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Hallam Brings F1 Perspective To NASCAR

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, December 4 2009
European import Steve Hallam has found his way to NASCAR. (File photo courtesy of Michael Waltrip Racing)

European import Steve Hallam has found his way to NASCAR. (File photo courtesy of Michael Waltrip Racing)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Cornelius, N.C. – When Steve Hallam worked his first event with Michael Waltrip Racing at the outset of the season, he might have contemplated making it his last. Hallam was a highly decorated engineer at the world championship McLaren Mercedes F1 team in 2008 before leaving to take up stock car racing.

His first race was the Bud Shootout at Daytona, which became a typical wreck-fest. In addition to no points on the line and the shorter distance, the field was expanded for 2009, creating more opportunities for accidents.

After the appropriately named Shootout sent literally tons of wrecked machinery to the garage, Hallam was stunned.

“Even from the point when I was racing my own car, race cars had been so important to me,” said Hallam, a veteran of 27 years in F1. “I don’t like to see them damaged. If it was my own car it was hideous if it was damaged because I had to to repair it.

“A formula 1 car, if it’s damaged,  it seems such a fragile piece of equipment, but it’s actually very tough,” he continued. “In an accident that affects wheels and bodywork damage you hope you can repair it or replace it quickly in the field. But it’s a very precious and expensive commodity.”

After the Shootout, Hallam couldn’t believe what he termed the wanton wreckage.

“There was this sort of a casual, ‘That’s one for the crusher. Might be able to salvage that.’  There was a lot of wreckage, a lot of damage.”

But once the Daytona 500 got under way followed by events in California and Las Vegas, Hallam was fully converted. In his role as director of competition, by season’s end Hallam had made a significant contribution to the success of MWR.

“He’ll take the baton fully next year,” said Cal Wells, the vice president of operations at MWR. “Steve’s had a huge influence this year although he showed up at Daytona without having ever been to the race.”

With Hallam overseeing both race strategy and the engineering of cars, MWR finished the season with its first victory by David Reutimann in the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600. Reutimann was also a candidate for the Chase before a multi-car accident at Pocono sidelined his chances.

All three of MWR’s drivers finished in the top 35 in the points, meaning guaranteed entry for next year’s Daytona 500 among other perks for Michael Waltrip, Marcos Ambrose and Reutimann. (While Aussie Ambrose technically drives a car owned by JTG/Daugherty Racing, his Toyotas are built, engineered and housed at MWR.)

The team’s improvement helped land a new driver/crew chief tandem as well. Martin Truex and Pat Tryson, the latter a veteran of the Roush and Penske teams considered to be among the best when it comes to engineering, are on board for 2010.

Hallam works in a sparely appointed office at MWR, where a single photo signed by McLaren principal Ron Dennis is the only reminder of his former career. He began in F1 with Lotus at a time when fathoming a driver’s mind and mood were crucial to car development or race strategy and when formula cars were built from aluminum. Upon his departure at McLaren, every aspect of a car’s performance was measured electronically and the cars were made of carbon fiber.

“Those life experiences give Steve a phenomenal sixth sense for how to take an athlete and the objective with that athlete and how to delve into the mechanical aspect,” said Wells.

Hallam’s analysis of his own contributions are typically self-effacing, the sort of team player approach one expects from a McLaren graduate.

“When you make a couple of changes in an organization, you facilitate a perhaps slightly different culture or a different way of doing things,” said Hallam. “It’s not necessarily the will of one person, it’s the will of the group. The team wants to be better. I would say that I couldn’t have wished for an easier group to work for. The people that work at MWR want to win as badly as anybody I know.”

Hallam was recommended to MWR by Pete Spence of Toyota Racing Development, which regularly assists in the team’s technical development. The timing was crucial in the hiring of Hallam, said Wells, due to the perception of the team as being behind the curve on the track and upcoming sponsorship negotiations with NAPA and Aaron’s.

“We had a lot of deals to do,” said Wells. “We had to renew NAPA, Aaron’s, we had a to sell some big business.” It was crucial for the team to perform on the track, said Wells, to avoid losing sponsors to other teams.

While retaining sponsors through on track performance was hardly a new concept for Hallam, the sheer scale of a NASCAR team when it comes to cars was a huge change. Although an F1 team like McLaren employs more people, a multi-car NASCAR team has to build far more race cars, including entries for support series and associated teams.

“We build more cars by a factor of 48 to whatever (McLaren builds),” said Hallam. “It’s a lot.” In addition to the number of drivers and series, there are double the number of Sprint Cup races compared to the race weekends in F1. That means not only building more cars, but race-prepping more cars.

