Ingram's Flat Spot On
'Chip Slam' Next Up For Ganassi
by Jonathan Ingram
The "Chip Slam" will be on the line in the Rolex 24 at Daytona this year.
After building his reputation as a team owner for more than two decades, last year Chip Ganassi became an "overnight" sensation when his cars won America's three biggest races. "Chip Ganassi Day" was even declared in his hometown of Pittsburgh. The only thing missing in the major race victory column was a win in last year's Rolex 24 at Daytona, where the vaunted Ganassi team finished second and lost by a mere 52 seconds.
As testing begins for this year's 24-hour, Ganassi's team will be working on filling in the missing victory to complete the "Chip Slam." Just as Tiger Woods scored the "Tiger Slam" by winning golf's four major tournaments in succession -- but not in the same year -- a Rolex victory for the Ganassi team at Daytona would complete a sweep of consecutive versions of the Daytona 500, Indy 500, Brickyard 400 and the Rolex 24.
The key to Ganassi's success? "The important thing is having people who believe in the way I do things," said Ganassi.
To no one's surprise, the drivers who helped Ganassi win at Daytona and Indy last year, Jamie McMurray and Dario Franchitti, respectively, were again announced this week as co-drivers for the No. 02 Riley-BMW entry along with two other Ganassi regulars, Scott Dixon and Juan Pablo Montoya. These four hot-shoes will drive what is expected to be "the hare" that pushes the pace for the Ganassi team in the 24-hour, because all of these wheelmen are looking for a Rolex watch symbolic of victory and not any championship points. Meanwhile, the No. 01 entry of Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas, who are looking to defend their points title in the Rolex Series, are expected to drive their Riley-BMW at a more conservative pace. They will be joined this year by Ganassi's IndyCar team newcomer Graham Rahal, who father's Bobby co-drove to victory at Daytona in 1981 aboard a Porsche 935 Turbo, and veteran BMW driver Joey Hand.
Despite the fact Porsche-powered teams have won the last two editions of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Ganassi's entries remain the favorites going into this year's event. An inexplicable engine failure took out the No. 02 "all-star" car last year after its drivers dominated the first eight hours. Only a surprise, unscheduled pit stop by Justin Wilson then cost the No. 01 team a victory on Sunday afternoon.
While Ganassi's team sustains most of its driving line-up, the core drivers at the former Brumos Racing team now known as Action Express, which combined to win the last two Rolex races under Porsche power, also remains much the same. When it comes to the "Chip Slam," Action Express is expected to give the Ganassi team some of its stiffest competition.
Ultimately, the Rolex 24 is a team manager's race, because of the emphasis on preparation and race-long strategy. Mike Hull continues to call the shots for the Ganassi squad, winners of three straight Rolex races from 2006-2008. Gary Nelson, the man behind the Car of Tomorrow for NASCAR and who directed last year's Rolex victory, will again be overseeing the effort at Action Express.
Exclusive one-on-one with Tavo Hellmund
Shortly before Christmas, I visited the offices of Formula 1 United States in Austin and had the opportunity to sit down with Tavo Hellmund, the promoter of the U.S. Grand Prix scheduled for 2012. Prior to the announcement in May of last year that F1 would be returning to the America, Hellmund was a virtual unknown in U.S. motor racing, so it was an interesting opportunity to find out more about a guy who gives every indication he has the right stuff to become one of America's best racing promoters. We met the day after political hurdles were cleared in Travis County, enabling the grading to begin taking place at the site of the new F1 circuit just outside the city of Austin.
Although a virtual unknown beyond the inner sanctums of F1, it seems like destiny that Hellmund, 44, should become the promoter who brings Grand Prix competition back to the U.S. and gives it a permanent home. His father, Gustavo, was a promoter of CART races in Mexico City in 1980 and 1981 and owned the rights to the Mexican Grand Prix when F1 was re-established in Mexico City in 1986. (The senior Hellmund brokered those rights to the Abed brothers, who officially hosted the event, because their construction company was capable of re-building the Hermanos Rodriguez circuit.)
As a youngster, Hellmund learned about the business of racing at the feet of his father and Ecclestone. "I remember being in Acapulco on the beach with Bernie when I was about 10 years old," said Hellmund. It was the time when Ecclestone was just beginning to organize the Formula One Constructors Association and take the reins to the commercial rights for Grand Prix racing. Ecclestone was often occupied with the task of making contact with the right sort of businessmen who could promote events around the world. In Mexico, that man was Gustavo Hellmund.
