MIKE HULL: TWO INTENSE FOR COMFORT
By Mike Hull, on RACER.com
We find ourselves in two intense championship battles, one of which will be decided this weekend at Mid-Ohio. That's the Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates arm of Chip's operation, as we tackle the Grand Am Rolex Series.
We only have to finish 15th or 16th in the Daytona Prototype class and since I understand there are only going to be nine or 10 DP cars there, I guess that means we're getting close. However, in order to achieve the drivers' championship for both Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas, both drivers need to finish having had a minimum of 30 minutes of green-flag time or a little over an hour total time.
Equally important for us is the engine manufacturers' championship and our BMW partners are two points in arrears of Chevrolet, a tough adversary. So, our guys need to win. If we could get the title trifecta, we could define that as being a totally successful season.
Given my weekend role with Target Chip Ganassi Racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series team and the way this season has gone so far as it's headed into the final three rounds, you'll understand the focus on that. However, before we get to the Dario vs. Will Power championship battle, let's talk about Scott Dixon. In a story in the latest issue of RACER magazine, I'm quoted as saying, “Short of being hit by a meteorite, I think we've seen it all this year.…” but I was wrong! At Baltimore there was a log-jam down at the hairpin, and Scott managed to get both rear tires punctured by two cars behind running into him. Unbelievable!
In the timing stand, we knew he'd come to a halt but didn't know what kind of damage he had. You know they have this rule about entering a closed pit, meaning you have to come back in and do a full pit stop when the pit's actually open. (By the way, who knew it was going to take them 20 minutes to open the pits?) But when Scott said on the radio, “Hey, I have two flat tires here,” we said, “Well maybe you should come and join us here and we'll see what we can do for you.” By the time he crawled around to pit lane, they had the replay of the incident on TV. Well, that wasn't a meteorite – that was a minefield!
What's fascinating about this is that, because we had no history at Baltimore, we'd based our race plan on the recent history of the Honda Indy at Toronto. In Toronto this year, there were 32 laps of yellow out of an 85-lap race. Now, going into Baltimore, looking at the racetrack and looking at the incidents that had occurred in the sessions through the weekend, we were convinced we'd have over 20 laps of yellow in the 75-lap race. Had there not been…well, I don't know what to call it – the yellow they had where we followed the pace car for eternity – there would have been possibly less than 10 total laps of yellow in Baltimore. Nobody would have predicted before the race began.
Scott and I were talking about this a few days later. He'll normally crush you if he thinks you've screwed up the strategy, but this time he said, “You know, we had the right strategy, we just didn't have any yellows at the front end of the race!” What we did with him – qualifying in 10th and being very street-race processional at best in 10th place – because the fuel windows were so large, we opted to come in early hoping there would be a yellow in the first segment, which would jump us closer to the front. Still, I don't think we'll complain about fifth place: We finished with a whole car, and finished five positions in front of where we qualified. The yellows didn't fall our way with the strategy, but it was fairly satisfactory considering everything that happened around us.
Scott's stunt on the Friday obviously gave us more work, but it did not dent his bravery the next day, did it? He was throwing that car around in his very next session. But that's Scott Dixon. He is truly a driver who has that ability to first of all, Etch-a-Sketch what happened to him prior and work to achieve the most he can every moment he's in the car. That's just the nature of who he is which is really good.
I was watching the Golf channel Tuesday night, and saw one of the best sports interview programs on television, the David Feherty program, and he was interviewing Greg Norman. He asked him, “What was it like to be No. 1 in the world?” I think there's a fair comparison to race drivers because I think a lot of them concentrate so much on being No. 1 that they never get there. What Norman said was, “I didn't work to be No. 1. I worked to be the best every day.” And that's Scott Dixon, right there. He works hard to be the best every day. He doesn't always get there, but at the end of the day he knows he gave everything he could along with the guys around him. That represents us as well as who he is. I think it's a very clear parallel. Otherwise, it would be paralyzing.
His teammate, Dario, is also focused. I think that's different than being composed. I don't think it involves a Screen Actor's Guild award, you know? I think what happens internally is that he realizes – and the people around him realize – that we have a common purpose and we work hard together toward that goal. I think he's satisfied with the fact that he's surrounded by people who are working to help him achieve something that very few people have achieved in their lifetime and that's to win the IndyCar championship. Yeah, he's done it before, but we hope that we can do it together with him again.
I don't think he's suicidal and I don't think he's emotional about it: He's still leading the championship, after all! But I think last year proves that he's not going to get overwrought. At this point last year he was behind in the points, but he understood that if everyone worked really hard together, he could win the title and I don't think this year is any different. I think we approach it the same way. The competition we face is very fierce. They are very much directed and very focused. They are doing the same things to win that we're doing. I think that's what makes it fun.
But, you know what? His name isn't on the trophy if he finishes second. So maybe that's where the pressure is. The pressure comes from how much he respects the lineage he represents, that's what's important to him, in addition to what we are together. Will Power is very driven this year to win, and Dario and his guys are equally driven, and that isn't lost on any of us. It's head-down through Las Vegas.
