Photo: Joe Skibinski / Penske Entertainment

Q&A with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Mike Hull

By Kirby Arnold, Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS – Chip Ganassi Racing rolled out strong this week when practice began for the Indianapolis 500, with all five drivers among the fastest 10 after Day 1, Scott Dixon running second both days and former NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson in the top five twice. 

With qualifying Saturday and Sunday for the May 29 race, it’s setting up to be a strong month for the Ganassi team.

We spoke Thursday morning with Mike Hull, the team’s longtime managing director, about several topics concerning the 500 and IndyCar racing, from effective use of practice time this week to sandbagging to the star drivers of today vs. those he idolized years ago.

Motorsports Tribune: On how the team plans for four days of practice before qualifying, whether every minute of each day is mapped out, and what happens when there’s a complete washout like Wednesday. 

Mike Hull: It (the rainout) gives you time to re-evaluate where you are for the rest of the week. You plan based on priority and you sequentially organize yourself. If you have 10 items on your list and get to five or six, you’ve done a really good job.

Each day at Indianapolis most all the teams are like, when you start you may run your race brakes the first day, then they come off the car. The second day you may run your race clutch, the third day you may run your exhaust system. And those parts are constantly coming on and off the car, so you’re constantly going through things like that that have little to do with creating speed on the race track. It’s more making sure that you’re ready for the race aspect of what you do.

You wait for the track to rubber up. It takes probably 150 laps before you’re comfortable with the rubber that’s on the track on a given day. You’re trying to prepare yourself each day for a test plan as more rubber is put down. Now, with yesterday (rainout) happening, we’re starting all over today. There will be a lot of rubber put down by mid-afternoon, and that’s when you really start working on the race.

MT: On the importance of sheer speed compared with gathering data that’ll be valuable on race day. 

MH: You have two kinds of people who work here. You have the people who work on the race and the people who work on getting the big lap. If you have a really good race car you’re going to get a big lap, there’s no question. But you need to be constantly working on your car for the race. Basically you have Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday to get ready for the race, but we lost Wednesday (to rain) so we now have Tuesday/Thursday to get ready for the race.

Friday’s a speed day because they turn the boost up. That’s when you want to do exactly the opposite of what you’ve done Tuesday and Thursday.  You’ll sit in pit lane and you’ll wait and wait and wait and wait to get a lap, or two or three laps if you’re lucky, without any air on your car from somebody else. People don’t realize that when you exit Turn 4, you pick up a tow off a car that’s entering Turn 1. Just that little subtle difference.  It speeds you up, yes, but it changes the balance of your car.  So, Friday is a sole day to work for Saturday when the boost is up for qualifying.

Monday we go back to a two-hour practice session for the race, and Carb Day is a two-hour practice session. So if you think about this in practical terms, Tuesday you got five hours, Wednesday was a washout – we didn’t do anything but talk to each other – Thursday is six hours, two more hours on Monday and two hours on Carb Day. That’s 15 hours of track time to get ready for the race. Seems like a lot doesn’t it? 

MT: Seems like a lot, but not as much as it looks when you see a schedule with four full days of practice.

MH: That’s exactly right. IndyCar does a great job of getting us track time and they understand the value of getting it. This is a globally significant event in racing, and if not the best event then it’s certainly one of the top three. You (not only) find out if that’s enough track time, but you find out if you’ve managed the track time and you haven’t been greedy while managing it.

That’s the key. Greed is about getting the big lap in practice, and that’s what you want to erase from your mind. You know you’re going to get a big lap, but you’re working more on consistent 10-lap, 20-lap, 30-lap runs so you can truly be ready for the race without the entire crew, owner, driver smiling about, ‘I’ve found the top of the chart, I’m ready to go racing.’ That’s the worst thing that can happen to you in a way – to find the top of the chart and stop working on it. That’s greed, and greed’s not your friend at Indy.

MT: After Honda teams had eight of the fastest speeds in the opening practice, it wasn’t long before someone mentioned sandbagging among other teams. Does that really happen? (Note: It was more balanced after Thursday’s practice, with four Chevrolet teams among the top 10)

MH: We’re not a BOP series, luckily.  We don’t do it (sandbag). I don’t know if other people actually do it. We don’t pay attention to it. I remember when I first came to the speedway working on a race car at the Indy 500, they used to talk about Tom Sneva only doing two corners at a time, and people with stopwatches clocking him in those corners.  And I would remember Rick Mears would just go out and run laps.  I don’t know which of those two is better.

You have timeline data now and you can compare where you are to other people. But if you concentrate so much about that, you can forget about the target. It’s kind of like football when somebody throws the ball 30 yards downfield to a receiver and he’s already looking upfield at the defenders. He’s taking his eye off the main target. To me, that’s what you’re doing when you’re sandbagging. That’s such an ego thing. When ego becomes involved in sports of any fashion, your team doesn’t have enough natural talent to overcome that.

MT: Weather conditions for Friday’s practice will be much different (with expected wind gusts up to 30 mph) than previous days this week. How delicate will that make the balance on the car at a place where even small weather changes can make a big difference in performance?  

