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The Way It Is/ Mike Hull on Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi's sixth IndyCar title

by Gordon Kirby
As most readers of this column know, Mike Hull is the general manager of Chip Ganassi's Indianapolis-based IRL and Grand-Am teams. Hull has been with Ganassi since 1992, orginally working in company with the even more experienced Tom Anderson who now runs Adrian Fernandez's Acura ALMS team. Hull goes to every Grand-Am race he can, but IndyCar races always take priority. This year, the team has won both the IndyCar championship with Scott Dixon and the Grand-Am title with Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas

Tim Keen runs the Grand-Am team and calls the strategy when Ganassi or Hull aren't able to make a Grand-Am race. Other key people involved in running Chip's Indianapolis operation include team managers Scott Harner and Barry Wanser and veteran fabricator Grant Weaver who is the shop manager.

Hull has worked with all of Ganassi's Indy car champions; Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya and now Dixon, who Hull has watched develop over six and a half years with the team.

Scott was always better than the average bear," Hull observes. "He had the ability to run at the front and it was tempered by patient aggression. Now he's very aggressive with experience and he understands now that as the tires degrade his driving style needs to follow the tires. I think that's the mark of all good race drivers.

"Anybody who has good natural ability, once they understand that they can't get it done with just natural ability, they've got to use what is between their ears prior to and during the race to get the maximum useage out of the car. Those guys will win more races on average as time goes on and for Scott, I think it's experience and fully exploiting in an aggressive way the experience he has. I think that's been huge for Scott.

"He's now at a point in his career where he has the experience and he's able to capitalize on what we give him in total. He's also able to manage himself much better on the racetrack to adapt himself to each racetrack and to conditions on the racetrack.

"He's always been aggressively dedicated to wanting to better himself every day. That has not changed. He hasn't forgotten where he came from. He doesn't look back. He looks forward, and now that he has the experience that he has in these cars he comes ready to rock every day by thinking about it the night before. I would define him very much as the consummate IndyCar driver because of all those things.

"I think it's no different than any other sport," Hull adds, "or in any other form of motor racing when you see that happen. It's a combination of many things and the cohesiveness of the team is certainly one of them."

Hull says the most important factor in achieving continued success is having two drivers who are open, honest and equal teammates.

"The common denominator with success is having drivers who work together to the point where they totally share what they learn, on and off the racetrack," Hull comments. "And making them realize that two drivers who do that will always be further up the grid and further up the podium towards the end of the race."

He says this philosophy is hard-wired into the team unlike few other teams in contemporary motor sports.

"I don't believe there's been one time since I've worked here that Chip has had to get on the radio and ask one of the two drivers to reverse positions," Hull remarks. "It's been the other way around. When we've come down to a championship, the drivers have asked on the radio, 'Do you want me to be behind him or in front of him? What do you want me to do?'

"Try another form of motor racing, or another team in this paddock, where you'll find the drivers doing that. It's hard to find. You will find it, but it's hard to find.

"We work so hard to give both drivers the exact same product and we define it in front of them. We do everything together so that it's pretty hard for them not to understand that. We're very well organized to be able to replicate the product for each guy, even if we have to replace a part on the race car, or roll out a spare car. We try to set an internal standard that's better for each and every event, and we really think that the drivers are then very motivated to make the system better for each other."

Hull says Dixon has become a master of getting the best from his tires and using track position to his advantage.

"Winning races in any form of motor racing is about maximizing track position through an entire run on the tires," Hull remarks. "That's very evident on an oval, but harder to see on a road track. But if you can maintain a lap time that's slightly better than your competitor for an entire segment and you mutiply that by the number of stops you do, even 'though there might be a full-course yellow, you're always going to be at the front of the queue.

"I think that's what helps a driver like Scott run at the front and gather maximum points. He understands how to utilize track position and he's got more of a global forecast of what's in front of him than some other people. He may not be faster, but he has that global perspective that you need.

"It's fun to have a guy like Scott where you can utilize race strategy to create track position to be able to win a race. Because of that, every day and every race is an absolute new challenge."

Hull says the Ganassi team's dominance of this year's Indy 500 through practice, qualifying and the race, provided them with the momentum to dominate the rest of the IndyCar season.

"In my mind, every race has equal importance," Hull says. "But when we were able to go to Indianapolis this year and define what the speed needed to be, as opposed to having somebody define it for us, and then have that in your pocket so you could define race strategy the way you thought it should be, that was an enormous leap for all of us at Chip Ganassi Racing.

"We had that in both drivers. Dan Wheldon was just as fast as Scott but his car's handling went away from him in the middle of the race. But he was in the same position all month.

"Guys like me who've worked in this industry for some time, we live for Indianapolis. In this form of motor racing, the Indy 500 is what you want to win every time you go there and when you don't, you're totally depressed when you walk away. And when you do win it, there's no question it gives everyone involved a big boost."

Like most people who are active in racing, or many sports, Hull says he doesn't reflect on past successes and milestones like Ganassi's hundredth win.

"Somebody told me a little while ago how many races the team had won and I never really thought about it like that. I don't think about everything we've done this year, or last year. It's the next race that counts. That's what we're thinking about."