We weren't surprised by the edge Penske had over us at Sonoma, even on the back of our excellent 1-2 in Mid-Ohio. We always operate as if we're expecting that to happen at every race. We expect ourselves to be fast but we expect them to be fast and, to be truthful about it, I think both organizations have the capacity to be able to pull those kinds of performances. What Scott did at Mid-Ohio, Power did at Sonoma and Baltimore: each of them was one of those races where there were 24 other cars and the polesitter and winner. It's not what everybody wants to see – not Versus, not the people watching Versus and not the people sitting on the hillsides around either track. They want to wheel-to-wheel action for the lead, not wheel-to-wheel action for second through sixth with the winner driving away.
So Penske has won the last two races, and although we noticed at Sonoma they were using different dampers on their cars than they had before, I don't think that was the sole reason they did so well there or at Baltimore. I think every race team that has that mindset where they pretend they're not as good as everyone thinks they are, and then go about their business everyday to try to make their product better, will race at the front and win races. We are working just as hard as Penske and they have worked extremely hard to be where they are at this point and have made some real gains with their program.
The final two races are, of course, on one-and-a-half-mile ovals, and I know many people think the driver just gets in there, jams his foot on the throttle pedal and off he goes. Well, it's only that way if the car is right and even then, only in qualifying. If the car is wrong, believe me, you don't want to be in the car for an eight-second ride, let alone two hours, so it's really important to have the car right mechanically. That partly involves what the suspension is doing, but it's more important to be able to understand the aero balance the car needs to have in combination – maybe not so much for qualifying, more so for the duration of race runs. That's what you have to work hard to achieve.
But you also have to consider the tires which subtly change from race to race. Firestone might say, “Oh, we're using the same tire at Las Vegas as we used at X race or Y race,” so people think the tire is going to behave exactly the same. Well, it's not. That's not a negative statement toward Firestone, because they come with a very good product. It's more to do with the fact that we don't really get a lot of testing anymore. So all the testing we do is done in the race weekend practice sessions and to be successful in the race itself it's important to not let ego get in the way during practice. You don't want to throw tires at it: you want to have tires that run the longest in practice so you can get the most out of it in the race. So, I think measured maturity by a race team from the start of a weekend will pay off as the race progresses. Yeah, it's great to be fast on the time sheets, but it's more important to be faster on three or four sets of tires through three or four runs in a race. I think that's what creates the success or lack of success that you see, particularly on one-and-a-half-mile ovals.
Look at the edge we gained between the Homestead test and the Homestead race (ABOVE) last year. We created speed there at the right moment. We worked hard to achieve that, our engineering group studying what we did and what they did during the test to be prepared for the race. We didn't come back there with exactly the same setup or the same items that we used for the test at Homestead. We came back with a combination that worked for each of the drivers and it worked really well. (The rest will be in my autobiography!). I don't think we can ask for more than for history to repeat this year.
I also want to pay tribute to Graham Rahal for his excellent performance in Baltimore, even if the result didn't reflect it. But I have to say, we weren't surprised by it because he's shown quite a few flashes of brilliance this year, actually. But he put it all together as a racer and his Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing team put it all together for him. He did what everyone expects him to do. I thought it was a fantastic performance. What you saw was a young guy who has a lot of natural ability and a great resource to draw from, and he took full advantage of it. We were all excited about it to be honest.
Our NASCAR team, as you'll be aware, has had a tougher time lately, even though they were running particularly well in Atlanta a couple of races ago and had great racecars in Richmond on Saturday night. But a friend of mine (who is in a different kind of racing and will remain nameless) was in North Carolina last week, and he was given a tour of the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing facility there. Afterward he called me and said, “I can't believe how well prepared and how good the cars are that your guys race in NASCAR. The attention to detail both in the fabrication shop and in the way the cars are put together are as good as anything I've ever seen.”
I have to say, I agree, especially compared to the way our cars were years ago. Those guys down there have a massive sense of pride for how important it is to have the best product on the racetrack. That's the first step to get where you want to go, because it creates a culture where everybody then participates equally and that's the next step. You've got to get that right as a team. It can't be all about one driver: it has to be about all the drivers and all the team members as they all have to pull together as one. When you get that part of it right, combined with world-class drivers, the next thing you work on is racecraft. That's what builds the momentum you need to win championships. That's the direction those guys are working in now together. I think you'll see great things from those guys.
People wonder about how a two-car team can compete with the multi-car outfits at say a Roush Fenway Racing or Hendrick Motorsports. Well I'd say that Hendrick appears to operate as two two-car teams and seem to do a pretty good job with at least one set of their drivers all the time. So I think a two-car team, when properly managed, can run and race with those guys; the depth of information is probably the discussion point.
On the IndyCar side, we have benefited from having that extra data from running Graham and Charlie Kimball alongside the Target drivers. That has really helped Dario and Scott. We look at what they do, we look at their information and look at what they do with the information we provide them and what they can do with Dario's setup or Scott's setup. We also look to see what direction they went in during practice or qualifying because they may have tried some things we wanted to try and never got to.
So, four cars can help, but how you manage the extra data will decide whether you gain from it. If you can't make positive use of what you're learning, having four cars is not going to do you any good. Managed correctly it can be a huge help, and Graham and Charlie's efforts can prove vital first to how they perform in the final three rounds of the IndyCar championship, but also enhance how Scott finishes in the championship and Dario's quest for three consecutive IndyCar titles.
In the meantime, let's hope our TELMEX BMW Grand-Am team can scoop us three titles on Saturday at Mid-Ohio!
Thanks for reading.