Chip Ganassi discusses Alex Palou saga for 1st time. Just don't call it a lawsuit, he says

Nathan Brown
Indianapolis Star

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Chip Ganassi wanted to prove a point – hammer it home, in fact – so he summoned his lawyer.

For months, Jim Voyles had all but ordered Ganassi to keep his lips sealed, and the IndyCar team owner, who’s never short on opinions, obliged. Friday’s roundtable sitdown in his hospitality suite in St. Pete was believed to be Ganassi’s first on-the-record IndyCar-related interview since Marcus Ericsson broke Chip Ganassi Racing’s 10-year drought at the Indianapolis 500 on May 29 – 278 days ago.

IndyCar driver Marcus Ericsson (8) celebrates with team owner Chip Ganassi after winning the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The reason, of course, was obvious.

Just don’t call it a ‘lawsuit.’

“There was never a lawsuit filed. I don’t know why you guys keep saying a lawsuit was filed,” Ganassi said, referencing his litigation last summer against Alex Palou to prevent the 2021 IndyCar champ from moving to McLaren Racing on a contract that was announced the same day Ganassi purported to have picked up his 2023 team option.

Details:Chip Ganassi Racing sues Alex Palou in Marion County Superior Court amid contract dispute

“We went to arbitration, which was in the contract,” he continued, “but you don’t sue someone to go to arbitration. That was in the contract. It was spelled out in the contract. It’s not a lawsuit that we filed for arbitration. I’m not making this up. I never sued him.”

And after jokingly giving reporters a hard time for pushing for details on Palou, while admitting he hadn’t exactly been ‘available’ in recent months – “Certain things, when your attorney says, ‘Don’t talk to these people,’ what am I supposed to do?” – Ganassi spotted Voyles mingling downstairs and sent for him.

“He asked if you had an appointment (with him),” relayed a junior PR staffer to her boss.

“Tell him, ‘Yes.’”

Seconds later, there was Voyles, standing in the doorway.

“Alright, 10 seconds of work here, (Jim). Just answer the question. You’re under oath,” Ganassi joked. “Did I sue Alex Palou last year? I never sued him, right?”

Voyles: “Never, you never did.”

Ganassi: “Okay, I just wanted to clarify that. Thank you very much.”

May 14, 2021; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Team owner Chip Ganassi during qualifying for the GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

'I don’t know if that was entirely of his making'

Of course, Ganassi’s narrow (some might argue self-serving) view of the situation was never mentioned by anyone inside those arbitration hearings Ganassi’s team of lawyers held with Palou’s camp last August and September. Until Friday.

Neutral law professionals never came close to saying that Ganassi’s effort to hold onto his young Spanish racing star was anything other than ‘suing’ Palou to stop him from further breaching the pair’s contract, among other accusations Ganassi’s lawyers listed in the filings.

Insider:5 new details revealed by unsealed legal documents in the Palou-Ganassi lawsuit

Call it what you wish. Ganassi says the sides have moved on.

Despite getting swept up in a federal lawsuit, Chip Ganassi and Alex Palou managed to find a way to stick together for the 2023 IndyCar season.

“As far as I know, everything’s okay,” Ganassi said of Palou, who enters the final season of his deal with CGR and, per his contract, is not allowed to engage with conversations outside CGR regarding his IndyCar plans for 2024 and beyond.

Though virtually the entire paddock asserts Palou is headed for an Arrow McLaren ride, the six-time Indy 500-winning owner says there’s always a chance Palou could be back in the No. 10 car next year.

“I’m not privy to (any of Palou’s possible external conversations), but he knows I never flinched one minute Friday, Saturday and Sunday last year on his car, and I think it showed,” Ganassi said. “For everything he put himself through, to (win the season-finale by 30-plus seconds) that was no small feat.”

Ganassi says he was not involved in the conversations to strip his driver of his access to team data outside the shop or during team meetings, saying that call “was a directive from the people that have the most to lose from that data getting out.” Presumably, Ganassi was referencing his team’s managers and engineering minds.

Even with a level of acrimony between the two sides, Ganassi contends they were ultimately able to find ways to cohabitate for at least another year – with Palou keeping his Ganassi IndyCar ride while becoming McLaren F1’s test and reserve driver – by straightening out “some misinformation.”

