FLIGHT DEPT PROFILE
Car race giant Chip Ganassi flies Citation X and Learjet 35 to attend worldwide motor events
Bizjets solve logistical problem of being hands-on at more than 50 championship races annually.
By Jim Gregory
Racing Mogul Chip Ganassi with championship trophies from Indy 500, Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.
Chip Ganassi Racing teams regularly face logistical challenges that go far beyond fielding championship-caliber racecars and celebrity drivers at nearly 70 weekend races from Jan to Nov each year.
The sports company's flight department, based at AGC (Allegheny County, Pittsburgh PA), plays a critical role in tying together its farflung racing empire.
Seven racecars operated by Chip Ganassi's company compete all across North America but also in Brazil and Japan, which next year will be replaced by a race in China. Ganassi is a hands-on company owner and that extends to his choice of flying machines. He oversees the enterprise flying from one race to the next in the Citation X he bought used about a year ago.
Gleaming racecar "transporters"—actually specialized semitrailer trucks—carry valuable cars, tools and crews to their weekend dates with millions of fans of the Izod IndyCars Series, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series. Ganassi is the only race team owner to compete across the board in all 3 categories and he does it quite well.
Ganassi early in his Indy racing career, Target-sponsored NASCAR, Telmex Target Sports Car and split-second pit stop at Kentucky Indy 300 for Target Chip Ganassi team.
In addition, half of Ganassi's 340 employees are on the road continually—from one race to the next—mostly flying on airlines and operating from bases in Concord NC, Indianapolis IN and Pittsburgh PA, where the sports empire is headquartered.
Pittsburgh is also the center of another key logistical tool for Ganassi—its flight department's flagship Citation X and a Learjet 35, based at the Corporate Air FBO at AGC.
Those aircraft allow team owner Ganassi to personally be on the pit box at 50-some races, headset in place and involved in every thrilling turn, sometimes attending multiple races in different cities on the same weekend.
Helping Ganassi oversee the far-flung racing franchise is flight department head and Chief Pilot Lowell Thomas, who has been with Ganassi since 2000 and reports directly to the racing mogul.
Citation X fulfills need for speed
Ganassi has emerged as one of the leading team owners of his era, with celebrity IndyCar driver Dario Franchitti this year completing a "Ganassi Slam" of 4 consecutive series championships for the 2nd time since 1996. Overall, Ganassi has won 9 Indy car titles since 1994.
Having used airplanes to oversee his sports empire for decades, Ganassi became familiar with the speed of the Citation X through his longstanding relationship with the Target retail store chain, which has sponsored his teams since 1990.
The large and successful retailer flies several Citation Xs—one of which, emblazoned with the phrase Speed is Life, is used by the company to go to market. Ganassi was impressed and respected the company's judgment and leadership.
"I knew the airplane," says Ganassi, "and knew that it was about performance. Target has that saying that 'speed is life.' When the opportunity to buy a Citation X came along, I jumped in."
In addition to Target, his sponsors are a who's-who of the retail marketplace—Bass Pro Shops, BMW, Honda, Chevrolet, Telmex, McDonald's, Energizer, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Clorox, Novo Nordisk, Service Central and many others.
Honda is Ganassi's engine supplier for the Izod IndyCar series, he runs Chevrolets in NASCAR, and the team relies on BMW for its road racing engines. Exceptional and finely tuned engines are critical. Each one costs about $100,000 to rebuild and only lasts about 500 miles, at speeds that sometimes exceed 200 mph.
Chief Pilot Lowell Thomas reports directly to Chip Ganassi, and is typed in the Citation X and several Learjets.
The company has made several trips overseas since acquiring the Citation X to meet with sponsors and conduct business. The trips over the pond are old hat to Thomas, who lived and worked for several years in Italy flying charter passengers. Ganassi likes the extended international reach he gets with the Citation and is direct about the value of his main business jet.
"You couldn't put a number on it. You literally could not do the business without it, and you certainly couldn't do what I do without it. You'd either have to replace me with a minimum of 4 or 5 people and replace senior team members with an additional 2 or 3 people who travel on the weekends," he says. "We travel with more people than the Pittsburgh Pirates." Ganassi should know, as he once had a minority stake in his hometown pro baseball team.
In addition to Chief Pilot Thomas, Line Captains Tom Badstibner and Richard Constantine round out the on-staff flightcrew, and Paul Kennedy is director of maintenance. Thomas supplements the flightcrew with contract pilots as necessary to accommodate the high volume schedule.
The Learjet 35 and Citation X replaced a Learjet 31 and a 45. The company also sold a King Air 200 within the past year which was based at IND (Intl, Indianapolis IN) to support the IndyCar teams.
Its Learjet 35 now performs those Indianapolis-based missions from AGC and takes Ganassi on trips to races relatively close to Pittsburgh. Sometimes he will even drive himself if the racetrack is within a few hours' driving time, like to Baltimore MD for the Streets of Baltimore IndyCar Series race, or to the Mid-Ohio Sports Cars Course in Lexington OH for the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series.