Mike Hull's Blog: Coping with Kits, Bounties and Tempers
So there's a $25,000 bounty on the heads of our boys Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas in the Grand-Am Rolex Series. My first thought was, “Can we stick a Ford engine in our 02 car and run against them?!” But seriously, it's a great compliment for what we've achieved and worked hard to do, and it's a representation of flawless execution. Our Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Grand-Am guys have done a fantastic job in the series since 2004, and it's been with a variation of drivers, variation in crew members, two different engine manufacturers and three different tire manufacturers. The only common denominator has been our guys, so to continue our success while all those things have been changing, our guys have worked really, really hard, just as all our guys do throughout Chip Ganassi Racing.
We haven't won races because we've been necessarily better than everyone else. We've won races because some of our competitors have not made the same calls in the pits, or have fallen off the racetrack, and so on, while our guys just keep pounding away, closer to mistake-free than our rivals. But I hope someone does win that $25k, because I know they work just as hard as we do.
As I mentioned in my last blog, we work very hard to get the maximum out of our entire package – both the aero and mechanical – and we combine that with the BMW engine, which Steve Dinan works so hard on. He is one of the great things about that engine. He's a racer; he understands the engine is part of a complete package and he listens carefully to what the drivers have to say about the driveability of the engine. I'm not sure it's absolutely the most powerful – in a straight line, we're certainly not the fastest car – but we have great drivability and Steve works with a 24-7 attitude to make that happen. When we raced with TRD with Lexus engines, Kevin Kuchta was the same way and did an awesome job for us. So we're lucky to have been involved with two different engine companies and two great guys making things happen for us.
It can get frustrating when you've worked so hard for success, that when you achieve it, there are people trying to stop you from reaping the rewards by putting further restrictions on the rule book. In a way, Dinan paid the price of being involved with our team; if he'd been with a team that ran around in 10th all the time because other parts of the package weren't good enough, he wouldn't have faced the challenges he's had to. But the flipside is that when your product is pushed to the edge, you find its weaknesses quicker. And another interesting point is that had he been working with a mid-grid team, Dinan and his operation wouldn't have been scrutinized so much. His continued success tells everyone – be it a TV viewer, a fan at the track, a rival or an official – that our success is legitimate and our product is legal. If you have an engine builder who supplies to an uncompetitive car, he can run around illegally all day long and no one will really know. But when you've got a Dinan product running at the
front all the time, you know it's abiding by the rules.
Of course, what helps Steve get the information he needs is the excellent feedback of the drivers. Scott, given his vast wealth of experience, is someone you'd expect to deliver good feedback, but what he's also done is create almost a clone of himself in Memo! That's really good, because the ideal setup is now very similar for both guys, they understand each other completely, they deliver consistent feedback to Steve, and they understand consideration of everyone around them. The degree of success to which we now have a bounty on our heads is because the Rojas side of the equation has justified what Carlos Slim wanted a long time ago, which was bringing a driver from Mexico into the visibility of everyone in racing. That in itself is a great achievement and the Telmex driver development program is very reflective of what Memo has done to increase its visibility.
With the way our season's been going, I haven't been able to attend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events for a while, so I went to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Tuesday to watch the Goodyear test and to chat with Juan Montoya and his crew chief Brian Pattie. Those guys are working really hard, and I don't think a lot of people realize how competitive it is in Cup – or how desperate some of the people you're racing against are to stop you from getting a top-10 finish! They don't want you to finish in front of them, and although there aren't 41 of them who can stop Juan and Jamie McMurray, there' are probably 25 who can.
I think that's what Juan and Jamie are going through at the moment – both how competitive the field is and the fact that they're up against drivers who want to carnivorously kick their asses. So our boys are working very hard to get to the front, and our qualifying efforts are very reflective of how much progress they're making. With that many cars out there, you're not going to qualify at the front consistently unless you've got a really good car, and that's what the No. 42 and No. 1 have been doing.
Juan has obviously been in the news this past week after a run-in with another driver at Richmond, but I don't want him to lose his fire. That's what everyone here enjoys about him so much – he's a free spirit; he just enjoys racing for the pure joy of it. He hasn't been tamed. He certainly lives within the confines of what it takes to be a successful race driver in his current branch of the sport, but at the same time, Juan is the same driver who drove IndyCars and Formula 1 cars, and that personality, combined with absolutely amazing talent, is what we enjoy about him.
I was disappointed with what went on at Richmond, but disappointed in the sense that I just wish we could see Juan race all the way to the end of a race, relatively trouble-free. He represents all of us in racing, but he also represents a demographic that needs to run at the front in NASCAR, too. It's a fan base that should have more attention.
