PRUETT: Around the world and back to Sebring

PRUETT: Around the world and back to Sebring

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PRUETT: Around the world and back to Sebring

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I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been to Sebring, and for those among us who work in both open-wheel and sports car racing, the crater-filled 3.7-mile circuit often feels like a second home. Between constant pre- and post-season Indy car testing on Sebring’s short course – a loop made by turning right toward Turn 3 after cars exit Turn 13, and full-course sports car testing and racing on the 17-turn layout, it’s easy to make at least a half-dozen visits per year.

Thinking about the various TUDOR United SportsCar Championship entrants who’ll compete for the first time at the upcoming Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, it dawned on me that many of the current IndyCar teams that frequent the 1.7-mile short course have also taken part in the 12 Hour. Andretti Autosport (under the Andretti-Green Racing banner) competed with their Acura P2s, Penske Racing led Porsche’s P2 effort, Rahal Letterman Lanigan continues to run BMW’s GT Le Mans effort, and if we reach back a few decades, A.J. Foyt Racing has a rich history at the 12 Hour.

The one IndyCar team that stood out as a glaring omission from the list is Ganassi Racing, which prompted an exchange with managing director Mike Hull to dig through their testing data. Ganassi’s Grand-Am Rolex DP team won five championships before the series merged with the ALMS, but they’ve never raced at Sebring – in the 12 Hour or any other event. The amount of miles they’ve completed in Indy car testing on the short course, however, is nothing less than staggering.

“Based on what our engineers were able to pull up, since Ganassi Racing first started testing at Sebring in 1994, we’ve done just over 30,000 miles!” Hull said with a sense of awe.

If you want to put that in some form of context, Audi Sport Team Joest completed 364 laps on the way to winning the 12 Hour race last year. Based on that 1361-mile distance completed by Audi and the 30,000 miles the team has completed over the past 20 years on the short course, Ganassi’s Indy car team has run the equivalent of the 12 Hours of Sebring an incredible 22 times.

Kenny Brack in the Target Ganassi Lola at Sebring in 2002. (LAT archive photos)

 

Put another way, the circumference of the earth is approximately 24,900 miles: Tucked away at the far end of the track, away from cameras and public viewing, drivers like Dario Franchitti, Michael Andretti, Scott Dixon, Kenny Brack, Dan Wheldon and many others have helped Ganassi Racing to circle the globe in Indy car testing and tack on an extra 5000 miles or so for good measure.

“I was there for the first test in ’94 and you have to understand we’re process-oriented people,” said Hull. “We don’t think about stuff like that; we only thought about running that test on that day. We never thought about the fact that we’ve accumulated so many miles.

“[Ganassi NASCAR Sprint Cup driver] Kyle Larson and I were talking about this last night after I told him we researched how many miles we’d done, and he asked me how close it was to going around the world. I told him I figured it was close, and it’s pretty wild to know we’ve actually gone farther than that.”


Finally, after the walls between ALMS and Grand-Am came down, Hull and the Ganassi team will get to race on the legendary course when their Ford EcoBoost-powered DP program takes the green flag in the 12 Hour on March 15. Despite the 30,000 miles of testing, the team is busy figuring out the sections of Sebring they’ve avoided for so many years.

IndyCar teams intentionally limit their running to the short course due to its high grip and comparatively smooth surface conditions. With massive downforce and incredibly low ride heights, using the rest of the rock-em-sock-em circuit – into Turn 14, through the bends, onto the back straight and around the final corner – would be like passing the open-wheel cars through a meat grinder at 200mph.

That leaves a team with more miles than most at Sebring – or half of Sebring, to be accurate – in the odd position of being highly experienced on 50 percent of the track and virtual newcomers to the most punishing portions. Their attendance at the recent TUDOR Championship test at Sebring was useful and productive, but Hull says all of the information gained on the short course won’t provide a significant advantage at the 12 Hour.

“It could actually hurt us if we concentrated on all we’ve learned there,” he admitted. “I don’t care how many miles we’ve done in the past; running the full layout with our sports cars has been treated like a brand-new lesson for us to learn, so in that regard, you could say Ganassi Racing is learning just like the other teams that will compete there for the first time.”

Hull, as he’s prone to do, offered a classic take on what it’s like to graduate from the short course to the big track.

“It’s like going from a pillow to a trampoline!” he snickered. “Whether you’ve raced a million times on the full course or just the short track, Sebring is two distinct creatures, so tying both together is a real change for any team. Our engineers have been very open to how much it takes to excel in every corner and with all of the challenges it poses.”

Our conversation ended with another gem from the forward-looking team boss.

“Now that we’ve circled the earth, I guess we need to figure out what to circle next!” Hull said with a big laugh.

Given the chance, Ganassi Racing could be headed for the moon.​

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