Mike Hull's Blog: Building on Success
Thanks for joining me for my first blog for RACER.com. We're hoping that 2011 will be as strong for Chip Ganassi Racing as 2010 – but it's going to be very hard.
Grand-Am Rolex Series
Our first success of the year couldn't have come earlier: the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. When we go into that event, because of our track record, a lot of people regard Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates as one of the favorites. So how do you get yourself fired up? Well, while some talk about trying to get to another level, we try to get to another platform. Each year, we get ourselves into the mindset that (a) we want to do it again, and (b) we'll do everything we can to make ourselves better at how we do it. That's the bigger picture way of looking at it. As a group, we've proven we know how to do it, so doing it in a better manner than before becomes the new aim. So this year, when we scored a 1-2, we were all very proud.
After the race was over, Chip and I didn't say anything for a moment and then I said, “Do you realize, we've finished second three years in a row here?” and when you finish second, you want to win. Doing both is hard to achieve in motorsports, so it's very special for the people that involved in making it happen. All the people at Chip Ganassi Racing were passionate motorsports enthusiasts when we were young and have remained fans all our lives. We enjoy watching racing all around the world, so to score a 1-2 in one of the world's prestigious motorsports events is something that really means so much to us all.
Tim Keene made a different call than some of the other front runners regarding tire strategy, and ultimately the No. 01 guys – Scott, Memo Rojas, Graham Rahal and Joey Hand – were our winners. In racing, you make decisions based on where you are at that moment in time, and you're working the race backward from the finish. The 01 car got a penalty for hitting a tire in pit lane, so they had some options they could employ on pit strategy toward the end. They could just go to the end of the fuel load as usual and live with the result and hope there's a full-course caution. What they did instead was calculate what it would mean in terms of track position when they came in, the amount of time the stop would take, the lap time they'd need to achieve in a long run, and they chose that strategy. Hand drove the lap times necessary to give Pruett a car on the stop with interval necessary to win.
There were three or four other strong cars that were on a conventional strategy, one of which was our No. 02 car. So we were lucky to have two different strategies going at the end of the race, which is something you always want to have.
Of course, with the late yellow – the very late yellow – it gave Scott Dixon in the No. 02 car a prime opportunity to fight for the lead. At Chip Ganassi Racing, we have a rule that is discussed before every race begins: Don't run into your teammate! It's simple. You can race as hard as you want and no one on the team will have a problem with that, but if we're in sequence, we have to help each other. That is the extent of our team orders.
I don't know if there had been conspiracy theories floating around, but there were comments from a couple of journalists down in Florida along the lines of, “Well, you had Scott Dixon protecting Scott Pruett.” In fact, because Joey had hit a tire in the 01's pit stop, we were forced into different strategies and had no way of protecting one guy with the other guy. Had Dixon been in front in the final stages, he would have won, not Pruett. The fact is, this is Dixon's 10th year at Ganassi, and he knows not only how to win but also how to support his teammate. Looking back at how he raced in Homestead in last year's IndyCar finale, we knew he'd be the last person who'd take out the other Ganassi car.
In Homestead for the first of the Rolex sprint races, it was tough – there was a lot of talk about the difficulty of keeping tires under the car for a stint, but the reality is that is the challenge in all forms of racing. The team and driver that work together to manage the tires better than the rest of the field, give themselves the best opportunity at the end. That's what our 01 guys did at Homestead – a classic/textbook win. The Continental group took some heat from a performance standpoint, but giving it some perspective, I didn't see anywhere in print that there were zero tire failures. That's a major accomplishment for a new tire supplier.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Obviously, the race at Daytona this year caused quite a stir, not just because of the remarkable performance by a rookie to reach Victory Lane, but also because of the unusual pack formations we saw out there, where the drivers discovered that traveling in two-car convoys was the quickest way…by far.
