'WHAT'S INSIDE TEAM SPIRIT'
By Mike Hull, Team Managing Director
You could say July was busy for the Ganassi team, and over the weekend of July 9-10, we had four cars in the IZOD IndyCar Series race at Toronto, the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates cars were at Kentucky; and the Grand-Am Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates team was at Laguna Seca.
Tim Keene runs the Grand-Am program, and if neither Chip nor I are able to be at their races physically, we can certainly depend on our version of TK and his guys to do what's right for everybody. Tim has been with us since he tried to back over Chip at Nazareth with the transporter. He represents our culture. We're fortunate that with planes and because the Rolex Series often races on a Saturday, we can often join them. However, given that IndyCar was in the east and Grand-Am was way out west, we weren't able to do that this time.
The reason we're able to keep such a hectic schedule without going insane is because we just really like to race – not just the competition side but the organizational side, the strategic side and the interaction with the drivers, crews, and sponsors. When it was just an IndyCar operation in Indianapolis (although Chip had already bought a controlling stake in the NASCAR team) Chip said, “I think we ought to think about starting a sports car team and Grand-Am seems the right choice considering all our partnerships.” Initially I was somewhat resistant to that, to be perfectly candid, but I found out that by having multiple programs going on – assuming they're managed correctly – you learn so much, because everyone shares. It helps you with racecraft and technology crossover to see it from a variety of different perspectives. You quickly realize that there's still so much to learn!
So, having the Grand-Am team has been hugely beneficial. I know there are teams that run a variety of programs who are not successful, and who have to go back and rebuild. But in our case, Chip gives everybody everything they need to succeed to it's up to us to make it work.
Another great aspect of the breadth of Chip's operation is the team spirit that it invokes. All three arms of CGR watch each others' races: I'm getting texts from our Cup guys all the time, because they're paying such close attention and asking questions. If our races don't directly conflict, they're asking for real detailed information – “Why did you pit on that lap, or why didn't you pit? What adjustments did you just make?” and so on. But it's best of all when I get to all the races, and really see how much they value the preparation side of racing as much as the racing itself.
Obviously, Wayne Taylor's group at SunTrust Racing has upped their performance significantly to close up on us in the Grand-Am championship, and it was great that Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas got those wins at Road America and New Jersey to pull a gap again. The thing is, we never ever sit on our hands – we never underestimate the opposition, and the challenges in Grand-Am have been brewing for years. It's not just SunTrust, either, as we saw when Bob Stallings' team won at Laguna Seca. There's a core group there who compete against you hammer and tong, race in, race out, and they all have amazing desire and drive to be successful.
When we're lucky enough to win a race, we know how hard it is, and though we've won a lot of races, it means that you've beaten great race teams. When we first joined, wow, they stuck it to us pretty good! We had to learn how to race in that arena, and it took us a while to understand the long-distance races. We were terrible at those in the beginning – not for lack of trying, but not knowing how to be fully prepared. Although your actual duties and racecraft is the same from the shorter to the longer races, it demands a different mentality from everyone on the team. Our group labored hard together to iron out those wrinkles.
One of this year's challenges for our TELMEX Grand-Am guys has been the switch to Continental tires, because different manufacturers will create tires that behave in a different way. To race well, the consistency for a long run creates the track position for the end of the race, and that's what takes time to get right with a new tire. So whenever they tweak their tires, we have to tweak the setup.
Another challenge is Grand-Am's constant endeavor to equalize the performance of the cars. It's something you have to work hard to overcome because every time you think you've got it figured out, they come back and squeeze you harder. But it's the right thing to do, in my opinion. Sometimes we're on the wrong end – like now there are rules that we feel favor a couple of manufacturers over BMW – but we don't worry because we're confident Grand-Am will fix it. We just continue to work hard on our product for the long-term.
On the IndyCar side, with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, we work equally hard on consistency. If we have a consistently competitive product with really good people involved, it's the best opportunity to win big races followed by championships. That's what we try to do. It is a team sport, it's not just about individuals, like say, golf or tennis; it's about the skills and experience you have as a team. Combining cohesive people with an experienced tandem like a Dario or a Scott, continues to feed the product to get the results needed. So some days when you finish third and fifth, like Scott and Dario did in Iowa, it's not what you set out to do – but guess what? You gave it everything and so did the drivers, and that's as good as we were that night. (That pass that Marco put on Dario and then TK, by the way, was worth the price of admission!) But what helps is that inner confidence in our product that we'll come back even stronger at the next race. We did, and scored a 1-2 in Toronto.
I've said it before: if you put a team together and they win together, it's a lot easier to win the next one. People help each other, mentor each other to win, and we're really lucky that we've had resource in place for a long time with an owner who's aggressively competitive to push us to do that. That makes a massive difference. It's defining.
After the double disappointment of Indy, we worked really hard to understand how to improve our product. What happened in qualifying happened to both cars and we made a mistake in the method that we used for both cars. In those cases, we look at the system, look at everything that we do, and understand as a group what happened and how it can be remedied. So if five years from now it's an entirely different personnel group running the No. 10 car, for example, there will be a method in place whereby that same mistake can't happen again.
