KEEPING UP WITH CHANGING TIMES
Mike Hull's blog: Keeping up with changing times
May 4, 2012
The fourth round of the IZOD IndyCar Series championship was just last weekend, but it already seems an age ago. To put the Brazil travel for the teams into perspective: Brazil is a long way from North America. There's no direct connection from Indy, so from Chicago to Sao Paulo, it's just a short of 12 hours of flying – the same amount of time as it takes from Chicago to Japan! And now there's a four-week gap before the Indy 500 race, but we'll spend two weeks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and next week, we've got all four Chip Ganassi Racing cars doing the IndyCar Open test at the Texas Motor Speedway. So we're pedal to the metal even before we launch into a phase in the season where there are five races back to back.
At TMS, the test plan is to run in company with other cars. It's vital that the team, the drivers and the series as a whole know how these cars behave in traffic. If the weather's good, we'll work on individual things early and then fill up with fuel and work on race items. Although they're very different sorts of tracks, TMS will still have information for Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For example, at both tracks, we'll be running a version of the speedway aero package.
When the forefathers of the Indy 500 devised the original schedule, one of the reasons that it lasted an entire month was because of the unpredictable weather in the Midwest. Now the schedule is compressed into seven practice days followed immediately by qualifying. There could be seven beautiful days of weather, or none. Due to the fact that we no longer have a second week of practice, most of the teams work hard in the first week on fuel and race setups, and don't change their cars to qualifying trim until Fast Friday. So having a good day at Texas next week will be useful not only for our race there, but also Indianapolis and some of the other ovals that follow. Remember, for most of us, it's also our first chance to test on an oval with the engine in its present production form.
This brings us onto the turbo saga. I'm going to only say that because GM has appealed the protest decision, comment should be left unsaid until it's finalized. What I feel safe to say is that in Brazil, the top 10 in qualifying were more evenly divided between Chevrolet and Honda. Who has the advantage? I don't know, but in the present “spec car” era, the sanctioning body should have the respected right to continue an equalization of the competition through their determined parity between engines. Bottom line is that qualifying for the race in Brazil was a lot closer between the two groups than at Long Beach.
Back to the racing, Scott Dixon has had an interesting season so far, good and bad in parts. Last weekend in Brazil, for instance, the first stint saw the No. 9 Target car lose time to Will Power and our teammate Dario Franchitti, but as soon as we switched to black primary tires, they worked well with Scott's car setup and so with a clear track ahead, he set some excellent lap times. It's logical to think that would have helped us, but it seems that in that race, it was almost better to spin off, have an issue or start from the back with an early stop, because somehow you'd make your way to the front. Look at what Dario did! He flew through the air with the greatest of ease (backward), stalled, and managed to get himself all the way up to the front near the end. So it was an odd race, to say the least.
For us on the No. 9 car, that yellow just before we were due to pit from the lead toward the end was a disaster. We should have fed out in the top six, based upon green interval sequence, but with the field all bunched together and the pit lane closed, we ended 17th. Gathering points on the mediocre days can often be crucial in the championship, so dropping 10 or 11 places is a bad feeling. However, it's up to us as a team to ensure that bad days are followed by great ones.
Same with Long Beach. After getting second places in the first two races, it was a disappointment to have the No. 9 car suffer a DNF in the third round. I can't reveal what the problem was, but it has been resolved, and that resolution has been spread across the Honda family of cars as a preventative measure. I was actually more disappointed that we didn't get towed back to the pit lane, although I realize Beaux Barfield was trying to get the race restarted a.s.a.p.. Hmm…. I guess it's our fault that Scott was out there needing a tow in the first place!
The Target No. 10 car of Dario Franchitti has showed markedly improved form over the past couple of races after a somewhat slow start. I think as our team learns about the car, Dario is adapting himself quite well – as he should, given his great experience, ability, and positive mindset. He has shown the clear determination to climb the mountain, and he has the will to solve all problems. Our expectation is that his performance will keep moving us upward.
Scott, meanwhile, always starts the day with a fresh perspective, and is surrounded at Chip Ganassi Racing with teammates of the same attitude. We continue to constantly gain from each other, and that's the definition of a team that is consistent over the long haul. Scott is very, very focused in creating long-term improved success. Look at how he's done with Chip Ganassi Racing since he joined; not only does he hold the tenure record, but has two IndyCar championships, 27 race wins, a win in the 24 hours of Daytona and, more importantly, he's always there in the hunt, always a factor over the course of a championship.
That consistency is what every professional racecar driver should aim for. Look at the most successful drivers in IndyCar racing since its inception, and you'll see they have been with one team for a long, long time. They remember “where they came from.” With the skill set perhaps as a given, they became embedded in a team; Scott, with his integrity, represents the past, the present and the future of how race drivers should conduct themselves. In some sports organizations, loyalty creates a degree of complacency by familiarity, but the good ones create consistency through their contribution of continual learning.
