In the following free-ranging Q & A session, Mike Hull, managing director of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, reflects on Kansas, ahead to Indy and beyond, with RACER Editor David Malsher.
RACER: So the open test at Kentucky got rained out, but do you see that as a disadvantage or, given your cars' dominance at Kansas, does it just mean your rivals have one less chance to make gains on you in oval trim?
Mike Hull: I don't know, because it's a different aero spec we run at Kansas compared to Kentucky. With the way that the test rules are at the moment, teams understand where their strengths and weaknesses are and with the test days available to them, they can go privately test. I don't really know where other teams are in relation to us because we don't know what they may or may not have done in private tests or in wind tunnels. Indianapolis is a lot about matching the aero package with a set of one-off rules. In years gone by, teams used to build special cars for Indy. What we do today is race the same car we raced at Kansas City but with a specific set of rules that are unlike anywhere else we race. So that's where the learning curve gets exposed.
RACER: Looking back at Kansas, given that Ryan Briscoe's pole was by a substantial margin, were you still confident that you'd have the edge on race day?
MH: Anyone can make rationalizations about their performance in qualifying and say they were working on race setups, so I won't do that! But bearing in mind that we're in equal racecars, it comes down to a driver being able to drive a neutral car for four laps better than someone else, and that's exactly what Ryan did. He did an exemplary job to out-qualify everyone by over 1mph, and it was pretty extraordinary. Speaking with Scott and Dario afterward, they said, effectively, “Our tongues were hanging out doing what we were doing,” so hats off to Ryan.
I don't know what it is about Kansas, but Chip Ganassi Racing just seems to be able to adapt well to it on race day – and I hope that track never comes off the schedule! But there are days, every once in a while when the solar system rolls right, and you end up with a race driver and racecar that combine to produce a performance like Scott Dixon and the No. 9 car achieved last Saturday. What you want to do as a team is simply not get in his way! The car was perfect, he was switched on with how intently he wanted to drive to that win, and as a team we just needed to have flawless execution in the pits and make good calls. After that, it's a case of letting him take care of it. It's great when you can match talent like Scott has with a car setup like he had and a pit crew like he has.
RACER: So it wasn't a case of Briscoe being trimmed out for qualifying and then as soon as Scott passed him, the No. 6 Penske struggled in the turbulence?
MH: I don't know. What struck me from the timing stand was déjà vu. Last October at Homestead, it was the same three guys – Dixon, Franchitti and Briscoe, fighting it out. Then I thought, “I hope it doesn't come down to which fuel strategy we should be on, or if it does, I hope we use the right fuel strategy based on that Homestead race.” So, in fact, I was slightly disappointed that Ryan had the problem he had because it would have been fun to race with Ryan and Roger Penske as well as Dario and Chip [Ganassi].
RACER: Looking ahead to Indy, something that's often forgotten in the hoopla surrounding Helio Castroneves scoring his third win last year is that for a long time in the race, Dixon and Franchitti were running 1-2, and that their problems in the pit prevented us from seeing a great three-way fight for victory. How can CGR eliminate those possibilities and earn its second Indy 500 win?
MH: Yeah, not too many people remember who finished after the guy whose face gets put on the Borg-Warner trophy. They forget that someone dominated the race to a certain point and then someone else of equal speed won it.
We work on making ourselves better every day, and the problems that got in our way at Indianapolis were magnified by the fact that you couldn't pass there! Going back to Ryan Briscoe, he had a really good car there last year, just like Scott and Dario did, but he got wedged farther back, and with a really fast car none of them could race their way back to the front. It used to be at Indianapolis that with a good car you could cut through the pack.
If you can't do that, then what you have to do is work on all the other things more carefully that surround that process. You have to work on the attention to detail more fully – every little item on the car has to be right, whether it's creating horsepower, friction reduction, the guys in the pit lane who perform the stops, with the driver in the way that he maybe saves one tenth of a gallon of fuel. All those things come under the microscope. That's what a team does before the next Indy 500 – analyze every single item and look at it with their eyes open, without any preconceived notions. That's what we've done…but guess what: we won't be the only team that's done that!
RACER: Bobby Rahal told me recently that one of the reasons the racing at Indy has suffered is that the apron isn't used anymore. Late in the race, you can only pass people on the straights, because the marbles on the high side restrict it to a one- or one-and-a-half groove track through the turns. And he's right: What Rick Mears and Michael Andretti did at Turn 1 in the closing stages of the 1991 race doesn't seem to be feasible anymore.
MH: Well, I think that's just part of a bigger problem. When you look at some of the cars that raced at Indy a generation ago, they had almost twice the horsepower of the current breed of Indy car. Now people say if you had 1000hp, then the driver just puts his foot down and he's going to be fast, but that's not really true. Combine that horsepower with the leverage that you create aerodynamically and mechanically and combine it with the tires you have. When there was a tire war going on, you had rubber with an enormous amount of grip, and combine that with the horsepower and the aero possibilities you had with multi-chassis in those days and then add drivers who were enormously talented who can use more than one line of a racetrack to get around people.
