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“It was ugly” - How the Rahal team has changed for Indy in 2024

Written by Archie O’Reilly

To put it in the words of many figures at the forefront of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLL) operation, their 2023 Indianapolis 500 campaign was an “embarassing” one. 

While he still raced in place of the injured Stefan Wilson at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Graham Rahal was bumped from the field after RLL saw their three full-time cars all among the four contending to make the race in Last Chance Qualifying.

Following April’s Indy 500 Open Test, the veteran American driver spoke in-depth about the hard work put in by his RLL team across the off-season ahead of their return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) for the Month of May. He believed it offered a necessary wake-up call for the team after “years” of teetering on the edge of things going south.

To ensure a trajectory of “getting slow” across recent years did not continue into 2023, the positives were taken from flaws being uncovered last year. And the team has shifted their focus and taken action to ensure they are in a much better position for 2024.

Putting an “ugly” 2024 behind them

“You asked me how the process went? It was ugly,” co-owner Mike Lanigan said in a media availability with the RLL team ahead of the track action on Fast Friday. He did not mince his words about the toil of May in 2023.

“Quite frankly it was embarrassing. Both [co-owners] Bob [Rahal] and I and Dave [Letterman] totally agreed that we may have gotten a little lackadaisical on the engineering side. In 2020 we were extremely competitive - Takuma [Sato] won the race. Graham was in third. I think we got caught sleeping. Very depressing over the winter.” 

Across the last 12 months, it has been total commitment to obtaining the resources required to ensure they do not have to repeat the fate of 2023. The 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, father of Graham and team co-owner, suffered the same pain of being bumped himself in 1993.

“How were those two days? It was hell. It was hell,” Bobby Rahal said of last year’s woes. “It was embarrassing. God… it was just awful. I said at the time, this is going to kill me if I do this again. It’s embarrassing… Here we won the race two years prior, now you don’t qualify? It’s like, come on.” 

Six months beforehand, Rahal noted that he had brought Steve Eriksen to the team as Chief Operating Officer. Immediately, Eriksen was called upon to create a plan of how things would be turned around come 2024.

“I said: ‘Steve, in 30 days I want a plan how we’re going to turn this ship around and get it back to where it should be at Indianapolis,’” Rahal said. “That’s when it started - 30 days later I had the basis of the plan… It was a big investment for Mike and I but we’re not here just to be here. We’re here to win.”

Rahal is very thankful to the “great sponsors” onboard at RLL, who could very easily have bailed on the team after the woes of the No.15 United Rentals Honda not making the race last year. Rahal would have understood if this was the case. But it went the other way instead and “they strengthened the relationship” after last May.

“No breaks” and team changes

Since last May, it has been relentless work at RLL to get back to a happier place. And that has involved sacrifices and some changes internally.

“I’m pretty happy with where we are,” Bobby Rahal said. “A lot of work has been put in by our team members over the course, still being put in. We’ve probably doubled - if not maybe a little bit more - our engineering department, done more R&D work than we’ve ever done before. It is paying off and will pay off.”

RLL have had some high moments since last May. Christian Lundgaard took pole position and won on the streets of Torono, while Rahal bounced back from his Indy 500 bumping experience to take pole and a podium on the IMS road course and further pole in Portland.

“There have been no breaks for the organisation,” Graham Rahal said. “This winter has been full gas for everybody to get to the position that we’re at today. It’s taken a lot of long days - the last few weeks even - to get the cars prepped and ready to be here. 

“Hats off to the mechanics - the engineers give them the direction and the mechanics are putting in a lot of long hours to get to where we’re at, to get the cars together.”

He went on to emphasise what “a hard 12 months” it had been dedicating time to the return to the Speedway, as well as focusing elsewhere to achieve success as they rebounded to the turmoil of May.

“No one has had a day off,” Lundgaard added. “It was an eye-opener last year. We really needed to make sure that we weren’t going to be in that position again.”

Entering 2024 better prepared

What is different in 2024 after a review of the shortcomings last year? Bobby Rahal believes his team heads to IMS “much better prepared” this year and have made sure that no stone is unturned in that regard.

