If you happen to see Blair Julian this weekend at Road America, be kind and hand him an energy drink. Or five.
On the one free weekend everyone in the NTT IndyCar Series paddock dreamt of having off, coming after a punishing stretch from Long Beach in April through Texas in early June, Scott Dixon’s championship-winning crew chief headed to France and helped the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team’s GT effort at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
For the New Zealander (pictured at left, above), forfeiting the chance to recharge his batteries before the IndyCar season shifts into its second-half grind at Road America was well worth the sacrifice.
“It was a bucket list item for sure, just with the association with the history with Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme and Chris Amon and the great drivers from New Zealand that were involved in the initial Ford GT40 program 50 years ago with the factory,” Julian told RACER.
“Then with the opportunity with Scott [Dixon] going to race again with the team, the more I learned about that history, the more stuff I read about it, the more I wanted to be involved in it. Just thinking it would be pretty cool if Scott was lucky enough to get the win there to be involved with the factory deal and have some sort of link to those guys from 50 years ago.”
Having won its class on Ford Chip Ganassi Racing’s Le Mans debut in 2016, the 2019 race was identified as the final outing for the factory Ford GTs in France. Although the Kiwi has helped with Ganassi’s Grand-Am and IMSA domestic endurance racing efforts in the past, Julian knew last weekend’s 24-hour race would be the last opportunity to partake in the legendary event.
“I had been pleading up and down with management here since that program came about and tried to make deals with Mike Hull and Scott Harner and everyone who I could get to listen to me for a minute on why I should go and try and get myself there but yeah, it all came together and super thankful that the team allowed me to do it and it was a great experience,” he said.
“Obviously people connect me with the Ganassi IndyCar team, but I have done quite a few of the Rolex 24 at Daytonas. I don’t know if I was silly enough or whatever, but I am always going to put my hand up to volunteer for that stuff just because I like the exposure to seeing a different approach to it, a different culture, and so for me to do Le Mans and learn there was cool.”
As a guest addition to FCGR’s well-honed sports car outfit, Julian found himself in a different role once he arrived in France. Accustomed to calling the shots with Dixon’s No. 9 Honda, it was Julian’s turn to follow orders — this time with the No. 68 Ford GT driven by Joey Hand, Dirk Muller, and Sebastien Bourdais — led by one of his former IndyCar protégés.
“I didn’t really have a set position when we talked about going, I just kind of sort of fell in where I needed to,” he continued. “But I ended up doing the signboard for the 68 car, which doesn’t sound too important but there it is because you’ve got to make sure all the guys are back behind the white line before you flip the lollypop to start the engines and send the car, so there was a lot of different aspects and different awareness that you had to have for that position, which was cool.
“And it was also cool that I got a chance to work with Tyler Rees, who was a mechanic that worked with me on Scott’s car for a few years. When he started at the shop, Tyler was 18 years old, so it was pretty cool to watch him come through the different levels of it from our team and sort of progress his way up to the crew chief position on one of the GT cars when that program came about. So very cool to see him mature in his role in the team.
“And also Jamie Coates, another Kiwi, was on the IndyCar side and now he’s on the GT program, so it was great to sit back and watch those guys lead their teams. It gave me an opportunity to watch and see how they interact, to learn how that team does it and see what stuff I can take and translate back to the IndyCar side of it. I certainly wasn’t just going there to hang out. I wanted to be embedded in the team and working, so it was very beneficial, I thought.”
Having wrenched and crewed at the Indianapolis 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans — the two biggest races in the world — in less than a month, Julian enjoyed the different rhythms observed between the contests.
“It was just all completely different curves because I drew a line from that being the biggest sports car race in the world to the Indy 500 just as far as the approach and the pomp and ceremony and so on before the race,” he said. “But it was a different deal because you do the warm-up on Saturday morning, and then you have like three hours or something before you’ve got to be back out on grid. So there’s not as much standing around waiting for the process to go through its paces like race day at Indy. You’re busy from the start, which was kind of nice because you don’t really allow yourself the nerves or whatever to set in or you’re constantly moving.
“For the 68 car, we had a pretty uneventful race. We had a little damage on the nose early on, but that was about it. We didn’t go to the garage for any issue mechanically or damage-wise, so that was it. I think anytime you go for a 24-hour battle like that, it’s a pretty big achievement to be able to keep the car together and keep out of trouble for that long.”
The work of Julian, Rees, and the rest of the No. 68 Ford GT team would be unwound in post-race technical inspection as the car’s fourth-place finish was deleted after its fuel cell was found to carry more than the 97-liter maximum. Despite any disappointment he might carry after Le Mans, the main sentiment Julian has brought to Road America is a sense of appreciation for being able to achieve his dream of competing at the great 24 Hours race.
“The whole event was a highlight event for me,” he said. “It was going to be my first weekend home in a long time, and I’m very lucky that my wife was cool enough to let me do it. She was a trooper, and we’ve got two young kids, so another weekend away from home with it being so busy for so long…I definitely felt guilty doing it. But she’s amazing for allowing me to do it — and now I can say that I’ve done Le Mans.”