The senior Hellmund's parties for participants after the 1980 and 1981 CART races in Mexico City are legendary -- as is the story about leaving the bill for the second lavish party to some very surprised officials at CART.
"I was fortunate enough that at a very early age, I had a big interest not just from a driving standpoint but on the business side," said Hellmund. "I was around Bernie a lot as a kid. I was really interested in how the branding and the mystique and how he's created this juggernaut. Is he an incredibly tough businessman? Yes. Is it incredibly one-sided? Yes. Having said that, I've been talking to him for so many years, almost two decades, about what is needed for Formula 1 to be successful in America, for it to start to get traction."
It's another point of destiny that Hellmund's American mother Bobbie decided to move to Austin to live after separating from Gustavo. Tavo became deeply immersed in the unique, musically inclined culture of Austin and the University of Texas.
An easy drive from the surrounding major urban areas of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, Austin is now hanging its ten-gallon hat on the fact it is home for more high technology companies in the U.S. than any other location outside of Silicon Valley despite the region's relatively low population of 1.7 million. Few events can draw attention to the development of technology enterprise -- which is also very important to bringing new research opportunities to the University of Texas -- than Formula 1.That's one of many reasons why the event will receive $25 million from the state's Special Events Trust Fund, which theoretically will be replenished from an increase in sales tax revenue during the time of the F1 events. That money is earmarked to pay the rights fee to Ecclestone's Formula One Management.
Because they will be spending more than $200 million in private funds to build the track, Hellmund's partners, Texas investors Bobby Epstein and Red McCombs, are looking for a big return, too. Epstein, a former Dallas resident now living in Austin whom Hellmund met through a mutual friend, and McCombs, whose empire started with a series of car dealerships that once sponsored Hellmund's race cars, see the F1 event as a real estate opportunity. One surmises that one or both of them have options on numerous portions of land in the area where the new track is being built.
"If we do our jobs correctly, five years from now people driving up the road will see signs to our complex," said Hellmund. "And people will say, 'Oh, by the way, that's where they also host the U.S. Grand Prix.' I realize the first couple of years, the Grand Prix is the crown jewel, and it is the focus. But if we do things right, the property should be a development and entertainment facility."
A third point of destiny: Hellmund tried to bootstrap himself into F1 as a driver (without any funds from his father or family friend Ecclestone), but did not go beyond the "B Series" in British Formula 3. He returned to the U.S. and won at Laguna Seca in what was then known as the Winston West series before turning to race promotion, an endeavor that Ecclestone had long encouraged.
The 3.4-mile, 20-turn circuit will be built by Tilke Engineering of Germany, but much of its design comes as well from Hellmund, who likes speed and daring. "I think that Tilke have never really dealt with an ownership group that knew exactly what they wanted," said Hellmund. "A lot of this has been thought out. All of it has been thought out for a long, long time. Did we get it totally right? It would only be totally right if we didn't have to appease safety rules. If there weren't any safety rules, I think if you run off [the track] there should be a penalty instead of 100 yards of runoff room."
Although corner layouts from Silverstone and Istanbul have been adopted to the circuit and received a lot of attention, the uphill/downhill loop at Turn 1 at the highest elevation point on a track with 133 feet of elevation change is likely to be most spectacular. Hellmund compares it to the Osterreichring, where as a teenager while working for Ecclestone he toured the circuit in a BMW street car with Nelson Piquet.
"The very first time I went to the Osterreichring, I was very lucky that I got to do a lap with Nelson Piquet. That Turn 1 there is awesome, except it plateaus and you have a little pad before you get to the braking point. I would like to see some extra width of tarmac on our track to see if anybody is brave enough to go four-wide at the start."
There will be an emphasis on sight lines to attract general sports fans as well as racing aficionados. "There will be a lot of places where you can see several corners," said Hellmund. "The entire east side is slightly higher than the west side. From the stadium section, you'll be able to see Turns 11, 12, and 13 through 16. You'll be able to see thirty seconds."
In the long run, race car driving's loss may well become F1's gain when it comes to the promotion of the sport in the U.S. In the short run, Hellmund and his investors need to build a track and then sell around 120,000 tickets to the races each year, if not more -- in addition to generating enough sales taxes to keep the money flowing annually for Ecclestone's rights fees.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.