Elton Julian figures McLaren likely has more money invested in its hospitality tent than he’s got in his whole DragonSpeed IndyCar operation. But, the full-time sports car team that took on Indianapolis with a savvy owner, rookie driver, veteran engineer and makeshift crew scored a major victory for the little guys on Saturday.
Ben Hanley, a 31-year-old sports car whiz who had never been on an oval until his rookie test a few days ago at IMS, did a superb job by qualifying at 227.482 mph in DragonSpeed’s unsponsored Chevy-powered Dallara. That was good for 27th overall, but it felt like the pole position to Julian and his crew.
“It’s the biggest day I’ve ever had in racing,” exclaimed Julian, who was the youngest winner in British Formula 3 history (17) and on a fast track to F1 that never panned out during his driving days. “Ben and I aren’t emotional guys, but he admitted that he had to hold it in on his cool-off lap.
“I am just so proud of this team and their effort,” the overjoyed owner went on. “This is why you go racing.”
Hanley is as even-keeled as his driving and it showed: “It’s been an amazing experience,” said the former Le Mans winner. “We know we are new and we don’t have the experience that probably any other team out there has, but we are a high-quality group.
“It was a pretty good run and the car was the best it’s been all week. Maybe I took a little risk on the last lap, but I needed to nail that last lap to put it together.”
For a team based in France that competes in both the FIA World Endurance Championship and European Le Mans Series, coming into the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indy 500 with zero experience and no budget to speak of was … optimistic.
“Indy is 100 times more daunting than you can imagine, and it drains you emotionally and every other way,” said Julian. “I always thought we were on the ropes, but we never dropped our guard.
“We made the right decision today and picked the right time to run, and Ben did a great job.”
If the fact his team has no sponsor or oval-track experience wasn’t a big enough hurdle, four of Julian’s top mechanics were denied entry into the USA because of visa issues after leaving a sports car race in Monza, Italy. So DragonSpeed had to hire several local mechanics at the start of last week, which is when he hooked up with veteran race engineer John Dick.
“John was recommended by people I respect, and I met with him last Monday,” Julian explained. “He’s meshed so well with my technical director, Paul Thomas, who has learned from JD, and I love his level of experience.”
Safely in the show, Julian was asked about the ongoing search for sponsorship. “There is space available,” he laughed.
It would likely be a good bargain for one of the best stories of the month.