One year, I think it was 2000, when Juan was racing IndyCars for us, we were at Vancouver and when the race was over, CART did their best but couldn't restrain the immense crowd that wanted to get into the transporter area, so finally the security people gave up. The Hispanic spectators around our transporters were so deep that we literally could not get our equipment to the tailgate of our truck for 90 minutes. We too, had to give up. Juan stood out there for quite a while signing autographs, but then he had to give up as well, because he was getting trampled in the stampede. Amazing scenes. And the thing is, almost everywhere we went we encountered that fervor.
Another cool memory: When Juan signed with Chip to drive NASCAR, he was in the middle of the Formula 1 season, and was still abroad. So when Chip and I arrived back at the Los Angeles airport, we got out of the plane, and when the golf cart came to take us the 50 feet or whatever to the terminal, the driver kept looking around and up at the plane. Chip said, “OK, let's go. What's up?” and the guy says, “I was waiting for Juan Montoya to get out of your airplane.” This was only four or five days after the announcement. Chip says, “Sorry, he's not with us,” and the guy replies, “Oh, that's too bad. Chip, thank you very much for bringing Juan back to America. We love watching him race.” That was a really neat thing. This would all mean less if he wasn't such a great driver, though. When he was in our IndyCar team, I was his spotter for the oval races and standing up there and watching him change his drive style to pass somebody was quite remarkable.
Speaking of IndyCars, we're roughly a quarter of the way through the IZOD IndyCar Series season, and if I'm assessing the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team, I'd guess the words to choose would be “needs some work.” We've been pretty good, and I'm well aware there are some people who'd give their eye teeth to have the performance we've had in the opening four events. To have Dario Franchitti either leading the championship or almost leading the championship, depending which week it is, has to also be seen as gratifying. It certainly validates the attitude about how hard work creates success. But as a team, we'd like to be better than we are.
In racing, you always need battles between teams and it's not a socialist system: everyone isn't equal, even with spec cars. If the series devoted time trying to create equality in racing, we'd dig ourselves a hole in the ground and never come out. So to be honest, I'm grateful to work on a race team that has the opportunity to go race week in and week out against what is probably historically the best race team since 1972. Team Penske does have a 20-year jump on us, so we're making up for lost time, so it's great to not just be in the same race as them but actually compete against them for the win (there's a big difference!). Of course, our organizations are very different from each other. We're more blue-collar guys, a bunch of free spirits who enjoy racing and do it well, and we're competing against this institutional organization, a buttoned-up and buttoned-down team. But these two teams achieve roughly the same goals. Neither one is better than the other; neither one is more right than the other. It's ju
st a great and thrilling battle that inspires everyone, including our drivers.
We also are inspired by our drivers. For example, Scott Dixon has had appalling luck this year, twice in four races being taken out of contention through no fault of his own, and is now 84 points behind the championship leader, Will Power. But Scott doesn't need any boost, mentally, to turn around and give 110 percent the very next time he climbs into the car. Every day, he comes back with the mindset of, “I'm going to get it done – I'm going to get the most out of it today.” You don't need a psychiatrist to get his head back in the game. He's immediately right back on point when it counts. He might seem like a real quiet guy, but he's too competitive to take it well when things don't go his way, and his response is to bounce right back.
The fact that Scott and Dario have had contrasting fortunes hasn't caused friction within the team, either. You want your teammate to be the fastest guy on the face of the planet because if he is, what you learn is how to be the fastest guy on the face of the planet! If your teammate isn't going as fast as you want to go, your learning curve will get stunted. The key to consistently finishing at the front and winning races is to have a fast teammate, and one that is completely unselfish. And one of the greatest things about having a lineup of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon is that they're totally committed to each other in an unselfish manner. So while one might feel a little bit pissed if the other wins, they also know that they contributed to that win. That goes against the grain for the way a lot of people operate, be it at work, in sport or in general life. Yet that's how it is on the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team.
I feel particularly bad for Scott at the moment, because over the winter and ever since, he's worked so hard on his physical training, he's spent an enormous amount of time with his engineer and his group of people, and he's very, very intent at winning races which lead to winning championships. Short of flying objects and spinning objects, he'd be in the thick of the championship hunt right now. But hey, let's remember that Dario was 59 points out of the championship lead with four races remaining last year and he came back and won the title. So Scott being 84 points out with no less than 13 rounds to go is not a disaster. We're not out of it, and not a single person on the No. 9 team thinks we are. We'll stay after it.
Now our attention turns to the Indy 500. There's nothing like the atmosphere there, and if you go to the Speedway on raceday, you'll never do it only once. There's nothing like the atmosphere, the feel, the intensity of that event. You'll feel some of that at various other big motorsports events, but not to the same extent as at Indy 500. It's the spectators who make that event so special; the 300,000 people are all engaged from the time they arrive until well after the race is over, and the race team people have that sense, too. For us, that intensity starts with the first day of practice and just builds and builds until raceday, we're transmitting that to the fans, and it's coming right back at us! And so you can imagine that if we don't win the race, it's well over 11 months of anticipation to get ready for the next one. That's how important and significant that race is to everyone in pit lane.
