An interview with Mike Hull

IndyCar commentary, Interviews — By on December 22, 2009 10:05 pm
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(Originally posted by Steph to Planet-IRL.com.)

When presented with the opinions of a man who is a leader in a team that has recorded six top-tier open-wheel championships, two Indianapolis 500 victories and over 60 race wins during his tenure, one tends to think they’re likely to carry some weight.

Planet-IRL’s IRL Editor, Paul Dalbey, recently had the opportunity to chat with Mike Hull, Managing Director of Chip Ganassi Racing.  They covered myriad topics, from Hull’s beginnings in motor racing to the source of CGR’s successes and his thoughts on the future of IndyCar racing.

Hull’s personable and optimistic demeanor comes through right away as he humbly reveals his early interest in the sport.  “I was just a young and dumb kid in California that grew up loving motor racing,” he starts.  “I raced cars for a while when I lived in the western United States.  There was a guy that came along that wanted me to work on his race car, and I worked on it and he won some races, and I just kind of never looked back.”

“I met Chip Ganassi a long time before I went to work for him and didn’t really have a personal relationship or an interpersonal relationship but certainly knew him.  And it was actually at Indianapolis working on a guy’s car named Jimmy Vasser when he was a rookie at the Speedway – we had been California friends – and Chip was all over me at that time about coming to work for him because he was in the process of wanting to expand his team operation to be two cars, full-season, full-time.  And I made the plunge to come to work for Chip, not quite knowing where it was going to take me.”

He never says so explicitly, but Hull’s enthusiasm when discussing the culture at CGR suggests that he hasn’t regretted that decision for a moment.  “It might be like a foxhole culture, almost,” he says.  “It’s like we’re shoulder-to-shoulder on everything that we do here together, and that’s probably the definition of who we are at Chip Ganassi Racing.  We work together day in and day out, day and night, through success and failure to be better every day.  And we’ve been lucky enough to win some races doing that together.”

That healthy culture extends into the cockpit as well.  In his time at CGR, Hull has seen many great teammates come and go – the days of Vasser/Zanardi and Vasser/Montoya were within his time, for example – but he has glowing praise for the duo that gave his team the top two spots in the 2009 championship.  “By comparison to other teammates that we’ve had over time, the talent level is certainly similar,” he states.  “But the difference is that when you’re involved as a participant with these two guys one-on-one in a meeting when they’re not driving the car – and we’re talking with the engineering group and the management group and the drivers are sitting across from each other and they’re talking about how to make their cars better – they talk about everything.  Everything.  They don’t keep anything close to the vest.  We’ve had very, very good race drivers here that would give us 99% in front of the other driver but they wouldn’t give us 100%.  Zanardi used to say, ‘I always want to have a little bit in my pocket.’  And that’s exactly what race drivers do.  They want to have that little bit of an edge.  Well, these guys don’t want to have the edge with their teammate.  They want to help their teammate have an edge.  And that’s probably the biggest difference in terms of what we have today, and I think that was a great contributor to why we had the success we had with both drivers on given weekends for the entire season.”

It sounds like the CGR organization couldn’t be happier with their current line-up – drivers, crew, management, shop staff – and with good reason, based on their success in recent years.  So, is there any truth to the speculation that CGR wants to take this even further by adding a third car?

“At present, we’re not in a position to be able to do that,” Hull discloses.  “We don’t have a deal with anybody.  There isn’t anything presently that’s going to be announced.  We would like to have another entry in the IndyCar Series full-season, full-time – not a part-time deal, not an Indy-only deal.  But we would like to have it be a quality situation with equal sponsorship money, equal brand representation and equal talent driving the car.”

Fair enough.  But what about the mid-season rumors that the team was in talks with Danica?

“As an equal teammate to Scott and Dario, I think she’d do great things in one of our race cars,” he adds.  “There was some peripheral discussion with her during the summer, but nothing materialized, to be very honest about it.  And I don’t think we were the only people that she spoke to, but nothing really ever came from it.  But I would say that where she has chosen to continue to drive and the team that she has is equal in every respect to who we are.  And I think she’s made the right decision to continue, first of all, in IndyCar racing, and secondly, with driving for Andretti Autosport.”

It’s clear that Hull has a great deal of respect for his fellow competitors on the racetrack.  But when the topic shifts to what’s needed to secure the future success of IndyCar racing – a conversation that starts with whether the 2010 schedule has hit the right balance in the ratio of track types – his answers become much more candid.

“There’s not enough brand recognition for IndyCar racing today,” he opines.  “It’s a great kind of racing.  It’s a wonderful sport.  If we had 19 road races and one oval and the word coming on everybody’s lips was IndyCar because of it, it would be great.  If it was 19 ovals and one road track and all people talked about today in America was IndyCar racing, it would be great.  That’s not happening.  We need to have races that are promoted.  We need to have promoters that want to promote IndyCar racing.  So, the mix of races for us is secondary to the fact that it’s important to promote the brand.  We hope that some of these new races that are on the schedule will do that for us because that’s what’s sorely needed here.”

