INDYCAR: Ganassi's dynamic duo make a bid for second consecutive championship

Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Chris Simmons has engineered Dario Franchitti within reach of the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. (Photo: Dale Nixon)

When Dario Franchitti rolled over the yard of bricks, doused himself with milk and picked up his second Indy 500 victory in May of 2010, there was possibly no one happier and more directly relieved than his chief engineer and pit box computer jockey, Chris Simmons.

So it came as no surprise Friday evening, when, with an IZOD IndyCar Series championship hanging in the balance, Franchitti made sure to first thank his Simmons and his crew on his IMS Radio Network interview after getting out of the car with the fastest speed on the big board, and a Peak Performance Pole Award and $10,000 bonus check to collect.

"I don't know what (crew chief) Chris Simmons did to the Target car between practice and now, but that thing was beautifully balanced," Franchitti said. "(The first timed lap) felt like a good lap, and I looked down and saw 213 and said: 'Oh, nice. Let's see if we can not screw up the second lap.' I felt it; I was able to take the line I wanted. Now I can relax a little."

Pressure to perform, for both driver and crew at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, is the norm.

Performance is expected, crews and drivers are given tremendous resources, and superior preparation is expected. When Franchitti's car rolled off the transporter, he had the security of knowing that he had already won with a pole at the 1.5-mile Homestead Miami Speedway in 2009. But checking back further, his predecessor in the #10 car, Dan Wheldon, had also posted a victory and a third place finish with the same team.

A common denominator in all of those performances, along with the familiar faces of team owner Ganassi and managing director Mike Hull, has been Simmons. After seven years with Ganassi, Simmons knows exactly what is expected when the, err, chips are down.

There was no better example of that than the Indy 500 victory, the second for Franchitti, but first for Simmons.

While it is undoubtedly a career-defining thrill to capture the greatest spectacle in racing, it was also a temporary respite to Simmons, who saw drivers who had pitted on the same lap (163) as Franchitti drop like flies one by one with empty tanks of ethanol. Simmons trusted his driver to conserve fuel, and Franchitti trusted his engineer to tell him exactly how much and when it was go time.

"Chip and I have a running joke; when we get a good result or finish, he says I'm on for another week," Simmons chuckled. "On the yard of bricks, I made him give me two weeks."

All kidding aside, job security at Target Chip Ganassi Racing is directly proportional to on-track performance, and when your driver takes the checkers with somewhere between a gallon and a mouthful of fuel remaining, then and only then can the celebration start. Simmons knew the drill well - what the Brickyard giveth, the Brickyard could also take away. But the chance to kiss the bricks was the culmination of a life-long pursuit for Simmons, who raced to the verge of the IndyCar series with several stellar seasons in Indy Lights before transitioning to the other side of the pit wall.

"It would have been nice to do it as a driver, but with all the years working here on a crew, it's special," Simmons said with his characteristic understatement. "I thought we had it won with (Paul) Tracy in 2002, but the yellow on the last lap hurt us. This year the yellow on the last lap helped us."

Simmons' own route to victory lane was improbable if not implausible, and included many crew jobs along the way, including the guy who checks and measures the primary and backup fuel hose mechanisms. As an open-wheel driver himself, Simmons was a contemporary of the late, great Greg Moore in the US F2000 series and won that series championship in 1993, followed by a career in the Indy Lights that saw multiple poles and laps led against such familiar names as Tony Kanaan, Cristiano da Matta and an up-and-coming Brazilian named Hélio Castro-Neves.

Sidelined by a neck injury during part of the 1998 Indy Lights season, Simmons put aside his gloves and helmet to pick up the red pen and setup sheet to help his younger brother Jeff win the Barber Dodge Pro Series championship as a rookie, a feat the duo repeated in 1999. His employment on the shaded side of the pit box became permanent in 2000, when he was tabbed to help engineer Jeff's rookie year in Indy Lights with Team Kool Green, where he would subsequently work on the crews of both Tracy and Kanaan.

Chris Simmons moved to Target Chip Ganassi Racing in 2003 and has remained there, working with Darren Manning, Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon before being named lead engineer for Franchitti in his 2009 IndyCar championship-winning run.

The cerebral Simmons jelled with the equally-tactical Franchitti, making the pair a formidable combination from the get go with five wins - including victories on street (Long Beach, Toronto), road (Sonoma) and oval (Iowa,  Homestead) courses. The pair also tallied five poles en route to Franchitti's second IndyCar championship.

"We didn't work together directly at Andretti Green, but we knew each other and in fact knew each other when I was still driving," Simmons recalled. "I joke with him all the time that he stole my ride out from under me at (Team) Kool. I knew his tendencies and what he liked (setup-wise) from working alongside him. It took us all of one race to get used to each other last year.

"He makes it pretty easy... it's kind of like having an extra data acquisition system in the car working with Dario. It's hard to get communication like that, when you can read each other's intonation even without the words, and when you have it, it makes a big difference."

The communication would be for naught without the performance on the track. Target Chip Ganassi Racing is a results-based team, with pressure from the big boss and a higher than normal expectation for both preparation and performance. The multidimensional puzzle of car setup (there are something like 158,000 variables on an IndyCar setup sheet), track conditions, weather forecasting, and driver preferences are akin to dumping a truckload of Rubik's cubes on the engineer's lap, with the race itself being a moving target of action and reaction.

"There are a lot of smart guys in the paddock, but by virtue of the high level of competition and speeds that Chris has raced at, his mind works very quickly under high levels of stress and commotion," brother Jeff Simmons said. "He thrives in the chaos and filters down to the most important aspects with laser-like focus. Also, he's used to winning and will do whatever needed to do so.

"Others would say the same, but those who haven't driven are sometimes almost afraid of their driver. Chris will flat-out tell Dario this is what were are doing, this is what is going to give us the best chance, we need to do this," Jeff continued. "Under the stress of driving, that confidence and directness allows his driver to focus on his job and relax. Thus not only does he make the car better (technically), but he gets the most out of his driver... he actually makes his driver better!"

As Franchitti reeled off wins at Mid-Ohio and Chicagoland to draft up on Power's seemingly-insurmountable points lead, the attention to detail and preparation played a key role in the move. Consistent performance on all of the track types, with 13 top-5 finishes in 16 races heading in to the final has forced Power to drive with the target on his back and his eyes on the mirror, despite leading the championship points since the first race of the season.

With all eyes firmly focused on the final race at Homestead, every point is on the line, forcing the team to simultaneously prepare for a pole run, lead the most laps and win the race. For Simmons, there could not be a better setting for the championship battle. He himself achieved three top-5 results at the track (a second, a third, and a fifth) in the Indy Lights drivers seat from 1995-1997. And he would like nothing better than to have Franchitti take a third IndyCar championship in a repeat of 2009. The pole position and attendant bonus point, has been checked off the preparation list.

Winning, it seems, never gets boring - even from the shaded side of the pit wall.

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