REMEMBERING DAN WHELDON
Remembering Dan Wheldon: Mike Hull on Dan's 2006 Daytona win
October 15 2012
With Oct. 16 marking one year since Dan Wheldon's passing at the Las Vegas IndyCar finale, RACER.com reflects on some of the popular Briton's career milestones. Today, Target Chip Ganassi Racing team manager Mike Hull looks at Wheldon's debut with the team, a win in the 2006 Rolex 24 at Daytona with co-drivers Scott Dixon and Casey Mears.
Dan Wheldon entered 2006 on a high – fresh off a dominant 2005 season that saw his first Indianapolis 500 victory, one of six wins that earned him his first IndyCar championship. Those were accomplished with Andretti Green Racing but the reigning champion shifted to Target Chip Ganassi Racing in 2006.
His debut with the team didn't come in IndyCar. Instead, his first race for Chip was the 2006 Rolex 24 at Daytona driving a Daytona Prototype in an “all-star” second entry comprising Ganassi's non-sports car drivers. Wheldon, Scott Dixon and Casey Mears raced the No. 02 Riley Lexus, with usual drivers Scott Pruett, Luis Diaz and Max Papis in the team's No. 01.
CGR team manager Mike Hull was immediately blown away by Wheldon's presence and appreciation for the new atmosphere on his first day of work in the team. That set the scene for Dan's Ganassi debut later in January.
“It's so hard to know what to expect when you hire a driver, not so much when you only look at his or her on-track résumé, but more how they're gonna establish themselves in a team atmosphere,” he says. “But the first day he came here, it felt as though he'd been with us for years.
“He enjoyed people from the pure fact that everybody is different, everybody has their own style, and he immediately accepted everybody for who they are and didn't try to change them! He tried to get the most out of himself, which in turn got the most out of everyone else. It didn't matter the mix in terms of drivers or what they'd done. It was the fact he could get them together. I don't know that anyone I've met has the qualities he had to make people better.
“And that was key because in the 24 Hours of Daytona, it's one racecar and three drivers. You find out right away where you stand as a driver, how your driving style compares and how you can support your teammates. Dan was ‘in it' right from the start, and so much fun to work with.”
His personality was “in it,” but his style wasn't. It was instead more befitting of a single-seater driver, not a sports car one, in his first stint in the car. The team qualified second and Dixon started, Mears ran next with Wheldon to follow. Immediately, Hull was concerned that Dan's eagerness and pushing like mad would set the car back and lead to reliability issues.
“As an open-wheel guy, you think about the Indy 500 as an endurance race, and at the end, your tongue might be hanging out,” he notes. “So I'm sitting on the box, thinking, ‘OK, Dixon ran, Casey gets this concept,' and then Dan gets in and I start wondering how the hell he finished the Indy 500s he did! He now has to understand that we have to go the equivalent of more Indy 500s than he's raced in his career!
“So yes, reining him in was what we had to do. We didn't have a choice; it was on-the-job training. We couldn't come back and start over tomorrow. I'd never been with him on the radio before. Now I'm on the radio and I have to tell him how to drive the car – but he's a guy who's won the Indy 500!
“But that's what made it fun. We didn't waste any time. All the guys on the intercom were saying, ‘We gotta wrap him up quickly, and to win, all the components have to last.' There was no question what we needed to do, but he learned quickly he could change his driving style, and keep working on the car. As long as he kept in touch with the leaders, the change wasn't an issue.”
Inevitably, bugs struck as they tend to do in a 24-hour race. Wheldon's stints weren't the culprit, but the general wear and tear on the No. 02 car prompted a trip to the garage in the late hours of Saturday night. A well-timed caution negated the time lost as the crew – far better prepped for the 2006 running than in its two previous Rolex 24s – made quick repairs. Under that yellow, the team changed tires, brakes, the radiator, replaced an alternator belt, changed the gear stack and made an aero package adjustment.
“It seemed to me like an eternity but it was close to 5 minutes,” Hull jokes.
The car's repairs were one part of the race and as laps clicked off and their competitors fell by the wayside – the pole-sitting No. 23 Alex Job Crawford Porsche among them – the crew was in need of a refuel as well. It was at this point that Wheldon's selfless nature showed itself in a new light. Although Hull admits now he was giving the CGR newcomer a bit of a rookie indoctrination, around 2:30 or 3 a.m. was when Wheldon set out on a mission to bring back some of the most important items to help the crew fix the car. Coffee and snacks.
“Dan had a reputation that followed him around, and didn't stop on the day he came to work here, that he enjoyed very much pushing your buttons,” Hull says. “And …I think it was fun to push his! People look at me as this serious guy, where on race day it's all about business and being focused in on what you're doing. So he had no idea where I was coming from, which made it even better. He couldn't see it coming! Absolutely not!
“If he would have looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Mike, what are you talking about?' I would have told him, ‘Oh yeah, sure, go and lay down for a while.' When he fell into it, it was even better.”
The coffee run aside, Wheldon had further stints when the sun rose and the car ran flawlessly to the finish and to Victory Lane. Hull says he could finally exhale at that point, knowing the breathing and sleeping cycles are altered for the entirety of the race.
The spirit of character was present in that first race – Wheldon matched his sports car debut win for the team with a win at IndyCar's season-opening round at Homestead two months later – and Hull's reflects that Dan's impact was profound.
“He gave more than he was given in the sports car at Daytona from the very beginning,” he says. “He didn't resist in any way by saying, ‘Mike, this is the way I shift, or use the throttle.' He didn't do that. He didn't hold us up at ransom and say this is how I drive the car. His actions showed that it was a two-way street. And that was before we raced IndyCars together, and what made it so unusually special. When you have someone like that working for you, it will define your culture going forward.”
Daytona marked one of the first significant, indelible moments Dan left on Hull and the Ganassi team. Purely from a numbers standpoint, it was the first of seven wins for Wheldon at Ganassi (the other six coming in IndyCar).
“Dan was about life being a shared experience,” says Hull. “When you can interact with someone in your life, that makes it an equally shared experience, you have a friend for life.”