PFANNER: Racing is learning

Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images

PFANNER: Racing is learning

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PFANNER: Racing is learning

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Life is a race to get it done before you transition to a “was” from an “is”. During my own 67-lap race to now, I’ve met some amazing competitors who’ve gotten far more done than the rest of us and they continue to earn “is” status.

Perhaps the most impressive person among them is my lifelong friend Mike Hull, whom I met in January 1973. At that time, he was a serious, top-level SCCA Formula Ford racer and an instructor at the Jim Russell Racing School.

From the moment I met him, I was impressed and touched by his gift for communication that motivated and inspired those around him. I was also fortunate to have him as my SCCA driving school instructor where he wryly wrote in my driver’s logbook “nice job on the straights” which continues to motivate me to deliver more speed in the curves that life throws at me.

But my most important experience with Mike came when I was racing a new 1979 Van Diemen RF-79 Formula Ford prepared by the Formula Ford team he managed. It was my first time racing a current-model FF after four years of racing old cars in just five starts to that point. But I’d always moved forward by at least ten positions in those races and I’d even gotten to the front in a 4-year-old car that Mike and his team had prepared.

Mike believed in me — regardless of my very limited experience, my mistakes and my persistent immature behavior. And I believed in Mike because of his calm, wise and confident demeanor that always focused on solutions and results.

On the afternoon of Sept. 1, 1979, I sat with Mike for a post-qualifying debrief. The first practice session had gone well and I was in the top 5 in a 50-car field. But the second session was qualifying, and it had been a letdown. I’d not improved my lap times and all the other drivers on the team went faster. I was now 12th on the grid and delivering a spew of excuses that Mike was not buying.

He stopped me mid-sentence and said, “I thought you wanted to be a racing driver,” and paused to add, “but you are showing potential as an excuse maker.” Mike then looked me in eyes and said, “Racing is learning…”

And now, 43 years later, we’ve both done exactly that. We’ve learned from our failures and our successes to keep moving forward. I am very proud of my 49-year friendship with Mike and all he has accomplished in racing and in life — especially during his nearly three decades at Chip Ganassi Racing Teams where he serves as managing director.

Mike Hull and Paul Pfanner in 1979 (left, image by Jeff Zwart) and 2022 (image by Max Jones)

On Sunday, Chip Ganassi Racing was the team to beat and was perfectly positioned to make history again in the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 with five excellent racers in superb cars that could win the race. Just stop for a moment and consider the effort and planning that it took to get to that point. Most importantly, consider the collective learning that was involved and then you will understand that is at the heart of this great team’s enduring success.

After misfortune befell CGR’s pre-race favorites, Scott Dixon and Alex Palou, it was Marcus Ericsson who delivered Chip Ganassi Racing’s fifth Indy 500 in a thrilling final shootout with Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward while CGR’s Tony Kanaan came through in third place as 2021 NTT IndyCar champion Alex Palou recovered from an early penalty, not of his own making, to finish ninth.

Forgive me, but I can’t help but wonder if Mike said “nice job on the straights” to Marcus after the race following his wild moves to break the draft for his pursuers during the final two laps.

Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing’s newest Indy 500 winner. Brett Farmer/Motorsport Images

Chip Ganassi is fond of saying “I like winners” and I will admit that I do too — especially the brilliant and relentless men and women who’ve built Chip Ganassi Racing Teams into the temple of winning mindset that it has become.

I will add that the same can be said of the remarkable men and women at Honda Performance Development who were central to the outstanding performance delivered on Sunday.

All of you are living proof that life works with commitment and victory travels at the speed of thought.

I also believe that everything in life is connected, so if you are reading this now on RACER.com, you should also know that without Mike’s friendship, faith and encouragement through the best and worst of times during the past 49 years, I would likely not have won the race to RACER’s 30th Anniversary, the 25th Anniversary of RACER.com or Racer Media & Marketing’s 43rd year in business.

Racing is indeed learning. It still has so much to teach all of us about trust, respect, teamwork, cooperation, and commitment in our personal journeys to be our best selves. This is even more important at a moment when our often angry and divided society could use much more of those qualities.

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