Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Hallam Brings a New Approach to MWR

By Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is senior NASCAR writer for She also is a correspondent for "Around the Track" on FOX Sports Net.

It's a crisp Carolina morning, certainly not the chamber of commerce weather that was promised to Steve Hallam to lure him across the pond to become the director of competition for Michael Waltrip Racing.

What got the former head of operations for Team McLaren Mercedes, the defending Formula One World Champions, was the adventure of a new racing challenge coupled with Toyota's commitment to succeeding in NASCAR.

"I like the people," said Hallam, who has six F1 Championships to his credit. "I think I can help to make a difference here. I have some very good friends at Toyota and once they understood that I was interested in coming over here, they facilitated some introductions and one thing led to another."

The days of rolling into work in Woking, Surrey at 9 a.m. are over. His day at MWR now starts at 7 a.m. But the Southern hospitality has not been lost on Hallam. The barista at the local Starbucks already anticipates his double tall latte. And instead of bangers and mash, today's lunch at Mac's BBQ is representative of local fare with a sweet tea chaser.

"I'm not going to want to do it every week or even every year, but change is good from time to time," said Hallam of the move. "To break out of your comfort zone, from an area of your career with which you're absolutely totally familiar and part of everything and say, 'OK, for me, I'm going to stop that and move over there.' In principle it's the same, but it's different.

"The challenges that drop on your lap — we do speak the same language, but it is a different country, it is a different culture, it is a different style of racing and a different way of doing things. But the end product is the same: see that checkered flag first."

As quickly as Hallam is adapting to the culture, he's found a similar ease among the racers at MWR. Despite the extreme difference in technology between F1 and NASCAR, there is a bond shared between the motorsports communities.

"Whenever you change companies, particularly when you've been at a company for a long time as I have, you become embedded in its DNA," Hallam said. "To break out of that and to embrace the culture of another company, to understand, to build relationships, to earn respect, and to show that you can contribute in a positive way is a big task. I can't underestimate that too much.

"I'm going through that process and I don't know when it will end. I don't think anyone does. It will just sort of pay out and you'll just suddenly be a part of life here. And in this initial phase, and my learning curve is very steep, my understanding of the people, the cars, the style of racing is all new to me.

"And every day, I'll read a few more pages of the NASCAR rule book, I'll learn something from the guys on the shop floor, I'll learn something from the engineers. I'm taking in so much new information that ... I sleep well at night, let's put it that way. I am running out of time in the day because it's full on from seven o'clock in the morning to whenever I leave."

Hallam's arsenal of technology and talent certainly made winning appear effortless on the outside. Most recently, Hallam worked alongside champion Lewis Hamilton, but his former rosters include a who's who of F1 royalty: Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet, Michael Andretti, Gerhard Berger, Kimi Raikkonen and Mika Hakkinen.

"We all matured and developed together," Hallam said. "And when you learn how to do it and you find the right synergies with the driver and the people around the driver as well, it's surprising what degree of success can come your way."

Hallam admits that winning requires the right team, environment and opportunity, all of which evolve over time.

Similar to stick and ball strategy, Hallam used a man-to-man position defense in F1 where he assessed the competition's roster and then created teams that are at least equal or greater to his competitors. Now he will be partially responsible for building a similar support system around Waltrip, David Reutimann and Marcos Ambrose. He instantly won over second-generation racer Reutimann. The driver of the No. 00 Aaron's Toyota call Hallam "a phenomenal guy" and while the results might not be immediate, Reutimann's convinced the results will "be big."

"You think a guy with his level of intelligence and the level of success that he's had at Formula One, you figure a guy would come over here and be somebody that you really couldn't talk to," Reutimann said. "It's completely the opposite. The guy is extremely down to earth, takes the time to explain things to people like me who don't really understand all the engineering aspects and ask a lot of questions because he's learning about this form of racing, as well.

"I think he has brought a lot of organization and leadership to our engineers and they all like him as well. He helps them in their strong suits and builds them up in places that they may not be as strong. It's been a really strong fit and I was one of the biggest skeptics probably going into the thing. He has been great and I think we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg with him. I think he's got a lot to offer."

Certainly, the results from Daytona were promising. Last year, the driver lineup of Dale Jarrett, Reutimann and Waltrip finished 16th, 18th and 29th, respectively. Last week, Waltrip, Reutimann and newcomer Marcos Ambrose, who drives for the affiliated JTG Daugherty Racing, finished in the top 20 with seventh-place Waltrip scoring his first top 10 since the fall Dover race. At California, Reutimann and Waltrip finished 14th and 15th, respectively, but the results could have been even better as Reutimann had a shot at a top-10 result before brake issues crept up on the No. 00 Toyota.

Waltrip has enlisted a variety of managers to supervise the different divisions of MWR since it expanded its operation to include the Sprint Cup Series for the start of the 2007 season. However, when MWR recruited Hallam it was the first time one individual was "solely responsible for overseeing the entire competition department," according to Waltrip.

The driver/owner believes Hallam's experience in Formula One makes him "the perfect guy for the job" as MWR moves to the next phase in its development. Hallam brings a fresh and fascinating approach to the sport. His philosophy of team structure is very similar to a basketball coach lining up squads by matching up a position's ability to the opposition.

"He totally gets and understands how to take all of the engineering support, all of the support that can be garnered from your manufacturer and have that trickle down directly to the cars," Waltrip said. "He understands people. He understands relationships. He understands that Toyota has a wealth of knowledge and tools for MWR to use that we probably haven't used effectively yet.

"Steve is going to just learn, listen, figure out how to take all of the wonderful support and all the things that Toyota has to offer our team and channel that down to making our cars go faster. I love the guy. I love listening to him talk about his experience in Formula One and the things he's accomplished.

"But what I love most about him is sometimes people show up and want to tell you all that they know and Steve just wanted to show up and have you tell him everything that you know and everything that we have done around here and how we think we could've done better. He's just like a giant sponge to learn all he can so he can begin to have some direction and help us out."

Despite the tremendous racing venues Hallam has witnessed from Monaco to Monza, Daytona was quite an eye-opener for the motorsports veteran's introduction to stock car racing. Although his teams raced on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he adds it wasn't "the proper way" — on the oval. Hallam admits his former desire to work for an American open wheel team "when the Indy 500 was absolutely in its heyday," however, that opportunity has passed. Given the level of competition in NASCAR, Hallam knows he will be tested. His first objective is winning over the employees at MWR. Once he has the crews' respect, Hallam will be able to take the organization to the next level.

"Whenever somebody new comes into a company, particularly a competitive company in a competitive business, you want to try and make a difference, get a marker on the board sooner than later, so that people can see, 'OK, this bloke's not a waster. He can help us,'" Hallam said. "You never know when you've actually done that. They don't tell you, it just sort of happens. When they accept me, when I walk in and they're all saying, 'Good morning,' and 'How are you?' and this, that, and the other, that's great. When I can be one of them, I know that I'll have achieved my first goal.

"The reality of what I do is the goal to measure in success on the track. And I can dream, but what I want to do is contribute. If I'm doing my job well and the people around me are led and do their job well, then there will be better times ahead."

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