“I would say I do more here than my previous job at McLaren,” said Hallam. “I appreciate that a lot of people would say more is bad, because of the nature of the business more here is quite enjoyable.”

Veteran Bobby Kennedy runs the build side of MWR, where the most people are employed. The crew chiefs and design engineers, meanwhile, report to Hallam. Internally, he helped alter the process of how the drivers, crew chiefs and engineers communicate in order to develop and prepare cars or improve on tactics during race weekends.

Once a car is chosen for a given race, it usually takes six weeks to prepare it. “The engineers and crew chiefs have always got a mind on forward planning,” said Hallam. “Inevitably for a racing organization, they understand the need for flexiblity. I would class us as a learning organization as well. All through the year we are accruing knowledge and applying it to cars even if they’re inside the six-week time frame we’re always working with.”

Although his focus is on getting the cars around the track, some of the biggest eye openers for Hallam have been the fans and the facilities themselves.

He likens the sky-high crowd surrounding the half-mile, 36-degree banked bowl at Bristol to a coliseum. “I reckon Bristol is the closest thing you can get to Rome in the modern world,” he said.

Darlington, says Hallem, is fantastic. “I’m not saying they ever give less than 110 percent, but the drivers bleed sweat at Darlington.”

The fans remind Hallam of soccer followers in Europe. “It’s like being at an English Premier League football match,” he said. “They are real supporters in the cheering and the booing of the drivers. There’s a huge amount of driver loyalty no matter how well or poorly a driver is going. I mean Dale Earnhardt Jr., he’s had some ups and downs this year and the fans still adore him.”

Hallam found his new job enjoyable in part because of the enthusiasm of the fans. Having attended some F1 events with virtually no fans in the stands in places like Hungary and Turkey, he appreciates the crowds at NASCAR events.

“There are some classic photos of  Carl Edwards hitting the fence in the spring race at Talladega,” said Hallam. “In the background, you’ve got this wall of fans. Some of them are on their feet pointing and some of them are like ‘Oh my Gosh.’ The  range of emotions just on the fans’ faces in the background in the photograph, it’s worth the price of admission.”

There’s a commitment to engaging the fans at MWR. To see this, Hallam need only look out the glass wall of his second-floor office that overlooks the work floor of MWR’s 140,000-foot headquarters in Cornelius, N.C. Across the way, an elevated walkway is open to fans who visit MWR. Using walkways, fans can tour the entire shop and watch every car-building function of the team. Display panels and videos, meanwhile, explain the technical aspects of the sport.

“I think what we do for the fans with the raised walkways that we’ve got, it’s light years ahead of what Formula One teams do,” said Hallam. “To the best of my knowledge, no one’s allowed in a Formula One factory without a personal invitation.”

There’s a big benefit to an open-door policy, says Hallem. “NASCAR is up there with major league sports in this country,” said Hallam. “I wish motorsports was as important to English sports fans as it is to the American sports fans. You know if Manchester United is playing there will be four million people watching and it’s not the same for motorsports.”

And what about working with Michael Waltrip?

“He’s very passionate about this sport and its fans,” said Hallam. “Everything at Michael Waltrip Racing reflects that. The facility is his vision. It’s not just for the people who build the cars and the engineers. There’s an interaction with the fans. It’s not just the perspective of a spokesperson or a businessman. Michael subscibes to that vision. If Michael’s about when there are fans here, he’ll go out into the walkways.”

With Truex Jr. coming on board, Waltrip will cut back on his duties as a driver to focus more on his team owner role, which now includes the search to establish a fourth entry.

Will that possibly entail an F1 driver switching to NASCAR? Although both former Toyota F1 drivers Jarno Trulli and Mika Salo tested favorably at the New Smyrna Speedway recently in an MWR Toyota, Hallam doesn’t anticipate another test.

For 2010, it appears that Reutimann, Truex Jr. and Ambrose will be the full-time drivers as Waltrip runs a limited schedule, including an attempt to win a third Daytona 500, where a victory would put him in the elite ranks of only five other drivers who have won at least three.

“Michael has performed exceptionally strongly on the superspeedways,” said Hallam. “He has a particular talent for those. How he gets that I couldn’t begin to tell you. It’s an innate talent. When you’re running close to 200 mph, nose-to-tial, working the draft. Michael can be dramatically descriptive about what he’s feeling and what’s going on when he’s in those circumstances.”

As for Hallam, he’s looking forward to a return to Daytona.

“The process of taking part in the Daytona 500 is a very drawn out affair,” said Hallam, who had a crib sheet from the team to keep up with the process this year. “It’s a traditional process. I would think that in 2010 I should enjoy it. In 2009 I didn’t know what was coming at me from which direction.”

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, December 4 2009