MH: I remember years ago, I worked with Morris Nunn. When he first came to Indianapolis, he worked for George Bignotti. He was with (driver) Roberto Guerrero then. They would go out and set fast times with Roberto, get the (setup) down and then get ready for the next day. But they would go out the next day and struggle. The second or third day into it, George told Morris first thing in the morning, ‘Let’s take a walk.’  He walked him out through old Gasoline Alley to the front straightaway. He asked, ‘Morris, what do you see that’s different than yesterday?’  Morris said, ‘I don’t know. It looks the same.’   Then George said, ‘Look at the flag.  The wind is completely different today.’  They went back to the garage and the car George was working on, he had completely changed the setup from the day before. Morris asked him, ‘What are you doing?’  George said, ‘You can’t run the setup you ran yesterday.’  

George would do things like that, and Morris would understand what it meant to run at Indianapolis on a daily basis to really chase the setup. In those days, they didn’t have all the in-car information that we have today to really tune the car before you run. You go on the track today and do a lap or two, you immediately see on the timing stand the telemetry what the aero balance is.  In those days, aero balance was determined by what the driver felt, not what the engineers saw. 

If you pay attention to the finer things with the tuning variables that are electronically sent by the download as well as the on-track telemetry, you can tune a car pretty effectively and understand what the track is doing. But the driver then needs to be cognizant of that to understand what the car will accept on a given day.  It’s a totally different thing, but there are a lot of things that are in common with the way we used to run race cars here.

MT: Speaking of previous eras, will there ever be a day when this won’t be a spec series?

MH: I think the dinosaur-ic part of us says it should be (that way). It would be great if we could develop our own race cars. But it’s all about funding. The car companies still develop their product, but the money they were using to finance the race teams is now being used moreso to market their product. The ownership of the product with individual race teams that they chose is not there in the same funding manner that it once was. 

We’ve learned to accept that, and as a result we’re still racing, and the sanctioning bodies have accepted it, and they’re trying to save us from ourselves and keep us in business. That’s why racing has become so much more competitive.

When we went to Pocono with the IRL, somebody asked when my first race at Pocono was. The first year I looked after a car was 1989, and the car I worked on was for Bernard Jourdain. We finished ninth in the race and we were eight laps down at the finish. The first year we raced the IRL car, there was one car out of 21 cars that wasn’t on the lead lap at the end of the race.

What would fans today rather see?  Would they rather see the kind of IndyCar racing we have today, which includes the Indy 500, with 25 cars on the lead lap on the last lap of the race? Or would they rather see three cars on the lead lap at the end of the race with the field spread out? That’s the byproduct of spec racing. It’s still the same competitive atmosphere, there’s a separation point with the better drivers, there’s no question about that. But which race would they rather see? The racing (now) is really, really good.

MT: Because of the competitiveness of spec racing from top to bottom of the field, can the greatest drivers separate themselves like those who were so clearly dominant years ago?

MH: I grew up being one of those young carnivorous kid fans. It started out watching on the black and white (TV) and knobs-on-radio days. I ate it up.  We went someplace in LA and watched the Indy 500 in a theater. I was lucky to grow up in Southern California where there were a lot of race teams, and got to see all those teams up close.

I saw generationally the best drivers in the world race those cars. It’s when A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti were the same size. I watched those two guys race against each other. Today people probably don’t realize how special those two guys were. They see them as icons, but they don’t understand that they could get in a race car and race against each other on a Friday night, on a Saturday night, on a Sunday, on a Wednesday night, in any kind of car and lap the entire field.  Everybody thought racing was fantastic then, and it was.

We have the same talent pool today. It’s a little overshadowed by the fact that it’s spec cars. You don’t truly understand that there are differences between some of the better drivers in IndyCar racing vs. some of the others. We’ve been blessed to be around Scott Dixon for a long time. He’s as talented as anyone I’ve ever seen drive a race car. But he’s overshadowed by the spec era.

MT: Because of that, what are the nuances the average fan can look for that show how much better he is?

MH: Drive style. That’s what drivers like Jim Clark or Dan Gurney or Mario Andretti or A.J. Foyt did. They adjusted their drive style not only from car to car, which they had to do, but also from lap to lap.

The tires were a big influencer in those days on speed. Everybody thought it was horsepower, but it wasn’t horsepower. What you had in those days was Goodyear and Firestone not only showing up with stacks of tires, but from weekend to weekend all new tires to create speed. It’s kind of what happened on the PGA Tour with the golf ball. The golf ball manufacturers haven’t stopped developing golf balls centered around the professional athletes. It was no different in those days with racing tires, with Formula 1, USAC racing, drag racing, you name it.

Drivers like Scott Dixon today do the same thing those guys did in terms of understanding the race track, understanding they’re continually having to change their style of driving to accommodate the subtle changes in the tires that constantly happen. He’s not the only one, certainly, but he’s one who stands out in understanding that.

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