The human errors that were made at Indy, for example, I found personally disappointing – it took me several days to get over it – but the proof of our consistency and endeavor and team spirit could be seen in the results two and three weeks later at Texas and Milwaukee. If we were the type of team to win one or perhaps two races a year, or if we won a solitary championship and weren't contending for the title for the next three or four years, then I'd say we needed to make big, big changes. But that clearly isn't the case. Now, that comment isn't supposed to invite complacency! It's a statement that should feed and fortify results.
I think Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball are doing a good job as a part of our IndyCar operation, too. They're very different in terms of where they are on the learning curve. They're having results that parallel their individual experience levels. I read some stuff about them perhaps being treated unfairly by the senior half of the Chip Ganassi Racing team, which is absolutely not true – I'd take a lie detector test for that one! They have access to every bit of information from not only each other's cars, but also what is generated by the Nos. 9 and 10 cars. They sit down with those guys, they do overlays, they do drive style comparisons, and we try to help them in every way. The difference is in their experience level – which is continuing to improve, obviously – and the fact that we're building a new team organization there. Some key people moved over from the Target team, with an amazing guy in Mitch Davis pushing the group, but the rest of the team was assembled, and although you try to get everyone working together as a team as soon as you can, they can't possibly get everything right on the flow side. Who does?!
But they get a lot of things right and I think that is reflected by, for example, Graham's second place at Milwaukee and how well he was running at Toronto. The difference for our newest group and someone who starts a team from scratch is that they have the CGR resource at their disposal, so the maturation process for them to gel should be significantly reduced.
That branch of the team also has a very strong support system with Service Central and Novo Nordisk. We're building those brands, just as we have been building the Target brand for 21 years. So, in every respect, the No. 38/83 team is doing the same as the Target team, but it's simply just beginning: It takes time. The original Ganassi team wasn't instantly successful, but when we hit our stride, we became one of the front runners.
Both Graham and Charlie have enormous ability and I think they benefit from seeing the knowledge base from the historical Indy Car database. Dario and Scott, in themselves, have very different driving styles but what they do is compare what each other has done with his car in terms of setup direction, and look at the racetrack conditions to see how that affected the decisions made on the setup. Think about the fact that Dario and Scott have race historical data from guys like Arie Luyendyk, Michael Andretti, Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Dan Wheldon, to combine with each other. Now Graham and Charlie do the same thing, first with themselves and then with the other two guys – and believe me, Dario and Scott are looking at what Graham and Charlie do, too. What's good about 2011 for the Target drivers is that they now have a deeper pool of information than they had a year ago, and it has already helped them.
Pit stops have come in for a lot of attention recently, especially given how close the battles are on the track, because as we know, the quality of the stops can make a huge difference to the outcome of a race. I should knock on wood here, I suppose, but we are known as one of the better teams for pit work. Of course, all of our guys are human, and we can all make mistakes. But what's crucial is not necessarily how few mistakes you make but your recovery from them and, subsequently, the understanding of why those mistakes happened and what can be done to improve in future. Chip has a simple statement that is very applicable to pit stops – “Do the obvious things right.”
I like to watch guys in the pit crews of other teams and see how they operate, and just recently, at Iowa, I was watching the outside-rear tire changer on the No. 3 Penske. He is as good as anyone in pit lane and I'd never even seen him before! He's so conscientious, he works hard, he pays attention to his equipment and, as I was watching him, I could see he was studying us, watching what our guys were doing. That's the mark of a good pit crew member, and that's why Penske are as good as they are – they look at everything with eyes wide open. Before the race, I sincerely said to him (I don't even know his name, to be honest), “Hey man, you do a great job.” We carefully watch with an open mind, as it makes all of us better.
In the middle of a race season, I feel quite far removed from our NASCAR team, but I can say this: with six races to go before the Chase, when you're not right up there, either in, or on the fringes of the top 12, you need to do everything in your power to win a race…or two! That's the bottom line. Racing has always been about incentive, to do what you've got to do to succeed, and that is the mark of any one of those 43 drivers in a Sprint Cup Series race. Personally, I applaud NASCAR for putting the new regulation in there, because it encourages all those with unrealistic shots at getting into the top 10 on points to keep pushing hard to get wins and fill the 11th and 12th places in the Chase. It keeps every individual working on every team striving for a championship.
In the Cup races that I've attended this year, it appears that the Earnhardt-Childress Racing engines with the Chevrolet support is as good as anything I've seen anywhere, so while removed from a position to compare what we have to the Hendrick Chevrolet engine operation; our guys are absolutely on the case, all the time. General Motors has very motivated people on site, doing the same thing. Chip has always made sure that the support system of every part of his teams in every category with partners is as strong as the best individuals within it, so there's no reason why we won't be able to fight on equal terms with the rest of the field in the run-up to the Chase. That's only the starting point, and then you build it upward. Combining representative cars supported by unselfish people with great partners defines all branches of Chip Ganassi Racing.
Thank you for reading, and I look forward to getting back with you soon.