Morris Nunn, the team owner, master engineer and prodigious golfer, has died at home in Tucson, Ariz.; he was 79 years old. Nunn, best known in the USA for his four championship seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing, drivers Jimmy Vasser, Alessandro Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya, was a trackside engineer and wizard who helped transform Chip Ganassi’s CART team into a powerhouse.
Nunn, like so many before him, started his career in the cockpit – at the late age of 24 – having viewed a Cooper Climax and purchased a car off the showroom floor; he eventually realized he was far more adept at building and engineering race cars. He became a Formula 3 car builder and team owner before taking Ensign Racing Team to Formula One in 1973.
While his Formula One team was never truly successful due to a lack of funding – the Walsall, England native was referred to as “No Munn” for that reason – he always put a well-engineered product on the grid. Ensign competed in 102 races until 1982, fielding Derek Daly, Nelson Piquet and Chris Amon among others. Roberto Guerrero also drove for the Ensign team.
Morris Nunn shuttered his team after the 1982 season and came to the USA to work in the CART series, initially working with George Bignotti’s team and later with Patrick Racing when that squad took Emerson Fittipaldi to his first Indianapolis 500 victory in 1989, also winning the CART championship that year.
Nunn joined Ganassi when that team owner was making large changes to his CART racing program, moving his two Reynard race cars to the nascent Honda program and taking on Firestone tires at a time when neither manufacturer was successful. In 1996 he helped guide Zanardi to the rookie title in CART; in the season finale, which Zanardi won, the driver executed “The Pass” on Bryan Herta in Laguna Seca’s downhill Corkscrew turn, which has become legendary.
Never one to accede to the ordinary, self-taught Nunn was known for thinking outside the box and was among the first to indulge in damper technology, working with the Reynard chassis that Ganassi had first selected in 1994, at a time when most used Lola cars. Nunn would constantly work on the car’s suspension geometry and challenge himself, the crews and the drivers to try different solutions to get cars working better.
“I learned so much from him,” said Mike Hull, managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing. “Morris always looked for the alternative solution – or at least considered alternative solutions – and I like that.” Along with Ganassi, Hull took to social media to express his sorrow over the loss of Nunn: “Saddened for Morris Nunn’s passing,” he tweeted. “Pure race guy; one of the architects of the present @CGRTeams culture.”
Nunn guided Ganassi, who proclaimed the engineer “Best in the Paddock in his Era at getting the most out of his drivers. His fingerprints still all over our team,” Ganassi tweeted. Michael Andretti, who drove for Ganassi in 1994 and ushered in the Reynard era with that team when he won at Australia in his first race back from F1, said, “I was fortunate to work with him during the ’94 season and win in Toronto when he was my engineer.”
After helping Montoya to his championship in 1999, Nunn felt the tug of team ownership once more and began Mo Nunn Racing, fielding CART cars for Tony Kanaan, Bryan Herta, Casey Mears and Zanardi, until the latter’s massive accident on the Lausitzring oval in 2001.
Although Mo Nunn Racing never recorded a victory in CART, it did find Victory Lane in its first, 2002 Indy Racing League season, when Felipe Giaffone won on the Kentucky oval. Alex Barron would earn the team’s only other victory on Nashville’s oval in 2003, but Nunn would close shop after the 2004 season and retire to Arizona to golf with his wife Kathryn.
Morris Nunn was an original, someone who designed his first cars with a sheet of paper and natural capabilities. He fully understood what a car needed and what a driver needed and was able to translate that to the track. Even more, he was a free thinker and a delightful character who called Zanardi his “little pineapple” because he was so sweet on the inside and prickly on the outside. RIP Morris; we’re never apt to see the likes of you again.