Exclusive:Alex Palou explains decision behind his effort to leave Ganassi for McLaren

Despite his public spat with Chip Ganassi Racing regarding his future in the days leading up to IndyCar's Toronto race, Alex Palou was allowed to keep his No. 10 NTT Data Honda ride for the Honda Indy Toronto.

“There’s a lot more going on there than you guys might know about," Ganassi said. "But I don’t know if that was entirely of his making.” And so, though McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown accused his rival owner of stymieing Palou’s wishes regarding the future of his career – something Brown prides himself in not doing – Ganassi contended his hardline behavior was that of an owner who puts winning above all.

“How many of those other owners that don’t want to hold onto drivers have 14 championships and six Indy 500 wins?” Ganassi quipped.

Ganassi explains Johnson's surprise exit, Armstrong's oval debut

Ganassi was unafraid to dish on various storylines in and outside the CGR walls.

He contends his rookie former Formula 2 driver Marcus Armstrong is the real deal, after the young Kiwi finished 3rd-fastest during the last of four Open Test sessions at Thermal last month. So good, in fact, that Ganassi may use the driver slated to only drive the road and street races in the No. 11 Honda in 2023 in an oval race. As the owner clarified Friday, two-time 500 winner Takuma Sato is only on the books to drive Texas and the 500, with the rest of the car’s oval races to be determined.

Because the car isn’t in the Leaders Circle payouts (teams not named Andretti are only allowed up to three entrants), Ganassi isn’t pressured to run it every event.

Though Takuma Sato will be joining his fifth team in the last eight seasons, he calls his part-time ride with Chip Ganassi Racing a 'once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.'

“I want to temper my enthusiasm, because he’s not doing all the races, but if he’s not careful, he might find himself in more races,” Ganassi said of Armstrong.

The lack of funding for the No. 11 in 2023 stems from Ganassi being surprised that after two years, Jimmie Johnson would abandon his two-year IndyCar career to return to occasional NASCAR Cup racing and his new ownership stake in Legacy Motor Club.

Insider:Why Jimmie Johnson, best NASCAR driver of his generation, struggled in IndyCar

“I don’t want to say it caught me off-guard, but I could’ve gone another year there with Jimmie and Carvana,” said Ganassi, who said the two sides discussed a 500 one-off for May, but that it “just wasn’t a layup” to do it in 2023.

Ganassi wouldn’t rule out a reunion with Johnson, though. “A lot of these guys, they’re making their plans for themselves. He was fully aware he could do Indy with us this year, but it wasn’t a glove fit,” Ganassi said. “He and I are on as good of terms as ever, not that we were ever on bad terms. I’ll never say never.”

Traditionally an owner with a staunch policy never to discuss contract dealings, when asked about the future of his 500-winning driver Marcus Ericsson, for whom 2023 is a contract year, Ganassi said, “I want him here beyond this year.”

The quips continued:

Chip Ganassi Racing owner Chip Ganassi drives through Gasoline Alley on a wet and rainy Friday, May 28, 2021, during Carb Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

On the idea of some owners longing for a new car: “I’m for evolution, not revolution. What do we need fixed? What do they say is wrong? Whatever we need new, let’s get that, but we don’t need whole, sweeping change of every single component.”

On whether the pull to win a Le Mans overall crown this June is any stronger than CGR’s GT class win in 2016: “People don’t understand, we don’t race any differently because we’re in a different class. We’re racing as hard as we can, no matter what. It’s just another race. You’re racing, looking at the rules, trying to max out the rule book and giving your best effort. We do that every week.”

On a recent flight from Indianapolis to Pittsburgh being captured by VICE for a possible cameo in ‘100 Days to Indy’: “Yeah, that’s why I got into sports – to be on TV.” He followed that line with the ultimate deadpan.

On Indy NXT and the name change of what for years had been known as Indy Lights: “Yeah, that was the problem with that series, the name. Why didn’t we think of that??”

On the loss of tens of thousands of dollars from the Leaders Circle payouts of each of his top-3 cars: “If that’s making or breaking a team, they’ve got bigger problems. Granted, it helps, and it does hurt a little when they take it, but if that’s a death blow to your team, you shouldn’t be here anyways.”

He ended the interview with what can only be described as an “off-the-wall” question to the reporters. To make the toilet flush button in his hospitality unit’s bathroom more clear, Ganassi said he plans to hang a sign above the discreet mechanism.

“I don’t want to put the word ‘flush,’” Ganassi explained. “We’re taking suggestions on what to put there.

“But the leader? ‘Push to pass.’”