The Racing Capital
of the World
May 13, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
From Ryan Briscoe’s viewpoint, he is on equal footing to any other driver attempting to win the 97th Indianapolis 500 even if it will be his first IZOD IndyCar Series race of the season.
“Yes, I can win the Indianapolis 500,” Briscoe said. “Why not? I absolutely believe I can win it this year.
“I’ve been running the full series – all I’ve done is miss four street course races this year.”
That is a major point to consider in Briscoe’s return to IndyCar for team owner Chip Ganassi in the No. 8 NTT DATA Dallara/Honda/Firestone. He won the pole for last year’s Indianapolis 500 as a member of Team Penske. But when his contract expired at the end of the 2012 season, it was not renewed. He came close to a couple of full-season deals but decided to wait for a prime ride. If that did not become available, he was content to compete in the American Le Mans Series for Level 5 Racing.
Briscoe finished second in the LMP2 class to teammate Marino Franchitti, the younger brother of three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, in Saturday’s ALMS race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. He jumped on a red-eye flight from the West Coast and flew all night before landing in Indianapolis at 6:15 a.m. Sunday. After catching a few hours of sleep in an Indianapolis hotel, Briscoe was not only first on the track for the second day of practice Sunday, but he was also the last driver off the race course a few minutes before 6 p.m.
“It was a long 24 hours,” Briscoe said. “Our race last night finished at 10:30 local time in Indianapolis. I’m feeling a bit tired now.”
It was a very long day for Briscoe, but he is back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and could be a driver to watch this year in the 500 Mile Race. Starting on the pole in last year’s Indy 500 gave the Australian new perspective.
“I learned a lot last year,” Briscoe said. “It’s the first year with this car, and it’s the same car and engine from last year (although he was in a Chevrolet for Penske in 2012). It was a big learning curve, and certainly I’ll carry everything over and try to build on that.
“I feel very lucky to be here.”
Although Briscoe’s quest for a full-time IndyCar ride was not achieved in the offseason, he learned a great deal that has helped make him both a better driver and a better person.
“It was an interesting offseason with just a few highs and lows,” Briscoe said. “It was really good because I had so much interest and feedback, and a lot of people wanted to have me on board. Unfortunately, finances become a problem. I don’t have money I bring to teams. It makes it a little more challenging when other drivers arrive with money, and rides dry up. I look at my career as something you just never know. I’ve raced for a lot of really good people and have no regrets.
“I think it’s really cool to come back to Chip Ganassi’s team, where he introduced me to American racing in 2005. I’ve made full-circle, and we still have a great relationship.”
Briscoe ran 13 laps Sunday, and his best lap was his 11th trip around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a speed of 218.900 mph. That was 17th fastest out of the 23 cars that made laps in practice on a very sunny, but cool and windy Mother’s Day in Indianapolis.
“I’m certainly going to go out and do my best and try to make the most of it,” Briscoe said. “It was great to get out there. We were able to shake down the T car and the primary at the end. So we basically got through exactly what we wanted to do. Both cars feel great. The boys have done a great job preparing them both. When I went out tonight, it was like I never left driving Indy cars. It just felt normal. It feels good to be back in the groove of things and looking forward to doing more tomorrow.
“What we are going to be seeing is the first part of the week everyone will be doing race runs with lots of cars on track and a lot of drafting. Some guys will get tow laps and post big times, but when you are on the only one on the track, you might see some surprises. On Friday, we get the boost for qualifying, and we get to switch gears a bit.
“On qualifying we will just try to go out and go fast.”
Considering he started last year’s Indianapolis 500 on the pole for Team Penske, it was obvious Briscoe deserved to have a ride for this year’s race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Ganassi believed that and offered the No. 8 Dallara/Honda to his former driver, who will join Target Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon and Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing driver Charlie Kimball at this year’s Indianapolis 500.
It’s the second time around for Briscoe with team owner Ganassi. The first experience was a season-long ride in the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2005 when Briscoe was a young, fast rookie from Australia who was part of a three-driver effort at Ganassi that included Dixon and Darren Manning. He competed in 14 races in the No. 33 Target car, including a team-best finish of 10th at the Indianapolis 500, and won his first IndyCar pole position at Sonoma Raceway.
Unfortunately, the team was using a Toyota engine that season. It was badly under matched against the faster, more reliable Honda engine.
That meant Briscoe often had to drive over his head and was involved in a series of crashes. The worst was a fiery, airborne crash at Chicagoland Speedway that ended his 2005 season with one race remaining and landed him in the hospital. The crash was so spectacular that back in Australia it earned Briscoe the unwelcome nickname “Briscoe Inferno.”
“I think we certainly had a really good relationship back then; it’s just the cards were stacked against us,” Briscoe said of Ganassi. “I was really inexperienced both on track and with my knowledge of the sport in general. I hadn’t taken much notice of oval racing, so I feel like I was shoved in the deep end and tried to drive the car as hard as I could every lap. It didn’t work out. We had a great time together back in 2005, and it didn’t end the way any of us wanted to, but it’s great to have this chance again.”
There were few that would have given Briscoe a shot at ever returning to a Ganassi Indy car. But eight years later, Briscoe is back and could become a major contender for victory in this year’s Indianapolis 500.
“We all know Ryan is a talented driver, having had him in our Indy car system previously,” Ganassi said. “He will get up to speed quickly because he understands the ins and outs of how we operate our race program. The opportunity to have him back in a fourth car with us alongside Dario, Scott and Charlie is big. We are excited to bring NTT DATA into our team, as well. Their strong reputation coupled with their focus on IT innovation makes them an ideal partner for our race program.”