If Scott has been unlucky, Graham Rahal, in the Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing car, has been more than that, and to see him in 12th in the championship standings is not reflective of Graham himself. What I like about Graham is that whatever the knock-backs, he's always ready to go again, as are his team members. From the moment he came back from Brazil, he was right into it with his guys, getting ready for the Texas test, getting ready for Indy, and just constantly thinking about improvement. He has moved from his Ohio home to be in Indianapolis so he can be close to the team. He's very much an integral part of our entire team on a daily basis to support his team with his consistent involvement.
Graham is the son of a very famous race driver who won major events and Graham studied all of that and took notes. I'm convinced that he actually wrote them down rather than using a mental etch-a-sketch. Some kids grow up around famous fathers and don't make the transition; they rely too much on their last name and not enough on what they should have been learning from the crib forward. Graham is very special because he was not only close to someone who successfully did a job he wanted ultimately to do, he was also paying attention to how it was done and I have a great degree of respect for drivers like that. It's a special quality and, as a result, although he's only 23, he drives like a guy with a lot more experience than a 23-year-old.
His teammate, Charlie Kimball, in our Novo Nordisk car, keeps doing a better job with each race although, like some others, he had a little difficulty with the new DW12 at the beginning, as he found it didn't mesh with what he described as his “intuitive driving style.” Well, CK is now adapting his style with very impressive drives at Long Beach and Sao Paulo.
Plus, he's gaining in experience. As I've said before, young drivers don't get the huge test miles that were once a prerequisite to success, so on-track time on race weekends are now sink or swim for guys like Charlie. Therefore, we're really pleased to see his progress. People often use the phrase about a driver – “He is learning every time he goes onto the racetrack,” but in Charlie's case, it's genuinely true. Outside the car, he has three great teammates from which to learn, and he does. He's not afraid to ask questions within the support system and when he gets back in the car, he always endeavors to apply what he has learned. When he sees that it works, he gains pace and confidence.
Over in NASCAR, I feel our best days are yet to come this year. Because of how hard we've been working on the new IndyCar, I feel a bit distant from those guys, but the last few races, you can see how much better they have been, and it's great to see.
I'm not sure people from the outside appreciate that they rebuilt the race team program on Juan Montoya's side of the garage, and also changed a lot of the support staff that get Juan's and Jamie McMurray's Target and Bass Pro cars onto the racetrack. The engineering staff has changed, along with senior management staff, so there were several transitions happening simultaneously, and as anyone will tell you, it takes a little while to create consistency as the groups build their communication processes. The drivers are the same, some of the crew members are the same, but when you change the integral cultural philosophy of how you manage the race preparation and racecraft, it takes buy-in and time to get it right. Now the group is starting to prove that the team made good decisions about various roles, including people of the quality of Max Jones and John Probst. Hopefully, Talladega this weekend will provide further proof of progress…although, as we all know, that's a track where anything can happen!
On the Grand-Am side, we're looking for our first win of the season, but that second place by Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas at Homestead last weekend has pushed them into the lead of the championship. GM and Ford have raised the level of their game, so that has affected the starting grid as well as the racing. We got a little bit of a performance change for our BMW engine starting at Homestead, but we couldn't see how much difference it made because the event was wet from start to finish. We felt that the performance of the engines needed some equalization, because the Rolex 24 at Daytona showed that we were losing out markedly on the straights. Grand-Am is great like that: they will make those changes whenever necessary.
And, to come full circle, that's a very similar situation to the one we find in IndyCar at the moment, with the dispute over turbos. All IndyCar is trying to do is to equalize the competition between the teams and the engine manufacturers. And, ignoring what's been said or written, isn't that IndyCar's job? In today's world, it's the sanctioning body's job to make things as equal as possible. Go back to the 1960s and '70s, and you'll see that everyone marched to the beat of a different drummer in terms of engine and chassis combinations; then it was an individualized technical era, but now we're in a spec car era. We have one chassis! This new car is more spec and controlled than the one it just replaced. In days of yore, we didn't have 70 percent of the field on the lead lap at the end. Now, due to spec cars with equal engines, it's about racecraft and race drivers.
Our open-wheel racing mindset needs to change with the times. IndyCar has the right and responsibility to look at the data that can be supplied to them from the cars, and continue to equalize the competition. Whether you agree with how they do it, it should be their right.
As a team you dislike it if something's taken away, but it could turn to the other side if a correction is necessary. But guess what – once exposed to NASCAR racing or Grand-Am racing, you'd know that equalization means closer racing. Patience and trust in the sanctioning body to make global decisions is the key to the long-term growth of the series. They may change a little bit today, and in three or four races, they may change it the other way – it's a situation where the product is continually tweaked to where the drivers, through their prowess on the track in equal cars combined with their marketing representation off track, are the key elements to our future. The one-make chassis is now simply a tool.
That being the case, the acceptance is that our drivers have an equal chance. In that case, the IndyCar brand is positively promoted – that's what's really needed today: the promotion of the on-track product. Our athletes who represent Honda, GM, and Lotus, plus their respective sponsors are more important than public bickering over technical decisions.
Well, thank you for reading. I hope to see all of you along the way, and I hope you'll be watching IndyCar itself win at the Indianapolis 500.