I think we're spoiled, when it comes to NASCAR racing because, without blowing smoke here, NASCAR's people – and I mean the sanctioning body – do a really good job keeping us engaged. As we watch pack racing at Talladega and Daytona, our expectation as fans is that was what we're going to see again, so anything less than that is regarded as a disappointment. The circumstances could not be corrected during Speed Weeks, so a lot of the teams and teammates just worked really hard with the parameter that were set to try to win the race.
Watching teammates push or be pushed to help you win races is probably not what we as race fans want to see again. It adds security for a driver knowing it's his teammate behind him, but if your teammate gets sidelined or drops to the back, that's when you need to find a new partner and that's when things can go wrong. Do I want to see it again? No. And thankfully Phoenix was nothing like what we saw in Daytona and Las Vegas was nothing like what we saw in Phoenix. The race product is good, the cars are awesome, they have world-class drivers and when you peek inside those cars and see the details, you realize how hard they work to go racing.
Unfortunately, Jamie McMurray wasn't able to repeat his Daytona 500 win of last year, but the irony wasn't lost on people when he pushed Kurt Busch's Penske car to victory in the Bud Shootout! There's a great deal of mutual respect between Chip's organization and Roger's organization; we applaud what they do and from what I've seen of them in the past, I'm sure they applaud what we do. Having Jamie help Kurt win a race isn't something that happens every race weekend between the two organizations! But it was handled in a clear and fair manner, and I'd expect nothing less.
I first met Jamie when he subbed for Sterling Marlin here at Ganassi in 2002, but it's only through doing the Rolex 24 with him that I've gained a great deal of respect for him to not only drive a racecar but also work with the people around him to get the most out of it. He doesn't give up anything on the racetrack to his teammates: think who he was driving with at Daytona. He was with Montoya, Dixon and Franchitti and you'd think that would be intimidating given their road course racing backgrounds, but during open practice, we put him out there with shagged-out tires and tons of fuel in the tank, and he was as fast as the person who'd just handed it over to him. He's got enormous ability, and he's willing to study drive style and adapt himself in order to be faster. That's the mark of an open-minded race driver who wants to be better. I can't sing his praises highly enough.
With him and Juan driving for us, the aim has to be to get both our Sprint Cup cars in the Chase this year. There was a great deal of disappointment among our guys that we didn't get either of them in last year, despite Jamie winning the two biggest races on the schedule and Juan getting his second Sprint Cup win. Our NASCAR team is so dedicated to their jobs, it's how they live their lives each day, and getting into the Chase is their goal. But it's so hard to do. Ten people have got to consistently finish in an average of (I think) 12th position over the course of 26 races. Through all the things that go on in a race, the diversity of racetracks, the fact that you have to share real estate with 42 other cars, and you have to get in and race despite the testing being as limited today as it's ever been, finishing an average of 12th is a tough task. There's an enormous amount of pressure there. On the other hand, pressure creates an enormous amount of satisfaction when you do well, and that's what Jamie and Juan and the guys who support those two operations are looking for every weekend – to have the satisfaction match the pressure. The one thing we're sure of is that they have got everything it takes to get it done.
IZOD IndyCar Series
We've won the last three IndyCar titles but I can tell you, there's no complacency at Target Chip Ganassi Racing in 2011 – or any other time, come to think of it! Our reigning champion Dario Franchitti has three titles and two Indy 500 wins to his name, but he is like the rest of us in terms of motivation. When you're given the special opportunity like we've all been given here, – drivers of enormous ability, team members of enormous ability, and an owner who shoves everything toward us to get the job done – I don't think it's hard to be motivated. It's actually easy.
In Dario's case, I think he also looks at the lineage, where he came from, who he represents and the people in the past who have won the Indy 500 multiple times or won multiple IndyCar championships. He then knows what it means to be categorized as a multiple winner. Driving for Target Chip Ganassi Racing helps him achieve the things he's achieved, but Dario himself is a very special individual who I believe is motivated by getting the most out of today. So long as he remains that way, he'll continue to operate at the highest level and motivate all those who work on his car into helping him achieve that. It's special to be around a guy like that: he creates the momentum that we need to achieve what we do.
