Chip Ganassi taking care of business

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The first conversation Chip Ganassi and I ever had went like this:

"Hey, Hinton! That column of yours STUNK!"

This was shouted across a hospitality tent for the newly formed Target Ganassi team in CART.

"Which one?" I shouted back. I'd written two or three column items taking shots at the young team owner who was, I suspected, having a great time playing racer on his father's money. Floyd Ganassi Sr. had amassed a fortune in the construction industry around Pittsburgh.

"That STUNK!" Chip repeated.

"Which one?"

And then it got like one of those old Miller Lite commercials where groups on either side of a bar were yelling back and forth:

"Tastes great!"

"Less filling!"

"Tastes great!"

"Less filling!"

"That STUNK!"

"Which one?"

"That STUNK!"

"Which one!"

Thus ended our first dialogue, and I returned to interviewing one of his early drivers, Eddie Cheever.

That was 21 years ago.

Monday, I realized that column -- or those columns -- stunk. They were monumental misjudgments.

Young Floyd Ganassi Jr. wasn't playing on daddy's money. He was racing on funding from the Target department store chain, and spending that money wisely, as it turned out.

Monday, kicking off the annual NASCAR media tour, Ganassi entered his 22nd season with Target sponsorship, and 17th with Energizer batteries -- this in an era when teams and sponsors partner and part faster than Hollywood couples.

Most of the longevity has been with his Indy car team, but both have been with him since he ventured into NASCAR in 2001. Monday, he clicked off the names of several more sponsors that have been with him eight years or more.

In a Cup series still ravaged by corporate sponsorship dropout in a still-sagging economy, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing -- the merged team he runs -- secured 100 percent renewal for this season with sponsors whose contracts were up.

The team born just two years ago from the merger of two troubled teams by economic necessity -- Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Ganassi's operation -- now is as healthy as they come, if you figure funding per car. EGR runs only two, for Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Bass Pro Shops and McDonald's will go again on McMurray's cars as primary sponsors, and Target stays with Montoya.

Surely it didn't hurt, in keeping all the revenue flowing, that Ganassi last year became the only team owner ever to win the Daytona 500 (with McMurray), the Indianapolis 500 (with Dario Franchitti) and the Brickyard 400 (McMurray again) in the same season.

These past two decades "he has won a lot of races for Target," said Steve Hmiel, the EGR competition director who came in from the DEI side of the merger.

That includes seven Indy car championships -- four in Champ Car, three in IndyCar -- and one in the Grand Am sports car series.

"I've never seen anybody take care of a sponsor like he does," Hmiel said. "We're leaving from here going to Minnesota tonight to have dinner with the CEO. Then tomorrow all the reps of companies that sell stuff to Target will be there. Chip goes around and talks to them, and the drivers are there."

For Monday's leg of his typical whirlwind, Ganassi rose before the media gathering here and began, "If I yawn in the middle of my comments, it's because I was at a football game last night in Pittsburgh."

The Ganassis are family friends with the Rooneys, who own the Steelers.

"Over the years I could probably take a book from their page," Ganassi said of the Rooneys, intentionally reversing the adage about a page from a book. "They're under the radar and they let their team do their talking."

Same with Ganassi.

"I've been involved in a lot of businesses," said Felix Sabates, a self-made millionaire who retains a small stake in EGR, and who has owned pieces of NBA franchises. "But I've never had a partner like Chip Ganassi.

"The guy is unselfish, he never talks about himself, and all he ever wants to do is win."

Last season, as Ganassi was forging what amounted to a new and unheard-of triple crown of American motor racing -- Daytona, Indy, Indy -- he simply refused to talk about himself as the man who had achieved this, with an Indy car team that operates separately from EGR.

"I'm just a lucky guy," was his refrain.

To hear him, you'd think he does virtually nothing with the teams. But he had to be doing something …

"I think that's a Pittsburgh thing," Ganassi said. "People from that area don't blow their own horns."

And Chip Ganassi is, through and through, a Pittsburgh guy.

They'll tell you what they think if they feel you've wronged them -- "That STUNK!" -- but they don't flatter, and they don't wear their own egos on their rolled-up sleeves.

I guess I can be as tough as anybody, but when you've been around the same people for an extended period of time, it's not about being tough.

-- Chip Ganassi

"When things are bad," McMurray said, "Chip is the first guy who calls to tell you it's gonna be OK. Don't worry about it."

And yet, "when things are good, Chip doesn't really applaud you."

Steady. Workmanlike.

At EGR, "He is not feared, he is respected," Sabates said. "A lot of people are feared. I think Jack Roush is feared by his people. Chip is not feared, but they respect him."

Ganassi has a tough side, and "I've seen that side," Sabates continued. "But you know what? His tough side goes away in about two seconds. He could almost be Cuban [Sabates was born in Cuba]. Cubans can get ticked off and then forget why they got mad."

"Italians are like that too, you know," Ganassi said.

"Chip gets it over with and never brings it up again," Sabates said. "I've seen him, more than once -- 10 minutes later he's hugging the guy whose butt he just chewed out."

"I guess I can be as tough as anybody," Ganassi said, "but when you've been around the same people for an extended period of time, it's not about being tough. It's more about they know what they have to do, and every once in a while they just need a little encouragement.

"I think being tough and being encouraging are different ways to accomplish the same thing."

About all Ganassi has left to accomplish in North American racing -- stock cars, open wheel and sports cars -- is a Sprint Cup championship.

How bad is the itch for that title?

He laughed.

"Having the itch is one thing. Being realistic about it is another. There are a lot of great competitors in this series that may not have the itch as much as I have, but they sure have the horsepower and the manpower," he said.

"You have to give it your best shot. That's all you can do."

And, as for the likes of Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress or Jack Roush, "The last I checked, I'm not interested in trading places with them. They're great guys, but I'm not trading places with them."

He remains a Pittsburgh guy, with his sleeves usually rolled up, running his racing teams methodically but passionately, hanging with the Steelers, but content that the city's other sports families don't know or care as much about his sport as he cares about theirs.

"I like it that way," he said. "It lets me be under the radar when I go home."

Just a face in the crowd. But honestly now: For Sunday night's Steelers game, did he sit in a sky box or out in the grandstands with the freezing western Pennsylvania masses?

"I was in a box," he admitted sheepishly.

"Aw, man," I said as I turned to walk away. "You were gonna be my hero if you'd sat in the stands."

He yelled after me:

"But the window was open! Froze my ass off!"

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.