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That Way It Is/ Chip Ganassi's IRL and Grand-Am team boss Mike Hull on Scott Dixon's championship run

by Gordon Kirby
This has been a good year for Chip Ganassi's Indianapolis-based IRL and Grand-Am teams. Both are contending for championship titles with Scott Dixon in the IRL and Scott Pruett in Grand-Am. Dixon will attempt to beat Dario Franchitti to the IRL title at the Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday while Pruett tries to beat Alex Gurney, Jon Fogarty and Max Angelelli to the Grand-Am championship at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah the following weekend.

Mike Hull is managing director of both of Chip Ganassi's Indy-based IRL and Grand-Am teams. "It's kinda cool because were fighting for championships in both the Grand-Am and the IRL," Hull grinned. "In racing, you're either being validated or looking for validation. It's one or the other, nothing in between."

Hull believes the IRL team has seen the fruit this season of a lot of hard work over the past two years. A key point, Hull says, was that Ganassi and Rahal-Letterman were the last IRL teams to switch from Panoz to Dallara chassis. This was one of the reasons for Ganassi's struggles in '05 and '06 and also means the team has much less experience with the Dallara chassis than Andretti-Green or Penske because this is only the second year Ganassi's team has run Dallaras and the first year they've run them on road courses.

"Last year, we were admittedly miserable on the short ovals with the Dallara. We were terrible!" Hull declared. "I'm not going to whine, but the reality is we don't get a lot of test time and you don't have enough time on the race weekends to understand how to make your car better. You're in deep water and you're hoping you have the life vest you need for the race so you can stay above water.

"That's just the reality of the situation and you accept that, but during that time you play to your strengths and try to make the weakest things stronger. Last year, we were very weak on the short ovals. We were hopeless at Richmond and Milwaukee. So we concentrated on where we could be good which were the higher-speed ovals and the road tracks with the Panoz, and we tried to learn about the short ovals.

"This year our performance on the short ovals has improved. We made the transition to the Dallara on the road tracks and we're still learning about that. We're not that good there, even though it looks like we are. And we're continuing to be pretty strong on the bigger ovals."

Hull also believes the effort the Ganassi team put into making up for the lack of horsepower it had during the team's last year with Toyota has helped bring this year's results.

"In 2005, in the last year of our involvement with Toyota, we weren't very good on the racetrack," Hull commented. "But we never gave up as a team and all the things we had learned from 2005 about low drag and all the projects we had to help make the car better in the airstream, all the subtle things with the steering that we did to make our car better, really paid off for us in 2006. If we had sat on our thumbs in 2005 and said once we get a Honda motor we're going to be okay, we wouldn't have been as good as we were in 2006.

"I think that's a good example of how our team tries to work together every day. We try to learn every day, whether it's a good day, or not a good day. We just look at the entire thing pretty scientifically, in fact, and try to categorize the priorities to get the most out of our performance."

This year started well for Ganassi's team as both Dan Wheldon and Dixon were very strong in the early races on medium-speed ovals. Wheldon and Dixon finished one-two in the Homestead season-opener and took second and fourth at Motegi followed by Wheldon scoring a dominant win on the Kansas Speedway at the end of April. Dixon was second in the St. Petersburg street race at the beginning of April where Wheldon battled for the lead but fell to ninth after an incident with winner Helio Castroneves.

At Indianapolis, both Wheldon and Dixon struggled in qualifying and spent the race trying to get to the front. Dixon started fourth, led eleven laps and eventually finished second, while Wheldon started sixth, never got to the front and was eliminated in a multi-car accident with Marco Andretti in what turned out to be the closing laps.

"I think from a race strategy standpoint you had two tactical choices to make in that race after the rain delay," Hull observed. "We chose to be on one strategy with Scott and the other strategy with Dan, and it just worked out the way it worked out. Dario was fortunate to be on the strategy that he was on and he won the race, and we were fortunate in a way, too, because we gathered as many points as we could by finishing second with Scott.

"The way the race unfolded and was completed, the group of guys that you would have thought would have finished at the front based on track position with the weather ended-up being behind Dario and Scott."

Hull believes Dixon's second place at Indy after a largely indifferent month was a key to his championship run. "I don't know if that was the turning point," Hull said. "But it certainly was a good springboard for him going to Milwaukee because it put us in a great position in points and the next bunch of races were all, as it turned out, strengths for Dixon. You combine those two things and it's been pretty good since then."

Dixon took the IRL title back in 2003 when it was still an all-oval series but Hull points out that the IRL has become more like the old CART days when a driver had to be a winner on a broad range of tracks if he was to contend for the championship. Of course, Dixon's trio of road course wins this year at Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio and Infineon Raceway were critical because Franchitti is very quick at those tracks and was expected to beat Dixon in those races.

"To be a champion now in IRL you have to be good across the board," Hull remarked. "Not taking away from anything that anyone has done in the past because driver skill and ability wins championships, but now you have to be good on short ovals, intermediate ovals, long ovals, road and street tracks. You have to be good in five different areas and Dixon's managed to figure that out, or be able to do that."

