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“It’s not given, it’s earned” - Rahal’s quest for Indy improvement

Written by Archie O’Reilly

For the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLL) team, the build-up to the 2024 NTT IndyCar Series season consisted of a considerable amount of hard work focused on improving their performance on ovals. 

The 2023 Indianapolis 500 saw their three full-time drivers have to return on the second day of qualifying to try and avoid being bumped from the field. Graham Rahal, son of team owner and winner of the 1986 Indy 500 Bobby Rahal, was pipped at the death by teammate Jack Harvey by only 0.0044 seconds to miss out - the same fate suffered by his father in 1993.

Rahal would still compete in the race, replacing the injured Stefan Wilson at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. But that scarcely softened the blow of being bumped. And it certainly did not mask the struggles endured by the RLL team on ovals, which continued into the late-season short oval swing despite pole-sitting and race-winning road and street course form. 

This week’s Indy 500 Open Test, which ended with only one half-day of running - the second being cancelled - and a combined total of 1327 laps run due to inclement weather, offered RLL their first opportunity to put their off-season efforts into on-track practice. 

Pietro Fittipaldi, returning for his third Indy 500 attempt, ran the team’s most laps with 63 - all of which came in the mandatory Refresher session he had to run. The remainder of the team’s three-car operation collectively matched that lap tally, with Christian Lundgaard only running 10 laps and one-off entry Takuma Sato running 15 laps. 

Rahal, eager to put the woes of 2023 behind him, completed 38 laps and admitted that he wished there was more time in track “to get into race running”. But it still offered an early chance for the veteran and his team to evaluate their progress.

Speaking in a post-test press conference, Rahal went into lots of detail as to how the team is shaping up ahead of the Month of May getting underway…

Accelerating in the tow

Usually, a car tends to run faster when in the slipstream or ‘tow’ of another car. But that was unusually not the case for RLL in 2023, offering a clear measurement of what improvement would look like this year. The signs from Wednesday’s limited test running were positive.

“When I’d get a sniff of a tow today, so seven, eight seconds, the entire front straight, the speed would pick up,” Rahal said. “For most drivers, they’re probably thinking that’s obvious, that’s the way it is. But last year that’s not the way an RLL car was. We would probably fall further behind. 

“Today we had a couple of times at that sort of gap where suddenly on my own I’m running 220.6 [miles per hour] and all of a sudden it’s 21.2, 21.3 and picking up as the run went on. That’s a good indication. Those are things that we didn’t have last year.”

These are early stages in the team’s on-track preparations for the 108th Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. But the early signs are positive.

“We kind of had three different specifications of cars running around,” Rahal said. “And I’m sure there’s more to be coming, at least within our team. I thought it was a positive morning. The car felt good. Chassis balance was really nice to drive, so the changes that were made in the off-season were positive. All on our own it feels good and the pacing seemed decent.”

What went wrong in 2023?

There is not necessarily one thing that the RLL drivers have been able to disclose as being the cause of the team’s struggles last year. On the annual series Content Day, Lundgaard said “the car just simply wasn’t fast enough” and did not pick out any individual issue.  

“I don’t think it comes down to saying RLL had poor build quality in their race cars,” Rahal said after this week’s test. “That’s not accurate. But there are a lot of intricacies in the way these things are built. There are a lot of things that make a massive difference to the performance of a race car. 

“When you get behind in certain areas or you go too far in certain areas that you thought was a positive development but in fact it is not or is a negative development, those are things that need to be identified.”

Rahal feels the team have sometimes been “stuck” in the mentality of committing to one route and hoping things will get better.

“The reality is that’s not necessarily true,” he said. “I think that’s what hurt us in the past. We’ve always paid a lot of attention to detail on our build qualities and items like that. But there’s a lot of componentry that makes a big difference. Unfortunately, certain areas of that componentry were not anywhere near maximised.”

Being bumped a benefit?

Rahal has been keen to try and put a positive spin on the events of last year, taking lessons from being bumped as opposed to being demoralised by the situation. 

“The best thing to happen to the team was the worst thing to happen to the team, which was me not qualifying,” he said. “I think me not qualifying was the best thing that could have happened versus anybody else because it clearly rings home for my dad and everybody else.”

The problems endured allowed some things Rahal had previously voiced to be validated. It triggered some investigating for the team that had been deemed necessary by Rahal prior to last May, even when the level of performance was not as close to last year’s lowly level.

“It got serious in a hurry and that made us really lock in and focus on fixing a lot of items, particularly when it came to Indy,” he said. “Our struggles of last year are things that I had said to the team for years. It wasn’t that we all of a sudden were slow. We were getting slow. We were falling behind for the years prior.”