Hull says that through 2004 and '05 Ganassi's IndyCar team had to dig deep to find speed from the chassis and aerodynamics as Honda caught up to and blew off Toyota in the horsepower race. Ganassi's team ran Toyota engines in CART from 2000-'02, then from 2003-'05 in the IRL series until Toyota withdrew from IndyCar racing to focus on NASCAR.

"I think the Toyota years really reflect what the team is all about because in those years we didn't have the results that were expected from Chip Ganassi Racing," Hull comments. "But nobody stopped, nobody gave up. We worked hard on our product so that when we came out the other side with a better engine program our product would be better. And that instantly happened.

"It gave us an opportunity to focus on ourselves, first to make sure we had the right people doing the right people and making sure they were improving themselves. We were able to look at our R&D program. We were able to look at the way we go racing--the racecraft--and we looked at drivers and driving style and we analyzed everything much more so than if we had been successful in those years. I think that's probably a good example of who we are because we came out of that better.

"Secondly, we stood behind our partner all the way through the program and I think that says a lot about Chip and the team because there wasn't anybody who was negative towards the problems we were having or how they were being created. We worked hard with that engine manufacturing company and that group of people who were just equally dedicated to us to get the most out of the product every day.

"We have a good working relationship with Firestone. We again have a great working relationship with Honda, and we still to this day have a great working relationship with Toyota and TRD through our Grand-Am/Rolex program. And also with Dallara and prior to that G-Force, who became Panoz, and the Riley guys as well in Grand-Am. We push hard on all those partners to get the most out of each other."

Hull emphasizes the old adage that it's all about the effort put in by each individual.

"Chip Ganassi Racing has won races consistently for a long time because of people--the men and women who work at Chip Ganassi Racing, and because of the partnerships that we think are so important. That's what really creates the resource that you need to have continuity in this business. People move around in our organization and the organization continues to thrive."

Hull says it's imperative to have a clear philosophy of how the team operates and to be able to instill that in the team's managers and department leaders.

"It's a matter of whether they're willing to accept the systems you want to employ to make the program better. If you get the right people managing the program they go out and sell it to the workforce. But until you get that management group settled in their minds that they're going to accept the system you want to have, then you're going to have to keep tweaking it until it gets right.

"When I came to work for Chip in '92 we worked really hard, and that includes Tom Anderson who was here then. We worked hard together to try to make our team cohesive. That was the first thing we did. We set the tone and direction for the team and our expectation was we would raise the level of the people who worked here, in their own minds at least, so that they could carry out every day the direction we wanted to establish. We tried to create a working atmosphere to where they would totally support each other and work together in spite of adversity on a daily basis, and I think we've really achieved that."

Hull says the proof of the pudding is the team's ability to re-assign people to different jobs or teams.

"Today, we can take a well-trained mechanic from working on the rear of the race car and move him, if we wanted, onto the same position on the rear of our sportscar. We could take a front end sportscar guy and move him to the front end of an IRL car and not miss a beat. We can take an engineer, or a data engineer, or an R&D engineer, or anybody from the engineering office, and they will unselfishly move to a different position on the team if we asked.

"There's not ego involved in what goes on in this team. I think we've eliminated for the most part what some people consider to be the amount of ego they need to do their job in racing. If you can reduce ego and get people to accept the fact that, as that happens, the results accelerate upward, then the system works. And our system does work."

Hull says staying open to new ideas, approaches and technologies is essential to winning races.

"I think what you have to do to be successful in motor racing is you have to accept change immediately, and you have to be almost a creator of change on a daily basis. Not to stir it up, but to push for new ideas.

"What happens in racing is that the team across the street watches very closely what you do. They don't just watch your cars. They watch your team. If they see Chip Ganassi Racing is successful by employing a certain strategy with our people, they're going to copy that strategy because it works.

"And by the time they copy that strategy you better be down the road with something new. If you take that mindset with your race cars and never accept what you just did as being the accepted standard, you can stay ahead."

Ganassi's Grand-Am team has been equally successful in recent years with veteran Indy car/IMSA/NASCAR driver Scott Pruett leading the team. Pruett and Memo Rojas have won six races this year and wrapped up a third Grand-Am championship in New Jersey two weeks ago. Chip's Riley-Lexus sports cars have also won the Rolex 24 hours at Daytona the last three years.

"We have such great people working on both teams in our building in Indianapolis," Hull says. "When you have all those people who work together, they don't detract or suck away one from the other, and that in itself is a huge benefit. We have people who we've moved back and forth between those two persuasions of racing but the race teams are run exactly the same way with the same mindset, the same energy and work ethic and the expectation to find more from your product each day is there with each organization."

Hull says both teams will do whatever is required to help each other.

"Whether it's a day when you're really struggling or a day when everything is going right, all the guys are still supporting each other. If the sportscar guys have a problem and they've got to work late, the IndyCar guys will stay after they've finished their work and help the sportscar guys, and vice-versa. That's the mark of a really good group of people.

"The mark of a good team is if a manager walks away and the person who takes his position makes his job better than it was. And that's what happens here. When people take responsibility on a management level on this team they make that job better than the person who had it, and everybody applauds that, including the person who had moved to a different job within the company."

Next year, Ganassi and Target celebrate their twentieth anniversary, one of the longest and most successful partnerships in racing. And on current evidence in both IndyCar and Grand-Am racing, Ganassi's drivers and teams will be the targets everyone will be shooting at.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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