As the prospects of finding a manufacturer to replace its outgoing partner Ford started to dim, Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull and the team’s leadership began thinking of talent preservation.
With a turnkey crew, one that won Le Mans, the Rolex 24, and 17 other races for the Blue Oval during the four-year GT program, ready to deploy on behalf of a new auto brand in IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, CGR spent most of 2019 trying to keep its IMSA band together after Ford’s exit from the series.
Facing the official end of the Ford GT program at Petit Le Mans, Hull and CGR’s senior brass crafted a plan to retain as much of its IMSA team as possible by expanding its NTT IndyCar Series fleet.
There’s a self-serving motive to acknowledge; CGR wants to continue in IMSA as soon as another manufacturer is signed — once more with Ford, possibly, when the new 2022 DPis arrive — which places great value in having the personnel in place to offer.
And there’s also a less selfish motivation to recognize. Having pulled many of its IMSA crew members over from CGR’s former four-car IndyCar program, the Ford GT effort was staffed by a variety of team veterans who’ve remained committed to the outfit during major changes.
Where some teams prefer to save money by cutting their payroll the moment a season or program has come to an end (one IndyCar team fired a few employees minutes after the checkered flag last month in Monterey, ensuring they would not be included in a post-race meeting, much less able to say farewell when the survivors were alerted to the cuts…), CGR chose to keep fighting for its crew.
The result has come in the form of a third IndyCar entry for Marcus Ericsson. Just as numerous CGR IndyCar team members moved sideways to IMSA, plenty are headed back to IndyCar to run the Swede’s No. 8 Honda in 2020. Highlighted by the proven chemistry within Ericsson’s new crew, Hull is rather pleased with how smoothly the reassignment plan is working out.
“The biggest resource that you really have in racing is people, and I think it goes beyond that,” he told RACER. “It’s how people work together and how they support each other that makes the differences. Then you work to create momentum which then creates the success together. And you share that equally. And that creates the culture of who you are, whether it be in motor racing as a sport, or Major League Baseball, or whatever it is. That’s what makes the difference. That’s how you’re defined.”
Drawing back to the sizable achievements of the Ford CGR team, Hull says being able to offer an Ericsson, or a new potential IMSA partner, a ready-made group of winners has made a difference in the team’s fortunes.
“And that’s what partners appreciate about motor racing, our commercial partners,” he added. “The internal partnership then extends to the commercial partners, and you work really, really hard to get your group of people to appreciate each other and work hard for each other all the way through the process. And so when you have people like we’ve had work for us that have tenure, it’s really important to try to support that effort by continuing to have entries for them to work on, no matter what series it’s in.”
Although the entirely of the Ford CGR program will not remain with the organization, Hull spent time with each crew member, and later with the team as a whole, to identify those who wanted to stay and support its three-car IndyCar effort.
“Like so many things in racing, the process we’re going through is about timing,” he said. “It’s not a wholesale move where all of the No. 66 and No. 67 Ford people Are going to the No. 8 car. Some have said the timing is right for them to make a change, and we respect that. Some won’t go from IMSA to IndyCar; we have other roles within the organization that can be filled if there are opportunities, and that’s their choosing.
“And the No. 8 car won’t be an ‘IMSA’ team; it will be an IndyCar team that has people that are vocationally prepared to work with IndyCar people. But the reality is there’s a group here with a serious amount of IndyCar experience that has been in IMSA for us.”
Hull also anticipates some of Ericsson’s crew members, who joined the Ford project as new hires, will get their first look at IndyCar with the No. 8 entry.
“I think internal mentoring defines a vocational position on a race team, and that’s a long way of saying that what we would call a front end mechanic on a sports car is trained in the same way that a front end mechanic is trained on an Indy car at Chip Ganassi Racing,” he said.
“And we don’t look at having to totally retrain somebody when they move to a different kind of race car. The job list is very similar. The preparation in the building is very similar. The support system for that person is very similar, if not the same. So a wishbone is a wishbone for us, an upright is an upright for us, a transmission is a transmission for us. And the way it’s treated, the way it’s disassembled and reassembled is the same. The attention to detail is really the critical element, no matter what your position is on the team, and that’s how we look at it.”
Shifting gears to the drive in question, Hull says the conversations he and Ganassi held with Ericsson left them feeling confident about all that can be achieved by adding a new name to the mix with five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon and 2019 Rookie of the Year Felix Rosenqvist.
“I don’t know how to rate Marcus compared to what other people say about him,” he offered. “I only know about looking him in the eye and talking to him about racing. When you talk to a race driver, what you want to talk about is racing first. You don’t want to talk about sponsors. You want to find out what makes that person tick. And then you certainly have researched that person’s background, which we did. We looked at how he started, what he did when he started, what he did when he won in Formula 3, what he did when he won in other formulas.
“A person who drove for us was a guy named Kenny Brack, who originally was part of the initiative to get to Marcus to Formula 1. I called Kenny and I talked to Kenny about it, and it gave me a great understanding of who Marcus Ericsson is. And as I said earlier, it’s all about timing, and with timing then comes the match-up of what you have available at that point in time. And the fact that Marcus has run for an entire season — missed one race, but has run for an entire season — that part of the training program is taken care of, which is a big, big help. That’s a big bonus. He’s already gone to the racetracks. He’s already understand what it’s going to take to get to the next level for race craft.
“He’s proven that he’s fast. We just need to work on the rest of it with him. He’ll have two really good teammates, and we feel that he’ll be a good teammate in return. And it helps our initiative going forward with IndyCar, especially with the present landscape. Let’s face it, we’re racing against teams that have at least two if not three people on the grid. And it’s important to have teammates that support each other, in this case as a threesome, in order to gain maximum team results. This makes Chip Ganassi Racing stronger.”