Victory for the team in 2020, with Sato as he tasted success for a second time on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) oval, suggested from the outside that all was well. Rahal secured a third-place finish in that race - a second Indy 500 podium finish - and looked a possible bet for victory before an incident with a loose tyre one year later too.

“The reality was we were never that fast,” Rahal said. “In 2020 we didn’t qualify in a superspeedway trim like in an ordinary year you would have. In 2021 we were pretty average frankly, and in the race we moved our way forward through strategy et cetera. 

“Last year not qualifying was a real shot to… we are really far behind and we need to get serious about this in a hurry. It allowed the owners to dig in because I don’t think many of the issues were issues that they were that aware of. They know what our budgets are, they know what we spend and we spend everything we could. 

“Anything that was requested was always done. But the realities were the things that we were spending on weren’t the right things. I don’t know that they had the awareness of that fully, and I think last year brought a severe intensity and focus to what was going on and brought the change that was necessary.”

Kenny Brack, winner of the 1999 Indy 500, was with the RLL team at IMS in a supporting role this week. Rahal shared that, in a conversation with his father and Brack over dinner, there had been discussions about the work that goes into gaining success at Indy.

“Indy is not a place that’s given, it’s earned,” he said. “You go through that rollercoaster of emotions, the ups, the downs, the highs, the lows. That’s racing in general but Indy magnifies all of that. It is a place that will test every bit of you.”

“You should have to qualify”

Having experienced the pain of being bumped, some may think Rahal would be in favour of being automatically locked into the field by a charter system. Think again.

“I believe that you should have to qualify for the Indy 500,” he said. “That should be a standard thing.”

Rahal remains in the camp that you should have to earn your right to race in the Indy 500, even if last year was a taxing experience. He remains grateful for those that rallied around and got in contact to offer their support.

“After last year the first voicemail when I got back to my phone was from Al Unser Jr.,” he said. It meant the world to me. If I pull up my phone right now, it’s one of the few voicemails that I have not deleted for the last year. He’s a guy who has experienced this. He has been at the highs. He has been at the lows. That’s what makes you in the end.”

Emotions upon returning to Indy

A driver with experience subservient to Rahal’s could have been damaged in lasting fashion by the turmoil of being bumped. And that is not to say he did not feel immense pain, as was shown as tears flowed as he sat on the side of his No.15 car immediately after the event. But Rahal has enough years under his belt - 16 races at the Speedway - to return reinvigorated. 

“I feel very confident here,” he said. “You’ve got to come in here with the belief that you can win. I firmly believe if you come to the Indy 500 just to compete in it, you shouldn’t be here. It’s not fun if you don’t have a chance to win. I feel really good about where we’re at, where we’ve developed to. I think we’ve got some strong opportunities ahead of us.

“I’m excited to get back for May. This is circled on the schedule every year. But this race for me means a lot more than it ever did before. To have the opportunity to get back out here and try to qualify and put ourselves in a really good place is going to be key

“I think the team has done a great job. We’ll see, but I can assure you that the feeling at the end of today even after five or six runs versus where we were on the first day of the spring test here [last year] is a very different vibe within the team.”

The value of Takuma Sato

After last year’s shortcomings, nobody would have begrudged RLL if they opted to streamline their Indy 500 lineup from four cars to three. Incidentally, one-off entrant Katherine Legge was the only car to avoid having to return for Last Chance Qualifying. But teams often opt to trim their operation to better focus personnel in search of improvement.

Though when the opportunity presented itself for the driver that won the 2020 event to return to the team this year, it was too hard to turn down the expertise of Sato. The Japanese veteran ran an oval schedule with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2023, so it was felt he could draw on his recent experiences of a different car as well as his 14 - two successful - Indy 500 starts.

“I think that to run a fourth car here this year was going to have to be somebody like Takuma,” Rahal said. “I don’t think they would have done it just to have a fourth. I think we’ve learned our lesson in that regard. When the opportunity started to come up with a Takuma - a handful of months ago was probably the first rumbling I heard - it made a lot of sense. 

“Takuma has a great relationship with Eddie Jones, who is his engineer. Eddie has worked with Takuma and I back and forth for seven, eight years now, and so Eddie and Takuma have faith in each other in what they can do. A lot of the guys within the team know Takuma well. A bunch of them won it with Takuma. So he was the right fit. 

“I’m not sure that RLL would have done it otherwise. Nor am I sure that Honda would have done it otherwise. I think that’s a critical part too. Engines are definitely at a premium right now. There’s a reason there's not 40 cars in the field, and it’s not because there’s no interest. Getting engines is hard right now. But Takuma was a great fit for us.”

Rahal felt the team were impacted by “a lack of a lot of experience, a lot of depth” in 2023. With his front-running experience on the oval at IMS, it is felt having Sato onboard as part of a four-car team is preferable to downsizing to three Indy entries as the team look to put right what went awry last year.


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