But did Briscoe ever think he would be reunited with the team owner that fired him after his crash-filled 2005 season?
“I’m not a fortune teller, but I never ruled any possibilities out,” Briscoe said. “It’s great. It’s an exciting thing that is happening here, and I have to put a huge thanks to Chip for making this happen and for NTT DATA to come on board and make this happen. It’s exciting times. It’s great to be back with this team that I have such a great relationship with; lots of friends within in the team and amazing teammates. It’s going to be a real easy transition and allow us to get down to business without messing around at all.
“To say that I’m excited for the month of May would be a huge understatement. I’m thrilled to join the Ganassi team for the Indianapolis 500 this year. Driving for the defending race winner – and especially with teammates that are former winners – is just incredible. There are still a lot of familiar faces on the team from when I drove for Chip in 2005, and I can’t wait to get started. I’m looking forward to a successful month.”
After his crash at Chicagoland back in 2005, Briscoe was consider too crash-prone and was out of a full-time ride. In 2006, he competed in four races with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, including a best finish of third at Watkins Glen. He also competed in two Champ Car World Series races for RuSport with a best finish of 12th at Surfers Paradise, Australia.
He would return to the Indianapolis 500 in 2007 with Symantec/Luczo-Dragon Racing – at that time a satellite team of Team Penske that was co-owned by Roger Penske’s youngest son, Jay, along with computer antivirus tycoon Steve Luczo. That was the beginning of Briscoe’s path back to a full-time ride. He would start seventh and finish fifth at Indy while also running for Penske Racing’s ALMS team that season. When three-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion and 2006 Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. left for NASCAR at the end of the 2007 season, Briscoe replaced him in the famed No. 6 Indy car for Team Penske.
Briscoe would go on to win seven IZOD IndyCar Series races. He finished fifth after he led 15 laps in the race but when the team was unable to find full sponsorship for a full-time three-car effort, Team Penske downsized to two full-time rides for three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and championship contender Will Power. Former Champ Car Series driver and part-time NASCAR Sprint Cup competitor AJ Allmendinger is running a third car in selected races this season.
Briscoe pursued his opportunities during the offseason but passed on all. In a sense, Briscoe played “hard to get” – not willing to jump back into a car unless he deemed it a competitive ride.
“I feel like we went through the process and made intelligent decisions,” Briscoe said. “It was tough, and I feel like there is a lot going on this year that is exciting for me. Certainly, my No. 1 thing is the Indy 500, but to have that alongside some sports car stuff and getting a chance to do the 24 Hours of Le Mans is really positive. I’m excited about it. To get this opportunity with Ganassi trumps it all. It’s amazing, and I’m ready to go.”
What Briscoe likes best about the Ganassi opportunity is it has proven to be a competitive ride. Franchitti has won three Indianapolis 500s and three of his four IZOD IndyCar Series championships for the team. Dixon has won two IZOD IndyCar Series championships and the 2008 Indianapolis 500 for Ganassi. Young Kimball has shown improvement since joining the team last year.
Briscoe’s No. 8 car will be paired with Kimball’s No. 83 and will be based out of the Ganassi shop in Brownsburg, Ind. The Target Chip Ganassi team is located on the Northwest side of Indianapolis.
“It’s amazing,” Briscoe said. “I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity. I know that is what Chip wants to do and certainly what I want to do. There is no other reason to bring this deal together than to go out and win the race. I certainly feel like we’ve got the tools, and we can make it happen.”
The late Dan Wheldon proved that a “one-off” driver can win the Indianapolis 500 when he drove to his stunning victory in 2011 after race leader JR Hildebrand crashed in the last turn of the last lap heading toward the checkered flag. So Briscoe has firm confidence that he is just as capable of driving to an Indy 500 win in his one-time opportunity this season.
“If you look at it, I’m not down on experience,” Briscoe said. “Testing has been cut to a minimum this year. My last oval experience was last season, which is the same as 80 percent of the field. I’ll be good to go in May, which is the first oval on the calendar for IndyCar. I’m going in without a disadvantage and with the team to be with. There is no reason we shouldn’t be strong.
“I think we can contend for the pole. I don’t see why not. We should be fast, and that is what we will try to do.”
Briscoe won the pole last year for Team Penske and admitted that if he were forced to watch the race on the sidelines in 2013, it would have been a big disappointment.
“That would have sucked to have been watching the race on the sidelines,” Briscoe said. “It’s great to back in the race. Pole was great. It is a big achievement and certainly exciting, and I want to work on the next goal, which is the race win. If we can get another pole, we will take it, but the priority is the race. I had a really good race last year. I felt strong and confident, and hopefully we can keep building on that, as well.”
And, who knows, a strong finish in the Indianapolis 500 – or a victory – may be enough to keep Briscoe in the car for a few more races this season, if not enhance his chances for a full-time return in 2014.
“We haven’t talked about it,” Briscoe said. “We are really just here to go to Indy, do our best and go from there. That will be more of a question for Chip, but I have a lot of passion for IndyCar racing and would like to see myself racing here for more than one race this year. But the big thing is getting through Indy and doing the best we can there.
“I’d like to be back full time. There is a lot I would like to accomplish and more races I would like to win. We will see. You have to keep with it and stay positive. It is such a small community of people, so it is so important in this business not to hold grudges or burn bridges. I feel like I have a place in IndyCar – I just have to go out and do a good job.”