Messing With Chemistry

As much as I get tired of writing about the new faces at Chip Ganassi Racing, it is the major story of this offseason. After the first of the year, remaining pieces of the silly season will begin to fall into place. I would love to write about something/someone else, but for now, this is the major story – as well it should be. We have the defending Indianapolis 500 winner joining one of the top teams in the series, along with the retirement of one of he biggest names in the past fifteen or so years. There are a lot of moving pieces with this story.

Yesterday, we learned where some of the moving pieces have landed.

The bond between a driver and his or her engineer is special. They must have an intangible chemistry in order to work together. When such a bond forms, they both know what the other is thinking without a word being spoken. That’s the type of bond needed between driver and engineer. Tony Kanaan and Eric Cowdin have such a bond.

I’ve long considered Eric Cowdin to be one of the best engineers in the IndyCar paddock. Some may not recognize his name and those that do would certainly be hard-pressed to spot him in the garage area of any given track. That’s because the quiet man prefers to keep a low-profile and go about his business, without any of the fanfare that others actively seek. But don’t let that non-assuming persona fool you. He is one of the most gifted and experienced engineers in the series.

Eric Cowdin and Tony Kanaan have been together for a long time, a very long time – dating back to the mid-nineties, when both were with Steve Horne’s Tasman Motorsports Indy Lights team, along with Helio Castroneves. As Kanaan moved up through the ranks into CART, Cowdin followed. In Kanaan’s rookie season in CART in 1998 with Tasman, Eric Cowdin was there. When Gerry Forsythe bought the remnants of Tasman in 1999 and ran a satellite McDonald’s team for Kanaan, Cowdin was there. Then Kanaan made the move to Mo Nunn’s fledgling team, and Cowdin moved with him. When Tony Kanaan joined Andretti-Green Racing in 2003, he brought along his engineer. Eric Cowdin engineered Kanaan’s car throughout his dominating championship season in 2004. When AGR was going through their lean times in 2008, Cowdin was having to work magic to keep Kanaan’s car competitive. At times, Cowdin’s magic worked until other mishaps would sideline their efforts.

Having grown weary of the internal drama at AGR and thinking that Kanaan would take over Dan Wheldon’s seat at Ganassi for 2009, Cowdin pursued an unbelievable opportunity – the chance to work for Team Penske as engineer for Ryan Briscoe. Again, Cowdin’s expertise was apparent, as Briscoe’s car was the one to beat for most of the 2009 season. If not for a brain-fade on Briscoe’s part at Motegi, Briscoe, Cowdin and Penske would have been celebrating the 2009 championship instead of Dario Franchitti. Cowdin engineered seven victories for Briscoe, before being reunited with Kanaan at KV Racing Technology for the 2012 season.

Of Kanaan’s fifteen CART/IndyCar victories, Kanaan won just one of those without Eric Cowdin on his pit box – the 2010 race at Iowa Speedway. Cowdin was back with Kanaan when he won this year’s Indianapolis 500. The man knows what he s doing and he and Kanaan have an incredible bond. According to the guys on Trackside, Kanaan is even godfather to Cowdin’s daughter.

This brings me back to yesterday’s confirmation that Chris Simmons will remain as engineer on the No.10 Target car that Tony Kanaan will drive, while Eric Cowdin will work with Ryan Briscoe on the No.8 NTT Data car. Simmons obviously has a history on the No.10 while Dario Franchitti was the driver. I’m sure he would have considered going to the satellite team in Brownsburg, somewhat of a demotion. But Cowdin was recruited away from KV so that he could continue to work with Kanaan. Once Franchitti was forced into retirement due to injuries, Kanaan was moved from his original No.8 car and into the Target car. I had just assumed that the long-time relationship between Kanaan and Cowdin would trump the fact that Simmons had been working on the Target car.

I guess tenure at Ganassi trumps the chemistry with an engineer.

From what I can tell, Eric Cowdin had a great relationship with Briscoe while at Penske, and is welcoming the opportunity to work with him again. It could be that Briscoe is seen as the future for Ganassi and they want to give him the best opportunity to succeed. That would be Cowdin. But I have no idea what Kanaan thinks about this. Simmons and Kanaan are not strangers. Simmons once served as the assistant engineer on Kanaan’s car in the early days at AGR. He is also a very qualified engineer, having been the engineer on Franchitti’s car each year Franchitti won the championship for Ganassi. But Kanaan and Simmons don’t have that unspoken bond that he shares with Cowdin. There is no way they could after Kanaan and Cowdin spent sixteen seasons together in Indy Lights, CART and IndyCar.

Personally, I think it’s a mistake. But then again, what does an over-age blogger sitting in Nashville, TN know compared to an owner who has amassed ten championships and four Indianapolis 500 victories since 1996? Not much. But still, that’s my opinion. IndyCar racing is no different than other sports, where athletes thrive on teamwork and familiarity.

Most know that I live by the mantra that “change is bad”. Familiarity is my tonic. Every now and then, a change can do good for both sides. But in this case, I don’t see it. I think that Chip Ganassi is siding with Chris Simmons wanting to stay with the car and crew he has been with for several years. But in the process, he is upsetting a chemistry between two individuals that have accomplished quite a lot over the years. That’s my opinion. I hope I am wrong.

George Phillips

2 Responses to “Messing With Chemistry”

  1. Ben Twickerbill Says:

    A bad move for sure, I am willing to bet you see a switch back halfway or sooner into the season…

  2. I think all parties involved are smart enough and talented enough to be very successful. If not, it is an easy switch.

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