Demeanor has a lot to do with sustained success, too, and both Scott and Dario treat each other and those around them with respect. Everyone around them treats them with respect, as well. There is great transparency here. If someone who works on Scott's car today worked on Dario's car tomorrow, Scott wouldn't be offended, and vice versa. It's because they know everybody works together and it's a very open and visible communication network we have here; nothing's hidden. We're not putting a blanket over Scott's car when Dario walks around it. That gives a driver a lot of reassurance, knowing he can go out and gather all the information he requires from his teammate to try and beat him – and that's exactly what we want! Teammate beating teammate and stepping away happy when they're done. It's a hard environment to foster, but I believe we do that and I think it is one of the many reasons we can look ahead to the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season and expect to operate at the same level as we have the previous three years.
For 2011 we have the additional excitement of a second arm of Chip Ganassi Racing, with the Service Central car of Graham Rahal and the Novo Nordisk car of Charlie Kimball (BELOW). Of course, the organizational changes caused some “moments,” but we have a very structured environment here at CGR – as much as we'd like to pride ourselves on having a roomful of free spirits! How we work every day is based on setting priorities and as a group, these are what we see as the logical steps to getting the job done to our high standards. When we find something that can be improved, we work very hard to put the mechanism in place to make that improvement happen so everyone across the board benefits from it and problems aren't repeated.
So in adding two more entries in the IZOD IndyCar Series, we'll be trying to build an environment that's identical to what we already have in the Target part of the team. The setting up inevitably had some hitches, but we think we'll be better off, ultimately. We've drawn key people from other parts of the CGR organization to manage the operation and the manpower, and hired new people to fill in the blank spaces in the employee grid. It's no different from when we started the Grand-Am team in 2004. We didn't go out and hire a bunch of sports car guys; we moved current employees into key positions and only then hired people from the outside to fill in blanks. Actually, with the sports car deal, it took us a little while to get it right, but we figured out how to do it, so I think we'll do just fine with this program, too, because we have a lot of experience in how to get it right to start with – the Target team!
When will they be as slick as the Target team? Let's talk about that a year from now. Initially, when you do these things, you'll take three steps forward and two back. Then it becomes three steps forward and only one back. And then suddenly you think you've got it right – and you don't! (Motorsports is full of reality checks!)
My personal opinion on starting a race team – and I realize this is different because we already have an established team – is that it takes three years to build the process that's required to build momentum to win. You could go out and win a race, or lead the points or have flashes of showing you have a very special operation but, quite frankly, I don't think you could say, “We're going to win this year.” That involves you having everyone in place and functioning as a team, having everything flowing, having your cars finish every race, passing tech every time, and so on.
In parallel, the marketing and branding side with Service Central and Novo Nordisk have to build themselves to where they take full advantage off the track of what we achieve on the track with the drivers. That's as big a part as what we do on the racetrack. Our Target program is a good example. When it first started, it wasn't like it is today in terms of the branding opportunity it creates. That's an integral part of what you need to do to achieve long-term success in racing. You don't start a team to be in business just one or two years: you start a team looking down the road, trying to get it right and building up what you need to be there for a long period of time.
Graham and Charlie will be fully integrated in the debriefing process along with Dario and Scott, as we want everyone to learn from each other. It's going to be cool. We have two race drivers who've driven these cars for quite a while and each has a reputation whereby if they stopped today, you'd say that in terms of being a successful IndyCar driver, they're right up there. They've won championships and they've won Indy 500s and won pretty much everywhere the IZOD IndyCar Series races. Now we also have two young guys at the front end of their careers. When you have two specially talented young drivers who can draw from successful experienced drivers and also draw from all the experienced people around them, it's a very special opportunity. It makes what we all do feel very worthwhile.
By the time I next write, we'll be into the IndyCar season, and I hope we'll have more victories to write about across all our teams! Thanks for reading.