Of Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s 25 years in existence, only the first two were without Mike Hull. The team’s managing director has become one of the go-to guys for racing journalists, as he can be guaranteed to provide answers that are thoroughly thought through and, on occasion, borderline esoteric. Hull sees the big picture, he talks about it eloquently, and while his philosophies are also rooted in a lifelong enthusiasm for racing, he’s always been dignified in victory and gracious in defeat.
Mike Hull spoke to RACER editor David Malsher about…
…how he joined Target Chip Ganassi Racing…
I worked for a fantastic guy, Jim McGee, at Patrick Racing and I owe a lot to him. He saw in people what they didn’t see in themselves and would try to elevate their game. He was an instigator: he put people together who had the right strengths to complement each other. I worked on one of the worst programs for Mr. Patrick and Jim, the Alfa-Romeo project with the March chassis. But that was probably the right program at that time for me because I learned a ton, working around some of the best people in racing.
When Bobby Rahal bought that team, I lost my job, because Bobby brought Jim Prescott in as chief mechanic, so that was it for me, but I was proud of them going on to win the championship the next year. Nonetheless, I was a bit disillusioned with racing at the time, and I moved back to California to work for my dad in his golf business, and then McGee called me. He said, “Hey, there’s this guy Jim Hayhoe who wants to enter this young kid Jimmy Vasser at Indianapolis and you’d be perfect to run this program for him.”
So I somewhat reluctantly drove out to Palm Springs to play golf with Hayhoe and made this commitment to help for Indy. Then Jim added Surfers Paradise, Phoenix and Long Beach in the run-up to Indy, although from the start I said I was done after Indy. I was going to go back to California, and resume my life.
Then, at Indy, we were in the garage next to Target Chip Ganassi Racing, where Tom Anderson was general manager. Chip was trying to decide how to organize himself going forward to run two cars on a full-time basis. Tom started talking with me about the potential of working for Chip and although I continued to resist, right after the race when we were all packing up, he said, “Please come over to the shop and speak to Chip.” Again reluctantly, I agreed but that day I discovered there was something in Chip that was a really big draw: he was full of passion. He was also volatile in those days compared with how he is now, but the desire and dedication to making his team better was so strong. I looked around the building while I was there and decided that, yes, they had everything it takes. So it wasn’t as if I’d be stepping into an environment where they were lacking the potential for success.
I did say to Chip and Tom that day that if it ever came to a point where it was Tom or I, I would walk away because this was Tom’s deal and he was here first. But I agreed to at least do it for the remainder of the year. My job was to create two on-the-grid programs, hire the people, get them working together, get the job shops working to get everything organized in a timely manner, and Tom ran the business.
We had a great relationship, very communicative: we were very different people, we had the same directional goals and we were both results-driven but we didn’t have the same outlook on the daily plan. However, we each had the ability to look at things from the other one’s perspective and while I can only speak for myself, Tom was another of those people in my life who I could learn a ton from. I really appreciated how his mind got around problems. He didn’t micromanage what I did and vice-versa.
So the day he decided to go off and become a team owner was one of the most disappointing days of my life. It wasn’t, as some people suggested to me at the time, “a great opportunity” for promotion, or anything like that. We were building a great organization together.
…Ganassi’s switch to Lola-Toyota for 2000 after four straight championships with Reynard-Honda…
When we were trying to make decisions about going back to the Indianapolis 500 as a CART team but obviously using IRL equipment, we decided to fly to the UK and our first stop was to visit G-Force, where John Biddlecombe, a former partner of Chip, was in charge at that time. We wanted to see what he had going on and we decided that the G-Force was the car to run at the Speedway. We made the deal, and drove up to Lola, and after looking around, we ordered a couple of cars so that we could take them to a test to decide whether we’d continue to run Reynard – whose 1999 chassis we hadn’t been entirely happy with by the end of the season – or switch to Lola.
Then we went over to meet with Sir Frank Williams. Now, as an aside, I spoke to one of his assistants and said, “Why’s Frank in on a Saturday?” and he said, “Oh, he’ll only be working until 7. Weekends he’s in here from 7am to 7pm.” So I asked, what the weekday hours were like, and he said, “Oh, that’s 6 a.m. to 9p.m., and often when we get in, Frank’s already on the phone, working…” I can tell you, I was impressed. And I was also impressed with the facility – it was just a hardcore racing building. I loved it!
Anyway, we go to Sir Frank’s beautiful house and estate for dinner, and meet his wife, Lady Williams. Frank says to Chip, “Tell my wife what you’ve been doing today.” So Chip explains that we we went down to G-Force and bought a couple of cars for the Indy 500, and went to Lola and bought a couple of cars for the CART IndyCar season, and we’re going to do comparison tests of the Reynard with the Lolas. She says, “Hmmm…Frank, if those cars you’re building for next year don’t work, do you think you could call up Ron [Dennis] and ask for a couple of McLarens?” I thought that was classic!
Well anyway, we took delivery of our first Lola very soon after that visit to England, we put a Toyota in it and went to Sebring, and also took a Reynard. Remember, these were the days when we had multiple cars, so we could genuinely do back-to-back tests and change seats and pedals really quickly for either driver, so the racetrack didn’t change fundamentally between runs. In other words, we were truly comparing apples with apples.
