IndyCar driver Ryan Briscoe (AP file photo)
INDIANAPOLIS — Ryan Briscoe kept waiting for a full-time IndyCar opening.
He finally got his wish, and with the series’ top team.
The former Indianapolis 500 pole winner was hired by Chip Ganassi on Friday as the fourth driver on the series’ most dominant team and just eight days after Briscoe and his wife welcomed a new baby girl, Finley. Briscoe will fill the vacancy left by Dario Franchitti’s retirement.
“Nope, there’s nothing left on my Christmas list,” Briscoe said with a laugh after the three-year deal was announced. “That’s it.”
Briscoe, an Australian, won’t need many introductions at team headquarters.
He’ll join New Zealand’s Scott Dixon, the reigning series champ who will chase a fourth career points title in 2014; newly-hired Brazilian Tony Kanaan, the reigning Indianapolis 500 champ who is moving into Franchitti’s familiar No. 10 car, and Charlie Kimball, who won his first race at Mid-Ohio last summer and is arguably the best young American in the series.
Plus, Briscoe returns to the team that introduced him to IndyCar racing in 2005. Briscoe spent one season with Target Chip Ganassi, but the two sides parted ways after the season and weren’t reunited again until May when Briscoe, the 2012 Indy 500 pole winner, drove the No. 8 car to a season-best 12th.
What’s changed in those eight years? Plenty.
“When I came here in ‘05, I knew nothing about the sport,” Briscoe said. “I’d been brought up in Europe, trying to make it in Formula One and I really had no appreciation for IndyCar racing. Now, I’ve got a lot of experience, I’ve won a lot of races and I know what it’s all about.”
Experience is one of the big reasons Ganassi wanted Briscoe on a team that has won five of the last six series championships and three of the last six Indianapolis 500s.
So he chose a guy who has made 109 IndyCar starts, won 12 poles and eight races and has driven for four different teams including Penske Racing, Ganassi’s biggest rival.
But after losing his ride with Penske after the 2012 season, the last of his five with the team, Briscoe was so determined to find a full-time job that he was willing to sit out the entire season. Ganassi gave him the chance to race at Indy, and Panther Racing hired Briscoe for six races after a midseason split with driver JR Hildebrand.
Apparently, Ganassi wasn’t the only one who wanted Briscoe. The Aussie driver said he was nearing a deal with an undisclosed team before Franchitti retired and Ganassi called.
“Ryan was the best fit possible with his experience and that goes a long way toward success,” Ganassi said during a news conference during the annual Performance Racing Industry convention in Indianapolis.
Some of those at team headquarters never wanted Briscoe to leave in the first place.
“From the day I first met Ryan and he was on the race team, he had a great amount of passion and when you have that passion and that talent, you don’t want to lose that,” Ganassi team manager Mike Hull said. “You want that to be a part of your organization.”
The retirement of Franchitti and the addition of Briscoe aren’t the only major changes Ganassi is making.
In October, he announced he was dumping the Honda engine to go with Chevrolet and that he had hired Kanaan — a move that was expected to reunite the two close friends and former teammates.
Instead, Franchitti retired and urged Kanaan to replace him in the No. 10 car.
“I didn’t know how to talk to my best friend when he broke the (retirement) news to me, and then he said ‘It would be really cool if you drove the Target car. I think that would make my retirement easier,’” said Kanaan, recalling the conversation. “I’m happy to do it, I’m extremely excited and it’s hard shoes to fill.”
Briscoe may have the tougher job.
Briscoe said he did get some rest Thursday night after arriving in Indy, something that will be sparse while trying to help his wife, Nicole, with a new baby and cram for his new job before the March 30 season opener at St. Petersburg, Fla.
“I feel like one of the luckiest guy out there,” he said. “I think it’s going to be an unbelievable year.”