Both eligible for membership through family members who’ve served, INDYCAR team owner Chip Ganassi and driver Jimmie Johnson were officially inducted into the Sons of The American Legion on The American Legion National convention stage in Milwaukee on Aug. 31.
After being welcomed into the organization by SAL National Commander Michael Fox, Johnson stepped to the podium and shared some news that delighted delegates to the convention.
“Being able to work with the Legion over the past two years, meet everybody at the racetrack, the honor it’s been, the meaning that’s been behind it, my wife Chandra and I felt very compelled to move to have further involvement with the Legion,” Johnson said. “I’m here today to proudly announce that we want to pledge $1.5 million to The American Legion.”
Johnson, who has driven the No. 48 Carvana-American Legion Honda the entire INDYCAR season, including a fifth-place finish in the Hy-Vee Salute to Farmers 300 in July, joined with Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan for a fireside chat moderated by Past Department of California Commander Autrey James. The trio discussed the INDYCAR season, the Legion’s “Be the One” suicide prevention initiative and what it’s like to represent the nation’s largest veterans organization on tracks throughout North America.
When it came to being a part of “Be the One”, Ganassi said it was special because of his father’s service. “My father was in World War II and drove a tank I think in the 4th Infantry,” he said. “My father never spoke about the war to me. One day I asked him about it very late in his life. I asked him, ‘Dad, why didn’t you ever talk to me about that?’ And with a different look on his face that I’d never seen before, he just said to me, ‘I don’t want to talk about that.’ And I remember thinking to myself … he was carrying something with him. It was inside him, but he didn’t want to let it out or talk about it. Obviously when I heard about the ‘Be the One’ campaign I was all in. That’s why I’m here today.”
For Kanaan, who drove the No. 1 American Legion “Be the One” car to a third-place finish in the Indy 500 last May, representing the suicide-prevention initiative “adds a special meaning to what we do already. Chip has an organization that has been winning for a long time. Our biggest race is the Indy 500 on Memorial Day Weekend. The Legion came aboard with the ‘Be the One’ campaign. For me, it was something extra – an extra motivation doing the race again, especially when you know you’re doing something good, trying to save lives of veterans who were out there protecting us in the past. I can’t thank the Legion enough and all the veterans for the support they give to our team and let us represent them at the racetrack.”
Johnson didn’t know veteran suicides were at such a high rate. “I was shocked to hear the number (of veteran suicides) when this program first came about, to learn about and understand how many veterans were taking their life each and every day. A staggering number, a number that must change. I’m just honored that I’ve been able to be a part of it, this team has been able to be a part of making a change. It’s an honor to represent the Legion, it’s an honor to be a part of something so meaningful, and we’re doing the best that we can each and every day to represent the Legion and help move this cause forward. I’m excited to know that we are making progress. The word is getting out. It’s exciting to know that Chip Ganassi Racing has that kind of reach and can help The American Legion.”
Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR) currently has three drivers in the top five in the INDYCAR Series points standings. “What an enviable position to be in,” Ganassi said. “If I’m going to have this American Legion sponsorship, I’ve got to maintain that No. 1 (spot). The way to do that is to win the championship. We’ve got three shots at it, and we’re pretty excited.”
When asked about why he chooses to hire veterans to be a part of CGR, the owner said it was simple. “I like what they represent. They represent what’s great about our country,” he said. “They understand values that today we don’t talk about: hard work, wanting to do better, wanting to win, wanting to be the best. Not afraid to put in a little elbow grease when you need it. To me, the veterans we have, you don’t have to explain too much to them. They get it. They get what it takes. You don’t have to talk much about, ‘Hey, this is a team. It’s not about individuals.’”
Ganassi also was asked about the hardest part involved with owning a racing team. Laughing, he responded, “The hardest thing about owning a race team is when you see all this work go into a car, and all this time and effort and money, and then it crashes. That’s the hardest thing for a team owner to see.”
Johnson, who has shown marked improvement this season, was asked what he hopes to accomplish during the final two races of the season. “The next couple of races I feel like being able to qualify a little bit further up the grid will put me in a better position come race time,” he said. “I’m still adapting to these cars and learning the tracks. My qualifying performance has been the weak spot of the weekend for me. I always race a lot better than I qualify, so I can push my way up in the grid. I think in the top 15, the top 10 (the final two races of the season) is realistic for me.”
During the chat, Kanaan announced that he’ll be competing in the Ironman World Championship in October in Hawaii. Participants start with a 2.4-mile swim, follow with a 112-mile bicycle ride and then finish with a 26.2-mile marathon.
While competing, Kanaan will be wearing American Legion and “Be the One” branding. “I’m doing that to try to also inspire some people because I think doing this mental health issue, you know, keeping your body healthy helps a lot,” he said. “Having some goal to try to follow. I’m doing it for the veterans. It’s a huge challenge.”
When asked what his most memorable interaction with a veteran or Legionnaire was since the Legion and CGR partnered, Kanaan told the story of having received a letter prior to last year’s Indy 500 from the mother of a servicemember who was killed in combat. Included with the letter was the soldier’s coin.
“We had his name on our car, actually. It was really, really emotional for me, and it was something that brought a lot of meaning to me,” Kanaan said. “It gave me an extra purpose. And I remember talking to his mom after the race and that we finished in the top 10 and how touched I was. Actually, I kept his coin, and it sits in my house right beside my (Indy 500) trophy. That’s definitely something that touched me quite a bit.”
For Ganassi, it’s been all the different interactions he’s had with American Legion Family members at various races this season.
“When each and every one of you that has attended races come up and introduce yourself, I want all of you that have not been to the races to understand the people that are there, how well they represent you,” he said. “I encourage each and every one of you to be there, because they’re some of the most cordial, down-to-earth people I’ve ever met in my life. And they’re in this room right now, and I want to thank each and every one of you for being there for the team.”