chip Ganassi Racing. We give back, we pay forward and from the very first day that I went to work for Chip 32 years ago, it started that way.”

Armstrong isn’t the only Indianapolis 500 rookie on CGR’s 2024 team, as the 19-year-old Kyffin Simpson and Linus Lundqvist are also set to race on the historic oval for the first time. Of the seven rookies in 2024, three of them represent CGR.

Palou does think he and Dixon’s presence as the veterans of CGR should make a smooth transition for the rookies’ first Indianapolis 500 smoother. However, he is confident in their ability driving a new track with a new car despite their youth.

Many Indianapolis 500 veterans and former winners have sworn by the motto, ‘Respect the track,’ as vital toward achieving victory on IMS’ oval. Lundqvist found out the hard way that the expression is true, as he experienced what he called the biggest crash of his career during Day 3 of practice.

Lundqvist slammed into the outside wall on Turn 2 after dipping too low to the inside curbing, and when all was said and done, he skidded across the track and into the grass on the back straight. His day ended prematurely, but he considered himself lucky as he was physically unscathed and his No. 8 Honda was minimally damaged enough not to warrant a backup car.

What could have been a traumatic experience didn’t phase the Swede much, as he said he wanted to get back on the track later that same day.

“I’m honestly more eager to get back into it,” Lundqvist said. “The longer time goes by the longer you start to think about it.”

While Dixon felt there is some validity to the “Respect the track” aphorism, he has slightly different advice for CGR’s 2024 rookies.

“It's just going in with an open mind and making sure that you're ready for something to change,” Dixon said. “Take your time. Ask questions. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t push the envelope.”

Armstrong is doing just that, and said he has heard similar counsel from his 2008 Indianapolis 500-winning teammate.

“As a driver, you've got to understand the nuances of how to perform around here, but at the moment, I am just trying to ask as many questions as possible and doing a lot of studying,” Armstrong said. “When I'm on track, I'm very much reacting on instinct. Every lap counts.

“I feel like I've asked as many questions as I can. I just gotta drive now.”

Armstrong has said on numerous occasions that he has been asking so many questions to Franchitti, Palou, Dixon and any veteran that will listen that he feels like they may turn around and punch him eventually. However, as race day creeps closer, the questions are fading and the focus is rising.

With rain shortening the first three days of practice time to less than eight hours combined, Armstrong knows every lap of practice time counts now.

“The amount of commitment it requires to be quick around here is extremely different to every other place I've been to,” Armstrong said. “... Ultimately, I'm out there trying to experience it for myself to understand the feeling and emotion that goes with it, because that's what matters most.”

Armstrong has shifted his conversations with Palou towards more what he calls “lad chat,” and Palou said he has already told Armstrong to take time to enjoy the moment of his first Indianapolis 500.

“I just love the atmosphere; that’s what makes this place special,” Palou said. “It’s the racecars, yes, but especially the fans.”

When Palou raced in his first Indianapolis 500, the bleachers were empty, as 2020’s race took place in front of no fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Palou’s nerves were calmed that day because of the lack of fans, and he said when he finally drove in an Indianapolis 500 with full fan capacity, he wasn’t nervous because he had already raced the oval twice.

“I think for them, it's gonna be a lot tougher when they come on race day and they see the crazy amount of people this place can store,” Palou said. “But I think it's one of the best experiences they will ever have.”

For now, Armstrong said he has no nerves about the expected 400,000+ fans or the enormous legacy of the Indianapolis 500.

“I understand the magnitude of it all,” Armstrong said. “Saying that, it’s a race car, a steering wheel, two pedals, and it's a race track.”

Contact Kyle Smedley with comments via email or on X @KyleSmedley_.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Ganassi's veteran leadership preparing rookies for 1st Indy 500