Elton Julian has been racing long enough to know the good fortunes that visited his DragonSpeed team at St. Petersburg cannot be expected to return this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park.
Formed by the open-wheel racer-turned team owner, the upstart program made a sizable splash on its NTT IndyCar Series debut last month with British rookie driver Ben Hanley. The wise call to venture out early in qualifying to set a fast time, rather than wait towards the end as many teams prefer, paid dividends when red flags and penalties knocked some veterans out of the session; Hanley squeaked through to the Firestone Fast 12 round as a result.
The 34-year-old Briton would end up starting 12th in the No. 81 DragonSpeed Chevy and finishing 18th on a day where Julian’s sports car team, one that spends the majority of its time competing in the FIA World Endurance Championship, learned plenty about the flow strategy involved with an IndyCar event. It can only help as the team embarks on its second of five IndyCar races scheduled for 2019.
“First, massive respect for the competition,” Julian told RACER. “You expect, you assume, you measure what you think it’s gonna be. You love the challenge, expect some small gains, passing a couple of guys would be nice, on pace. Getting to where we need to be this weekend would be great, but we’re still wanting to do basic stuff like [suspension] geometry changes, and wondering what they do. That’s normal stuff for everyone else, but we’re still at the start of learning this stuff.”
The late arrival of DragonSpeed’s new Dallara DW12 chassis kept the team from testing until days before St. Pete. Given a bit of time between races, the team was recently able to log 40 laps at Barber, where Hanley and his engineers learned more about their machine.
“It was good for Ben to experience the track; we didn’t get as much running as we wanted, but we made some big changes and they took a lot longer than expected, but we got to run around,” Julian said. “We got a feel for it; we learned a little bit, made some damper changes for the weekend, and continued to learn, practiced pit stops for the first time; that was nice.
“I’m so looking forward to getting back out there and continuing to learn and just learn the track evolution; learn the tire, and all that stuff. And St. Pete was fantastic, but in quali and the race, we were able to mask a lot of our issues. Barber – it won’t be as easy to hide.”
An unknown quantity outside of Europe, Hanley has been showing the potential Julian expected to see, and to his amusement, the Briton has found a friend in a fellow rookie almost half his age.
“It’s such a huge opportunity for him and it’s so late in his career that he’s obviously pressed to make an impression,” he said. “We’ll temper our expectations but for Ben; he’s on the pace and it’s up to us to give him a car that he can use, and what I’m really happy about is what I’ve banked on from day one, which is the relationship between the team and the driver.
“Ben’s made some interesting friendships in the paddock; him and Colton Herta seem to be getting along pretty well. It was really cool to find that. The one driver that came and talked to Ben at St. Pete was Colton. Multiple times. I have mad respect for the kid, obviously on track, but off the track, he came to Ben and he was like, ‘Damn, your car looks like s*** to drive, Ben!’ Ben said, ‘I know! It’s horrible’ and they had a laugh about it.”
On the technical front, DragonSpeed will have a new development to try this weekend in the all-important area of dampers.
“Now we understand the pace, and dude, these teams are quick,” Julian added. “I’ve seen everybody talks about the damper scenario in IndyCar, and yeah, it’s a big, big program. We’ve done a lease program with the Penske Racing Shocks guys, who are separate from what Team Penske uses on their cars, but you hope that they can give you some guideline as to what they think is good and we need. There’s three different dampers coming to Barber to try.
Take an unfamiliar team like DragonSpeed to IndyCar, and the usual outcome is distance between its members and the established outfits. From one weekend so far as part of the IndyCar community, Julian is amazed at the reception his multi-national team has received on pit lane.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been in anything like it,” he said. “What a paddock, what camaraderie, what friendliness. Okay, we’re not a threat yet. And that will change. So maybe we’ll lose 60 percent of the people we’re friends with now. But never mind. Unbelievable, dude. Didn’t matter what engine they had, from Billy [Vincent] over at Schmidt to guys with Dale Coyne, guys at Foyt. Did you know we raced at St. Pete with a loaned oil cooler from Foyt?
“We had a completely brand-new car, brand new everything, and the oil cooler just, every session we were overheating. It’d be two laps out, oh, you’ve got to pit, it’s overheating. We thought maybe it was the plumbing, maybe we did something wrong. It was nothing, and all we did at the end, one of the Chevy guys walked me over there to meet the Foyt guys, said that we needed an oil cooler, they opened the the door and lent us an old oil cooler that solved all our problems.
“Then I’m watching the race, and for the first 30 laps we’re running out in front of the Foyt drivers, and I’m thinking, this this doesn’t happen anymore. Not in the racing I’ve done for the past 20 years. So, it was super cool.”
Intent on returning in 2020 for a full-time campaign, Julian’s feedback so far on the series would suggest DragonSpeed has made the right decision for its expansion into open-wheel racing.
“The main story here for us is the championship, the IndyCar organization, and to have [series president] Jay Frye come to us after the race in St. Pete and shake the hand of every single mechanic and congratulate them and say you’re welcome to be here, we’re happy you’re here,” he revealed.
“You know that’s stuff I don’t normally care about, but it meant a lot. And it meant a lot to the boys. Because I’m like, ‘do you know who that was?’ I had never expected they knew who that was, but they were like, ‘yeah, we know who that is.’
“We’re keeping our heads down, keeping expectations in check, and just want to get through Barber, not embarrass ourselves, have a clean race, get covered with strategy and see what happens. And then we’ll get Ben ready for his first oval test before we go to the big one at Indianapolis.”