First we send Montoya out in the Reynard and Vasser in the Lola. Now, Jimmy could break an anvil in a sandbox when it comes to braking but he’s pounding around in this Lola but not locking up wheels under braking. We also discover that the Lola has a huge amount more downforce than we’d had in the Reynard but it’s also 50lbs lighter, so we can move the ballast anywhere in the car for ideal weight distribution. So we swap Jimmy and Juan [Montoya] around – now Jimmy in the Reynard and Juan in the Lola – and Juan is blisteringly quick. Needless to say, at the end of the session, Chip just turned to me and said: “Right. Make the call to Lola.”
And that’s how Chip Ganassi Racing continues to operate. We don’t make the right decision all the time, but we don’t make any decision without information and informed opinion. And that’s what we did that day. Chip loves fresh thinking because he regards it as a huge tool for all the people within this organization. Whenever we’ve changed manufacturers, we’ve discovered no manufacturer solves issues the same way and that gives everyone in our group a broader technical understanding of which way we should go. For example, switching to Ford EcoBoost engines this year for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, Ford’s technical group introduced their way of problem solving into our group, which adds to our already-acquired knowledge of how to go about problem solving. The combination of knowledge helps us all roll down the road better.
Chip is not such an old-school seat-of-the-pants instinctive racer that he’s not also very, very open to the evolution of racing and the way that we should approach each project. He makes sure we continue to learn, but I think these technical relationships are very much centered around the definition of mutual value: what you give, you give unselfishly to your partner and as time goes on, you develop a relationship and get a lot in return. We believe we offer OEMs a lot of technical and on-track value and potential, and we know we receive a lot of technical and on-track value in return.
It takes great race drivers, and you can’t make up a deficit in that area, as hard as you try. You need an owner who has a global perspective, conscious of where the team needs to be going, a person whose eyes are always moving, not just fixed on one spot. I also firmly believe the best team owners are those who have raced cars. The team owner doesn’t have to have won races, but he needs to have been in that competitive situation. It gives him a sense and then sensibility of the team’s on-track product and how to make it better given the resources.
In my case, I didn’t come from money – my family said, “Go ahead, if you want to go racing, good luck.” But they didn’t spend a dime on me. I had to do it myself. And I think if you remember where you came from and remember how it was to have no money to go racing, then your appreciation of resource when it arrives is greatly increased. So that’s a critical element, but then you have to have a management that is constantly aware that what you have today is what you have, and utilizes that best. Let’s be honest, we’ve all seen people in racing who’ve squandered their resources and only had moderate success doing it.
Then, managers must create an unselfish style in the team environment encouraging integration and prioritization. In Chip Ganassi Racing’s case, that comes right from the top, because Chip has always realized he can’t do it all himself. He needs OEMs, he needs sponsors, he needs partners and he needs exceptional team members who carry this same message and have the same motives.
…how Chip Ganassi looks after team partners…
He’s a platform guy, with a building-block attitude. By that I mean, the way he thinks is, “Let’s get this platform right,” then when it is right, he builds on it to create the next one. Another way to look at it is as a three-stage space rocket: in order to send the third stage of the rocket into the stratosphere, you have to get the first two stages right! That mindset is the difference-maker there, between Chip Ganassi Racing and most of our rivals.
Racing is Chip’s only business, and he wants to grow it. People ask him why he’s doing this or that, and why he doesn’t just focus on this or that, but I think that, as well as the interpersonal relationship Chip has had with Target for 25 years, I think it’s his continued interest in growing the product that has kept them together. If your product stays the same and you just take money, you’re not doing yourself or your partner a service at all; there’s no integrity in that. Chip wants to expand his business, and is constantly thinking what is not just best for his team but what is best for those whose names and brands we represent.
However, like I say, Chip only wants to grow the team in a sensible manner; it’s strategically planned and so we try never to overreach ourselves. And I believe companies look at that, as well as our results, and they want to be a part of it. So the people at Target, McDonald’s, Cessna, Novo, NTT Data, come on board and then Chip is excellent at integrating those programs. If we’re at the 24 Hours of Daytona, for example, and we’ve got the guys from all those companies together, then obviously they will get a lot from each other. Two CEOs from different companies can be talking to each other and although what brought them there was having the racecar in common, they also have their job positions in common. In his own company, a CEO has no one on his level, so if he wants to talk at a CEO level, who does he talk to, where does he get his advice? At a race, these guys may look like they’re just chatting but the opportunity is there to talk about a human resource problem, a venture capital problem, a business solution and so on.
Somebody told me once, “You can’t find yourself in the past. You can only find yourself in the present.” And I think that outlook is what has made us as consistently good as we have been for a long time – finding ourselves today.
For example, the No. 9 team with whom I work on race weekends has upped its game in the pits, upped its game in car preparation, and I’d say each member flows and fits together better than ever. We just haven’t had the results yet. However, we may be disappointed with yesterday but we don’t allow depression to take over our lives because that will affect our performance today and we must ensure we approach both success and failure in a unified manner.
So as well as the attributes I’ve just mentioned, I’d also say the No. 9 team members are more committed to each other than ever, and I think that culture of one-ness will define our future. Together, we’re going to learn from yesterday, apply it to today and make it better tomorrow.