The new races are important, but not at the expense of losing history.  “I miss the fact that we’re not going to race at Milwaukee,” Hull adds with a hint of sadness.  “The tradition of that place and what it represents for IndyCar racing to me means we should be racing there.  We should fill that place up.”  The motivations behind his convictions go beyond the obvious, however.  “We shouldn’t race there just for the sake that we used to race there.  We should race there because it’s important for the brand, and we should fill it up at the same time.”

Hull falls just shy of pointing a finger of blame, but his comments on the shortfalls in promoting the series are revealing.

“We’re doing everything we can do as a race team.  Penske Racing is doing everything they can do.  Andretti Autosport is doing everything they can do.  Panther Racing is doing everything they can do.  I can go right down the list with every team that is a solid IndyCar team.  We’re doing everything we can do, number one, to maintain a business model, to stay in business, to promote the brand.  We have passionate, hardcore fans that will attend every race either in person, on the internet or, if they can get Versus, on Versus.  But where’s the promotion?  What’s going on, here?”

He does find a positive sign, though.  “We finally have a series sponsor, and I think that’s a great, great start.  Having Izod on board is the first step to making great things happen for us.  But we need to see some hardcore push on making this brand a lot bigger than it is.  Steady growth is very important, but it requires strong leadership.  It needs a long-term plan.  It needs real direction.”

And, of course, the hot topic of the moment when discussing the future of IndyCar racing is the 2012 car.  Hull’s view on the matter is rooted in history.  “The reason that a lot of us have been passionate about IndyCar racing for a long period of time is, for us, it represented innovation.  If you go find a picture from Indianapolis from 1975 and you take that photo and you put it next to a current Dallara, what do you see?  You see the same car.”

“Certainly, I’d be an advocate of what Ben Bowlby wants to do because I’ve worked with Ben here at Chip Ganassi Racing for a long time.  I believe in what he does because he’s a very innovative, forward-thinking guy.  But I don’t want to get sucked into a group-think situation here to where that’s the only answer.  The most important thing is to realize that the one thing we’re missing with IndyCar racing is we’re into this comfort zone with car technology.  Comfort zones are not what created the IndyCar brand.  We need to push this thing forward.  Whether Ben’s got the right idea or not, all it’s done is opened up the avenue for discussion.  But something needs to happen.”

And with the voices in the sport growing louder in favor of increasing speeds, how does that factor into the new design?  “I think when people realized that with the current design you could not keep the car inside the fence at 240 miles an hour, they had to be slowed down.  And that’s the area that there is now technology available that’s not currently being incorporated.  And it can be, but you’d have to start all over again with the car.”

But, interestingly, Hull sees a secondary issue.  “The present car, with the way it’s designed, can’t draft pass, even with some of the tweaks the IRL has brought back to us.  You can’t effectively get a big run on somebody with the present aerodynamic configuration.  That’s the second thing that we’re missing:  we’re missing the racing that we used to see.  The design for a new car has to be done in such a way, both with CFD work and tunnel work, aerodynamic work, to where we bring the passing back to the racing.  And that’s equally important to speeds at 230 miles an hour.  We want to see people go over 200 miles an hour that are actually able to pass each other on the racetrack safely.”

In looking to the future, the technology is just one part of the equation.  Hull has thoughts on the recently announced open-wheel ladder system as well.  “The downfall in the system today is the fact that it’s sink-or-swim when [young drivers] get in one of these cars because there’s no track time available,” he says.  “We need to get the costs down a lot more than that so that young kids, when they come along after 2012, will have the financial opportunity to get a lot of miles in the car.”

An enlightening anecdote illustrates the point.  “When Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi were driving together for us in 1996, Jimmy Vasser was the primary driver at that point and Alex was a guy that nobody knew.  And in those days in CART, we had a testing contract with Firestone; we had a testing contract with Honda.  So, in the wintertime, I don’t know that I ever spent any time at my house in Indianapolis.  I was on the road all winter because we were testing somewhere where it was conducive to test, where it was warm.  So, we were in California, we were in Arizona, we were in Florida – we were testing.  By the time our team got to the first race in 1996, Vasser had 20 days in a race car.  But guess what – so did Zanardi.  By the middle of July, Zanardi had 40 days in a race car away from the race weekends.  I don’t know that that’s a reality in today’s economy, but somehow or other, we need to find a balance where young drivers – and hopefully they come from the United States through this ladder system – are afforded that opportunity again, and the only way that can happen is to get the financial model back to where it needs to be.”

But, in the end, Hull’s positive demeanor shines through once again when addressing whether the new ladder system is on the right track for giving young drivers the opportunities they need.  “When you’re in racing for a length of time, you start as an optimist, and you have to pitch yourself every day to remain that way,” he replies.  “And the optimist in me says yes, we are, and let’s get on board and make it happen.”

This summary barely scratches the surface of the topics Paul covered with Mike Hull.  To hear the full interview, click on the link below.

Listen here

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