Target era in Indy car racing takes checkered flag today

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SONOMA, Calif. — He’s about to embark on his final ride with a familiar bullseye logo on his red race car, and Scott Dixon loved the symbolism in that.

The “Iceman” has relished being one of the hunted drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series as a four-time series champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner, so it was only natural for Dixon to develop an emotional attachment to representing Target with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Target’s 27-year run with Ganassi’s Indy car program comes to a close when Dixon’s No. 9 Chevrolet rolls off the line in today’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. Dixon won this race last year to capture the series title, so he will still have the proverbial bullseye on his back as one of the drivers to beat.

The season finale marks the end of a memorable sponsorship era. Ganassi’s Indy car team won 101 races, 11 season championships and four Indy 500s with Target as its anchor team sponsor.

“It’s going to be emotional, for sure,” Dixon said. “Sonoma is renowned for being a big Target event, 450 to 500-plus guests here. We’ve known about it for a little while. I don’t know, it will be emotional for Chip, 27 years, and 15 years I’ve been with the team. Even the first year, I wasn’t exactly a Target car, but it still had Target sponsorship on it. I’ve always had a bullseye on it.

“It definitely started me reminiscing about when I first joined the team, my first win with them (Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2003), my first championship (2003), what we’ve achieved as well as the highs of other teammates, be it Dan (Wheldon) or Dario (Franchitti), the championships and everything. The biggest thing for me has been the relationships and friendships I’ve made out of it and that’s something that will continue on forever. That’s not something that will end. The car will just look different.”

Dixon’s reflections take him to when he first saw a Target-sponsored Ganassi car in person. He was young and full of ambition, looking to develop contacts with an Indy Lights team when he attended his first Indy car race in Vancouver in 1997.

“Alex Zanardi come from the back and almost won the race,” Dixon said. “I remember it clear as day. It was the same week Princess Diana died.

“You have dreams when you’re there, you’re only 16 or 17. That was a hell of an experience, that’s why it’s still etched in my mind.”

The Australian-born New Zealander didn’t race in America until 1999 in Indy Lights, won the Lights title in 2000 and moved up to Indy cars with PacWest Racing in 2001. He joined Ganassi four races into the 2002 season. Since his arrival, no driver has been more successful.

“I’m proud to be a part of it,” said Dixon, 36. “It’s been bigger and better than I could have ever imagined. I’m just very thankful. There’s so many different programs that I’ve been a part of with Target, whether it’s Target House, St. Jude (Children’s Hospital), the national meetings or the athlete programs. There’s such a wide net on it, professionally and personally.”

Ganassi sounded a lot like Dixon in expressing his gratitude for how the team has benefited from the sponsorship.

“You have a company, as I’ve said many times before, that is the greatest sponsor of all time,” the team owner said. “It’s been in some respects the only sponsor that’s been with us this amount of time. Obviously they had a lot to do with the development of this team, a lot to do with the development of me as a person, personally as well as professionally. It’s bittersweet in a way, but things move on. I understand how these things happen and we’ll move on.”

Target came on board when Ganassi bought Patrick Racing in 1990. The deal was for one year, but the sponsor saw the benefit of the partnership and kept coming back. Television advertisements featuring Zanardi, Jimmy Vasser and Juan Pablo Montoya boosted the racing relationship in the 1990s.

“They probably did more for the sport than they did for the team,” Ganassi said. “I think we were lucky to have those at a time when CART at the time was on an upswing, and they were squarely part of that. Because of those ads, they generated a lot of buzz and talk. People are still talking about the racing the motorhomes or going through the store with shopping carts or radio-controlled cars that a lot of guys had fun with.

“Another thing you take away is all the great things they were involved in with the team, starting with Zanardi and ‘The Pass’ at Laguna Seca (to beat Bryan Herta in 1996) and then the championship on the same day for Jimmy. And everything that has happened since then has been one (memory) after another.

“There was a time in racing when there was like Roger (Penske) and Carl Haas and nobody else getting in that (ownership) door, and the only way to get in that door was to go create your own door. What Target helped us do was create our own way of doing it.”

Dixon’s recollections prompted him to wonder aloud about the history of the No. 9 Target-sponsored Ganassi car. Eddie Cheever was first to run the No. 9 in 1992, then Juan Pablo Montoya won the 2000 Indy 500 in it and Jeff Ward in 2002, before Dixon first had the number in 2003 when he won his first championship.

“Target has been an amazing sponsor,” Dixon said. “But the team is still going to be racing for race wins and championships. It’s just a change in direction and a change in color.”

The final 30-minute warmup practice from Sonoma Raceway starts at 2 p.m. ET today and streams live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. Coverage of the 85-lap race begins at 6:30 p.m. on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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