Hull believes Dixon has benefitted from teammate Wheldon's coaching. "I think if you look at where we are today versus a year ago, and that includes Dixon's performance, we're much better at places where we were struggling last year and the same can be said for Scott, too."

While Dixon's season came on strong after Indianapolis, Wheldon's year went downhill. On the road circuits in particular, Dixon thoroughly out paced Wheldon who admitted to his own deep dissatisfaction with his road course performances this year. But Hull emphasizes that Wheldon has been a great help to Dixon's championship challenge.

"I think Dixon is a much better driver today thanks to Wheldon's help in the areas he needed the most help," Hull said. "Scott has taken advantage of where he's been strongest and Dan has helped him a lot in the areas where he needed help or could have improved himself."

Hull also believes the IRL's downforce-restricting rules have played into the hands of both Dixon and Franchitti's rare driving abilities. "We're racing in a series now where they're trying to take downforce away from us to slow the cars down," Hull commented. "By doing that, you're creating a low grip situation and if you think back in the history of open-wheel racing, whenever they've changed the formula, even if it's only slight, it's created a low grip situation, and there are certain drivers who have risen to the occasion.

"I think Dixon and Dario can drive a low grip car and that's one of the reasons why those two guys have been consistently successful throughout the year. On the circuits where it's been more apparent that low grip is a key, those two guys have run consistently at the front. There are other guys who have run close to them but on a consistent, points-gathering basis, that has made a difference. Although it's subtle, this is another difference from last year to this year."

Hull also see a more mature Scott Dixon this year. "I think he's in a good place right now. He's very settled, but not on the side of complacency. He's very settled in the fact that he takes each lap as if it's a new lap for him. He knows what is at the end a lot more than he used to and he has a lot of confidence because of that.

"Scott is now very determined and very settled at the same time, and I think he's a better race car driver today because of it. The skill that he has is being enhanced by the fact that he's strongly patient now. Nothing deters him and he's not a flashy guy. He's the same guy every day and that's a huge advantage. He's very focused on winning an IRL championship today and that's very important."

The Ganassi team is a little perplexed about the speed demonstrated this year by the Andretti-Green cars on big ovals. "We were close, but not quite there, and we don't really know why, to be honest," Hull said. "If we did, we'd be as good as those guys are. We have standard Dallara parts. We don't have any tweaked or special parts. We're doing everything we can on the big ovals to be equal to Andretti-Green and we're a little confused as to why they're faster than we are on the big ovals.

"In the last two or three big oval races in particular," Hull added, "Kanaan and Dario were faster than anybody else on non-tow laps. Even in the races on the big ovals, their non-tow laps were significantly faster than everybody else, not just Ganassi Racing. We find that to be unusual."

Dixon's lead engineer this year is Eric Bretzman while veteran Andy Brown engineers Wheldon's car. Hull emphasizes that the secret to Ganassi's success over the years is teamwork.

"It's all about people," he said. "It's actually people working together as one. That might be overemphasized by some people when they try to define the word team, but I think what has made us a good team consistently over time, not just this year, is the fact that Chip believes you can't change the personalities of people. He believes what you can do is put all the diverse personalities into one room and ask them to check their egos at the door and go to work together.

"By doing that, you don't stifle growth. You actually enhance growth because you have a group of people with diverse opinions and you try to get everything you can out of each individual together each day. And over time, when we've had a bad day we work as hard as when we've had a good day."

Hull also oversees the operations of Ganassi's Grand-Am team with drivers Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas who have been battling for this year's championship. Ganassi veteran Mike O'Gara is the lead engineer on Pruett's car and Brian Welling engineers the team's second Riley-Lexus.

"It's a cooperative effort on that program, the same way we run the IRL program," Hull said. "I don't think it's a coincidence or a surprise that we're consistently able to run up at the front of the Grand-Am series. We run that program exactly the same as we do everything else here and over time it's been very successful."

Hull says Pruett's vast experience in a wide range of racing cars, his mentoring ability, and his maturity and love for the sport are keys to the Grand-Am team's success. "I think Scott has a lot to do with the success there in terms of driver development," Hull observed. "We took two kids in Rojas and Diaz before that who were good race drivers and Scott has mentored those guys along and helped them understand in a practical manner what they need to do on the racetrack for a full segment, not just for a fast lap. If Pruett has a strength on the racetrack, it's that he knows how to do that, and he's managed to bring those two kids along quickly in order to enhance our finishing positions and get maximum points toward the championship."

Added Hull: "If the guys are told that they need to be at work at the track at seven o'clock in the morning, Scott's there with the coffee on. He beats the guys there, still to this day. How many race drivers would do that who have spent the length of time that Pruett has in racing?"

There's no question that Ganassi's Indy-based racing operation is one of the best in the nation and it will be interesting to see if Dixon and Pruett can come from behind to scoop their respective championships over the next ten days.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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