Think of 1993, when Arie Luyendyk passed Nigel Mansell around the outside in the closing stages of Turn 1; that pass alone – when neither of them were lifting – is a good comparison of where the cars were in terms of power and grip and where the drivers were in terms of talent at the Speedway. What's happened now is that we've morphed ourselves into a spec car situation and that has created spec drivers to a certain degree. I don't want to offend any current drivers, because a lot of them do have enormous ability, but if we took the drivers of today and put them into the cars we raced 15 years ago at the Speedway, think about how the talent would rise to the top. Suddenly America would be saying, “Wow, did you see that pass that Castroneves put on Dixon?” or “What about that pass that Franchitti put on Tracy?”
When you're talking about their kind of ability in racecars combined with technology – and I mean relevant technology that could be available to us – we'd see real racing and there would be people on the edge of their seats to watch that.
People don't want to go to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to see cars race processionally for 500 miles. But that's where we are today – and that's why we work so hard to pass someone in the pits there. The pit lane has become our racetrack! Chip Ganassi Racing erred with both guys last year in the pits and paid the price of the Indy 500 – which brings us back to your earlier question.RACER: Given that those little details can decide the outcome of the race, if Chip Ganassi Racing is not on the front row of the grid at Indy, that's no indication they're not going to be on the pace come race day, correct?
MH: The Indianapolis 500 is always two races: the race for pole and the race for 500 miles. Chip Ganassi Racing has been successful there if you define success as being on pole and winning the race. But by comparison to some of the other teams that have been there – the things that George Bignotti achieved as a chief mechanic [seven Indy 500 wins], the things that Penske Racing has done there over the years [15 wins] – what we've done is only scratching the surface of that. We're not going to feel very good for 24 hours after qualifying if we don't have at least one car on that front row, but we'll bounce back and we'll race. But I think the race for pole this year is going to be a lot of fun, and we want to be in that segment too.
RACER: Looking beyond Indy, will the Kansas race performance have a bearing on other circuits like Iowa?
MH: The way the season is broken down, we went through four road or street tracks, and Tony Cotman deserves a lot of credit for the track in Sao Paulo: he created a street course where there was actually passing! The reason was, instead of a standard 1.8-mile course, it was a 2.5-mile layout that was designed with passing in mind. That's what we used to do at Surfers Paradise. That should be the template for all future racetracks: there was added length to create passing zones, and the corner before the main straight was fast enough so that there could be a double pass on the straightaway.
But that was the exception. The fact is, the nature of road and street courses is that there is a limited amount of passing, so the first track after Brazil where we saw passing was Kansas. It was overshadowed by the fact that Dixon ran at the front all day, but there was still a lot of racing going on behind him. Oval racing should allow people to pass on the racetrack and, although Scott made it a sleeper at the front, it was exciting all the way farther down, and I think you'll see something similar at Texas, Iowa, Chicago and Homestead later in the year. That's why we need to mind our Ps and Qs on the road and street courses to remain in contention and then take advantage of the passing on the ovals.
RACER: Given Kansas, it must be encouraging to Ganassi to know the season ends with four consecutive ovals.
MH: Well I think it's encouraging in that it reminds us we're headed in the right direction with our team. Indy car racing is about the fastest cars and the fastest drivers and that's what you clearly see on ovals, particularly in person. If an audience member has never been to an Indy car race, the first one they go to should be an oval, because they'll stand back when they see the speeds of the cars exiting the fourth turn and coming past the start-finish line. They will not believe the speeds they're seeing. Someone visiting the Indy 500 for the first time should walk over to the exit of Turn 2, or walk to the short chute between 1 and 2 and watch what happens. If they're not turned onto the IndyCar Series by watching that…well, they're on Valium. That's what makes guys like us want to be involved in the sport – the sheer speed.
RACER: But I assume you are expecting your guys to be in contention on the road and street courses, too, right? Scott and Dario have pretty good track records there!
MH: Right. When I look in the dictionary under “S” for the definition of “street racing,” Dario's picture's right there. He gets up for street races, the team gets up with him, and he just understands the nature of driving over bumps more than any other guy we've been around. As a result, Scott has risen to the occasion and run really well on those courses. It's not that he didn't before, but there's no question that Dario's input has really helped us as a team on street courses, showing us how much better we can be as a team on bumpy circuits. I won't say how old he is, but he drives like a 20-year-old but one who has a lot of experience. Some purists in Indy car racing get upside down about the fact that, as well as ovals, we also race on road and street tracks, but actually that's what makes Indy car racing unique and also displays the overall talent of racecar drivers.