(Part one of a two-part series)
During the summer I cover a minor league baseball team (Kane County Cougars, a KC Royals affiliate) and when I was thinking of the angle I wanted to take with Chip Ganassi expanding his team and bringing in Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball, I kept thinking about conversations I have with pro scouts, coaches and front office guys.
The more thought I gave this, the more I realized that this move was all about player development.
Not necessarily in Rahal's case of course. He has won in the past, and he is ready to win now. If he gets the same car underneath him that Scott Dixon and Dario Fanchitti roll off the truck, he will be a contender from the get-go when the season opens in St. Petersburg in just over 90 days, where, oh by the way, he won in 2008.
Just like Marco Andretti, Rahal has been around for a while, so it's still a little strange to think that in reality he is just barely getting started, and won't even turn 22 until Jan. 4. The early start he got to his career has him in a place where he can do big things at a young age.
For Kimball, who turns 26 in February and saw his career take a temporary step back when he missed time after being diagnosed with diabetes in 2007, I feel like this move is all about the future.
In minor league baseball, the objective isn't to win games (although that's nice), championships (even nicer) or to but up big numbers. It is about giving young players the chance to get thousands of inning and at-bats of experience before they are ready for the big time.
While all of that will be at the big league level for him, just like a developing baseball player, his successes will be measured in ways that won't show up on race day. He will be evaluated on how he drives, but at the same time this is about getting him to learn to set up a car, how he handles adversity and how capable he will be down the road to stand up as one of the prominent faces of the team. If he does all of that, he will be put in the position to win down the road.
Ganassi knows this, and it was a brilliant move. Rahal is obviously the heir apparent to Franchitti, and Kimball is in the wings to either join the big team as a third car or act as Dixon's replacement should Ganassi's strange indifference towards Dixon continue.
So you sign a guy with potential, send him to an affiliate (the shop in Brownsburg) and let him see if he can develop into something special. And, like a large-market baseball team, he also has Kimball under contract so that other people can't touch him for a while.
Kimball's learning will be on-the-job, but I don't think any driver could ever want a better situation than he will be going into next year. He will have top-flight equipment and all of the resources necessary to succeed.
Meanwhile, with three successful, high-profile drivers working above him, he can go about his business in an environment that is more than likely designed to keep the pressure off of him as much as possible. While the media and those of us who think we are entitled to an opinion might start wondering why he isn't stringing together top-5 finishes or whatever, he has the knowledge that his boss isn't doing the same.
Kimball has driven in eight different series on two continents over the last nine years. He's done well everywhere he's gone, and has improved from season to season along the way.
Moving up to the IndyCar series is the next natural step in the progression of his career. The fact that he gets to make that move and be in the situation he is in is going to make him a better driver in the long run. That is what development is all about, and he is going to more than likely develop into a pretty good one, especially because he is being given the chance to do just that.