Rahal, Kimball join Ganassi team

Graham Rahal got his career off to a rousing start with a win in St. Petersburg in 2008. AP Photo/Mike Carlson

INDIANAPOLIS -- With Roger Penske running three full-time entries in the Izod IndyCar Series these days, Chip Ganassi has fought back by expanding his operation to four cars.

Or more accurately, two two-car teams.

In a move he likened to Hendrick Motorsports' NASCAR operation, Ganassi unveiled details Thursday of a new two-car effort that will be run out of a Brownsburg, Ind., race shop leased from drag racing legend Don Prudhomme. A pair of young Americans -- Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball -- will handle the driving duties.

Ganassi's existing two Target-sponsored Indy cars driven by Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon will continue to be run out of the Indianapolis facility that also houses Chip Ganassi Racing's championship-caliber Grand Am sports car team.

Think of how before a recent reorganization, Hendrick fielded its 24 and 48 car "A" team under one roof, with the team operating the Nos. 5 and
88 cars housed nearby, with all four entries sharing technical information, and you'll understand the philosophy Ganassi is using to expand his Indy car attack.

"We think that's a model that might work a little better than four straight cars," Ganassi remarked during a news conference at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to announce his new drivers and sponsors (auto parts retailer Service Central for Rahal and diabetes drug manufacturer Novo Nordisk for Kimball).

"We're in a new era of Indy car racing and it's an exciting era," he added. "It's a very exciting day for our team."

Maybe no one was more excited by the news than Rahal, who lost his ride with Newman/Haas Racing prior to the 2010 season when sponsor McDonald's unexpectedly withdrew its support. Rahal ran only 12 of 17 races in 2010, driving for four different teams.

The rest of the year, Rahal crisscrossed the country in search of sponsorship, often doing it the old-fashioned way -- by car. He said he put nearly 20,000 miles on his Toyota 4Runner in just the past few months as he beat the bushes for the backing he needed to continue his career.

"There was certainly no lack of effort from myself and my management team or the people who have been nice enough to help us," the 21-year old Rahal, who at age 19 was the youngest-ever winner of an Indy car race, said. "It's taken a lot of work and I've been pretty well all over the place this year with a ton of driving, whether on the track or off the track.

"So it's nice to be in this position -- with everything settled in mid-December, where I can focus on the future. I can't wait."

Rahal resisted taking what might have been the obvious path -- teaming up with his father, Bobby Rahal, to bring Rahal Letterman Racing back to full-time Indy car competition. His reward was the association with the Ganassi team, which with eight CART and IndyCar championships has been the most successful operation in American open-wheel racing since 1996.

"I've always thought that the way for me to receive any sort of recognition in this sport was to be by myself, and to do it on my own," Rahal said. "While my dad was certainly pushing hard, I just wanted to prove that I could get out of this slump. My dad, my mom, my girlfriend -- everybody -- they helped out a lot, because there were certainly some tough times this year.

"But I always wanted to make sure that I could be respected for being my own person."

Kimball's story is also unique. The son of successful race car designer/engineer Gordon Kimball, 25-year-old Charlie started his racing career in America before heading to Europe to hone his skills. It was there, while competing in the Formula 3 Euroseries in 2007, that he was diagnosed with diabetes.

What initially seemed like a huge hurdle to overcome turned out to be a good thing for Kimball, both personally and professionally. His association with Novo Nordisk -- a leading provider of diabetes medication -- began when he started to use the company's products to control his condition.

Kimball's glucose levels are now constantly monitored while he is driving and his in-car drink bottle is filled with orange juice.

"When I first got the diagnosis, I thought my career was gone," Kimball said. "But I've got one of the best health care teams in the business, including Dr. Ann Peters out of USC Medical School, who has treated Olympic gold medalists and Ironman triathletes. So I feel like driving a race car at 230 mph is a smaller challenge to her than climbing Mount Everest.

"The business side took care of itself when I made the decision to continue to race with diabetes, because I wanted to make a difference," he added. "The chance to use my racing -- pardon the pun -- as a vehicle for my story, and to connect and interact with people just like me who have diabetes. My doctor reached out to Novo Nordisk on my behalf and that's how the partnership evolved. For them, motorsports is a living, breathing example of something you can do that's extraordinary while living with diabetes."

Ganassi's expansion to four cars with two major sponsors relatively new to racing is the latest proof that the economic foundation of the IndyCar Series is continuing to rebound and grow.

Chip Ganassi has enjoyed an unusually fruitful relationship with Target dating to 1990, and Dixon's tenure with CGR since 2003 is the second-longest team/driver relationship in the IndyCar Series.

But the successful team boss always has one eye on the future.

"Obviously sponsorship is the lifeblood of motor racing," Ganassi said. "Both of these sponsors had their toe in the water for a while [Service Central as backer of Sarah Fisher Racing's second Indy car in 2010 and Novo Nordisk with Kimball in Indy Lights over the past two years], so it's exciting to bring them to the front of the stage as partners.

"As a company, we need to stay competitive and on the forefront,"
Ganassi added. "I think you have to be constantly looking at what drivers are coming along. I'm not pushing Franchitti and Dixon [age 37 and 30, respectively] out the door, but they are obviously of a different era than these guys. To have two Americans come along like this, we wanted to make sure we had the possibility to work with them."

And in typical fashion, Ganassi's forward-looking, out-of-the-box thinking made it happen.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.