Dario's performance there last year was quite remarkable. Over the years, we've watched drivers get up for that race in that way, but in the final third of the race, they've seen it slip away, often through no major fault of their own. The fastest guy doesn't always win that race. So what happened last year with Dario – where he led 155 laps of the 200, including the final one – was quite an exception. However, we'd be perfectly happy if, later this month, Dario and Scott were able to turn that from an exception into the start of a trend!
My comments regarding the series in 2012 have attracted some attention, so let me lay out what I consider to be the ideal situation. IndyCar racing needs to move forward over the next few years as a premier series. It needs to find ways to elevate its brand rather than sticking to being a spec series. Spec car racing has driven the fan base away. Fans have voted on various websites and the clear majority show they want to return to seeing innovation. I'm not an expert; I don't know how we get there. But I do know that continuing to race a new Dallara that is still spec car is no different to what we're currently racing.
The best thing about what's happening today, whichever side you're on, is that people are talking about it. The aero kit issue just happens to be what's lit the fuse. Personally, I think we need aero kits. Some of them are thinking that spending money to create the engineering necessary for an aero kit would probably cost upward of $2m and I think that's what the owners are upside down about; that's what they see. But I don't think that's the way to skin the cat here. I think we shouldn't look at this thing with the old-school mentality of what it costs us to go racing.
So after thinking about it, after listening to what everyone has to say, after talking to some people about it, I think the answer is to give the car manufacturing companies coming into the series a branding opportunity. They need to have an opportunity to identify their particular engine on the racetrack. They shouldn't be spending over $30m to develop a race engine that's then put into a spec car, a Dallara-bodied car! So let's say that Chip Ganassi Racing decides to become a Chevy customer, a Honda customer or a Lotus customer and we're willing to commit to one of them for three to five years. Wouldn't it be better, in our lease price, to have that bodykit included, and have the payment of that car amortized over three to five years, along with replacement parts? It's a capital investment, yes, but not up front.
Why don't we change the model of what we're doing? Why don't we take that model away from the individual owners in terms of the engineering staff required to develop an aero kit, give it to the engine companies so that they can get the branding that they need, through using their aero kit. That way, we can all get what we want – innovation to intrigue the fan base and ourselves and branding for the manufacturer. Everybody wins. This isn't a revolutionary idea; I didn't just come up with this. NASCAR's doing it with a high degree of success. Their teams have banded together, based on their four manufacturers, and they share the engineering resource and the manufacturer shares it across the teams. We should be doing that in IndyCar racing.
We're told that in the first week of September we'll be given the full range of dimensions we can work within for the aero kits, so companies will have from September until May to come up with their designs. An aero kit, by definition, will be visible surfaces – which means sidepods, engine cover, wing trim and aero trim/attachment pieces. What you cannot tweak are radiator placement, and therefore inlets/exits, underwing, and front and rear main planes. That's it. So if a major manufacturing company, with the resources it has, says it cannot provide for its race teams proper aero kits in eight months, I have a tough time believing that.
So in my opinion, IndyCar should say, “OK, kits are go,” and let it float out there and let it happen. Because, guess what: the engine manufacturers are going to get after it. And it still leaves teams with the choice: they don't have to do it. They have the default option of the Dallara. But if they're speaking to engine companies, I'm sure they're also going to be talking about aero kit supply, too! And we'll start seeing changes from race to race, too. Who knows, once we start comparing the aero map from the Dallara kit to the aero map of the kit from the engine company, we may run the manufacturer's aero kit at Indy, but then switch to the Dallara kit for the very different oval demands of, say, Milwaukee. Isn't that great? All of a sudden, the fans are saying, “Wow, Ganassi are running the Dallara kit. Why are they doing that?” and suddenly you've got those kind of discussions and talk on forums. We need to provide the avenue for to attract attention from fans who are interested in engineering as well as racing.
Last week, I fielded a phone call from one of the team owners and he said, “That Eddie Gossage took us apart,” and that's true. But it shouldn't surprise us, because we get used to hearing just the views of people who are closest to us – the ones we race with and against every weekend and who naturally share similar goals. But here is someone looking at it from a different angle altogether. Is Eddie right all the time? No. But is he wrong all the time? No. It's the perspective that counts, and the outside perception of who we are and what we're doing. That's what needs tweaking, and my response was: “We should pay attention to that guy because there's something to be learned. We sit around and bitch about certain track promoters and/or owners not doing enough to fill the grandstands. But when we go to Texas Motor Speedway, the seats are filled, so we should listen to this guy.”
OK, well thank you for listening to me! I suspect I'll have many conversations like this with fans over the course of May at Indy. See you there!