With Oct. 16 marking one year since Dan Wheldon's passing at the Las Vegas IndyCar finale, RACER.com reflects on some of the popular Briton's career milestones. Today, Target Chip Ganassi Racing team manager Mike Hull looks at Wheldon's debut with the team, a win in the 2006 Rolex 24 at Daytona with co-drivers Scott Dixon and Casey Mears.
Dan Wheldon entered 2006 on a high – fresh off a dominant 2005 season that saw his first Indianapolis 500 victory, one of six wins that earned him his first IndyCar championship. Those were accomplished with Andretti Green Racing but the reigning champion shifted to Target Chip Ganassi Racing in 2006.
His debut with the team didn't come in IndyCar. Instead, his first race for Chip was the 2006 Rolex 24 at Daytona driving a Daytona Prototype in an “all-star” second entry comprising Ganassi's non-sports car drivers. Wheldon, Scott Dixon and Casey Mears raced the No. 02 Riley Lexus, with usual drivers Scott Pruett, Luis Diaz and Max Papis in the team's No. 01.
CGR team manager Mike Hull was immediately blown away by Wheldon's presence and appreciation for the new atmosphere on his first day of work in the team. That set the scene for Dan's Ganassi debut later in January.
“It's so hard to know what to expect when you hire a driver, not so much when you only look at his or her on-track résumé, but more how they're gonna establish themselves in a team atmosphere,” he says. “But the first day he came here, it felt as though he'd been with us for years.
“He enjoyed people from the pure fact that everybody is different, everybody has their own style, and he immediately accepted everybody for who they are and didn't try to change them! He tried to get the most out of himself, which in turn got the most out of everyone else. It didn't matter the mix in terms of drivers or what they'd done. It was the fact he could get them together. I don't know that anyone I've met has the qualities he had to make people better.
“And that was key because in the 24 Hours of Daytona, it's one racecar and three drivers. You find out right away where you stand as a driver, how your driving style compares and how you can support your teammates. Dan was ‘in it' right from the start, and so much fun to work with.”
His personality was “in it,” but his style wasn't. It was instead more befitting of a single-seater driver, not a sports car one, in his first stint in the car. The team qualified second and Dixon started, Mears ran next with Wheldon to follow. Immediately, Hull was concerned that Dan's eagerness and pushing like mad would set the car back and lead to reliability issues.
“As an open-wheel guy, you think about the Indy 500 as an endurance race, and at the end, your tongue might be hanging out,” he notes. “So I'm sitting on the box, thinking, ‘OK, Dixon ran, Casey gets this concept,' and then Dan gets in and I start wondering how the hell he finished the Indy 500s he did! He now has to understand that we have to go the equivalent of more Indy 500s than he's raced in his career!
“So yes, reining him in was what we had to do. We didn't have a choice; it was on-the-job training. We couldn't come back and start over tomorrow. I'd never been with him on the radio before. Now I'm on the radio and I have to tell him how to drive the car – but he's a guy who's won the Indy 500!
“But that's what made it fun. We didn't waste any time. All the guys on the intercom were saying, ‘We gotta wrap him up quickly, and to win, all the components have to last.' There was no question what we needed to do, but he learned quickly he could change his driving style, and keep working on the car. As long as he kept in touch with the leaders, the change wasn't an issue.”