A stranger walked into the lobby at Chip Ganassi Racing and asked the receptionist if Mike Hull was available. Its Indianapolis headquarters are well known to locals. On occasion, Hull (pictured above) has taken the time to give fans a tour of the facility that houses its IndyCar and sports car operation.
“It was in the the winter of 2014, I believe, and I was in my office working,” he said. “Our receptionist came upstairs and she said, ‘There’s a young guy down in the lobby looking for you, and he’s a European person.’ I said, ‘Well, all right, let him know I’ll be right there.’”
But this stranger wasn’t interested in a quick walk-and-talk through the building to see the walls lined with championship-winning open-wheelers and shop bays filled with mechanics working at a steady clip.
“So I go down there and it’s Kevin Magnussen! And he hadn’t called in advance, or sent an email or a text, or had an agent called me or a third-party person to open dialogue with us,” Hull said. “He showed up in the lobby and said ‘Hello!’ We introduced ourselves and we talked about racing for probably about 90 minutes. He wanted to know about our culture, who we are, how we raced. He wanted to know about IndyCar racing.”
On the strength of an impressive Formula 1 debut with McLaren in 2014, Magnussen learned his seat would be given to the inbound Fernando Alonso. Out of a drive, the Dane headed to America in search of an IndyCar opportunity with Andretti Autosport, but his employers blocked the move and held him in a test and reserve role for the following season.
“He was in town because he had been invited by another team, one of our competitors, but he took the time on his own accord to come over to our building,” Hull continued. “He said, ‘I was just in the area and I thought I’d take a chance and see if you were here.’ And he said, at the time, that he was hopeful to continue racing in Formula 1, but he said, ‘If it doesn’t work out, and you have a seat, at least we’ve met each other.’
“So I was really impressed with that because he didn’t come in with an entourage, he didn’t arrange something formal in advance; he just walked in the door and wanted to talk from one racer to another. And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’”
When it came time to find the best available driver for its new Cadillac DPi-V.R program in IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, a longstanding bridge between both sides made for an easy relationship to build.
“What’s interesting about that is in the process of what we do, each time that we’re in a position to choose drivers, we talk to maybe a half-dozen to a dozen drivers that we think we should have a conversation with,” Hull said. “And oftentimes, in the first go-round, we very rarely hire them. That first conversation tells us almost everything we need to know about them. It’s in the first time we talk where you find out who the real race car drivers are.
“The real racers, they want to talk about racing. They don’t want to talk about money, they don’t want to talk about the prize money percentage they’d get, they don’t want to talk about how they’re going to travel and how they want everything to be first-class hotels and flights. When they become a race driver for Chip Ganassi, the real ones know they’ll have the resources to help them be a better race driver. All the other stuff, the business side and the perks, you almost have to force them to talk about that part because that isn’t what motivated them to get into this sport. That’s what separates the true racers from the rest. And that’s what Kevin did that day when he showed up out of the blue. That impressed me.”
Hull found Magnussen’s new teammate, Cadillac DPi-V.R veteran Renger van der Zande, to be a perfect match for the racer’s mindset prized by Ganassi.
Fresh from three seasons spent in Wayne Taylor Racing’s Cadillac, the Dutchman shared the V8-powered prototype with CGR IndyCar team leader Scott Dixon, who joined WTR at IMSA’s longest endurance races. The report card offered by the six-time champion made it an obvious call for Hull to make when it was learned that van der Zande would not be retained by WTR as it switched to Acura.
“I asked Scott about him; what are his strengths and weaknesses? Is he a teammate? Is he a team player? Is he unselfish? How does he fit in the system? How does he contribute?” Hull shared. “We had an inside preview of him before we spoke, and that made a big, big difference. The way that he works with (Cadillac chassis builder) Dallara was really, really important for us because we’ve had a terrific relationship with Dallara for a long, long time, and we were very interested in that also. We looked at all of those things.
“You can always pick up the phone and call somebody that can give you a very positive or very negative reference, or a reference that involves the detail of your character, as well as your ability on the racetrack. And you’ll get a variety of opinions that might lead you towards a driver, or away from them. But Scott’s assessment was invaluable.
“Renger fit all the things we asked about in a very positive manner. We think he’ll fit our culture quite well. He was the same, like Kevin — I did meet with him, face-to-face, and we talked about racing for six hours. I was really impressed with Renger and he almost had to make the offer, because all he wanted to talk about was motor racing. So now we’re here, with two like-minded racers together as teammates, and it might not be a coincidence.”