“You think you’re prepared last year but obviously we weren’t,” he said. “A lot of the actions that we took following the race not only have continued for the whole year since then but will continue in the years to come. In other words, this isn’t a one-shot commitment or one-shot deal to improve the competition of the team as a whole. 

“We’ve really strengthened the engineering are and I think that’s already producing results and will continue to produce results. I think that’s a difference.”

When pressed on what a successful May would be in light of last year’s struggles, Rahal initially noted that “obviously winning the race” would be the preferred outcome. But making the leap to drinking milk again one year after being in the thick of Bump Day proceedings is probably an unreasonable expectation.

“It’s all about being competitive and being in the thick of it,” Rahal said. “A lot of things happen in this race and you just want to be in a position to be opportunistic. Our intent is to be opportunistic.”

Sato’s desire to help the progress

Speaking after the open test in April, Graham Rahal said RLL would probably only have run a fourth, Indy-only entry if it was somebody of the calibre of Takuma Sato, who has returned for his third stint with the team this May. The Japanese veteran won the 2020 Indy 500 - the second of his two successes - with RLL as Rahal finished third.

“I don’t think they would have done it just to have a fourth,” he said. “I think we’ve learned our lesson. When the opportunity started to come up with Takuma, it made a lot of sense… 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.”

Sato’s vast experience of success at IMS has been used for most of the development on the team’s car in qualifying trim. The three full-time entries have on race running - Lundgaard working on “an alternate set-up” - before switching their attention to qualifying work too on Thursday and Fast Friday. 

“It was a little bit painful two years ago that we had to go to the different way,” Sato said of splitting with RLL at the end of 2021. “But as a professional race car driver, it was fortunate that I had a different path, obviously Dale Coyne Racing in 2022, 2023 Chip Ganassi Racing. It was a tremendous experience and incredible to see the strategy and the resources.” 

Sato finished seventh in the Indy 500 last year amid an oval-only season with Ganassi. He brings recent experience of driving a very good car at the Speedway.

“My biggest wish is obviously trying to help this team,” he said. “Same thinking with everyone else in here, as well as engineers, working extremely hard. How much I can input, obviously only the results could tell. 

“I’m hoping that four of us obviously working extremely together and closely can be competitive and as high as possible. Certainly the last two years of experiences is helping for all aspects, I believe.”

Sato admitted Bobby Rahal had had called him “every single year” to ask when he may return to the team. And since arriving back, Sato said he was been “really involved in the programme from the engineering side” to allow the step forward they feel they have made.

“We’ve always had a good relationship and [I was] certainly disappointed to lose him two years ago,” Rahal said. “But happy we’re back. Takuma’s engineer that he won the 500 with is his engineer this year - a good combination there. We’ve got four strong candidates here to win this race and it’s just a matter of us executing, doing the job.”

Progress on-track so far

“I think we’re already several miles an hour faster than we were at this time last year when we did qual sims a year ago. I think that’s a good indicator for us.”

Reflecting on the team’s progress from punctuated track running prior to Fast Friday, Bobby Rahal was encouraged by what he had seen. This confidence was echoed by Lanigan, who believes the team are “certainly going to be extremely competitive” compared to 2023, with more yet to find.

First of all, the priority is evidently to make the field to ensure any race running is actually meaningful. The primary focus had been on qualifying running before the qualifying horsepower boost was to come into play on Friday.

“Clearly we would have liked to be doing some of the race running that others were,” Graham Rahal said. “But Will Power questioned why we were doing qual sims and I reminded him what happened 12 months ago and why it was important that we figure that out. That’s where we’re at.”

Rahal further notes that there was not much of a spread between the RLL cars on Thursday - consistency that offers encouragement to the team. Other teams had much greater gaps between their entries than RLL did between their four cars.

“It’s clear that there’s been gains,” he said. “For me in particular, all week I’ve made maybe two adjustments on my car so far in race running as well as qualifying. I can’t say that that would have been the case last year.”

There remains some wariness but there is team-wide belief that more speed has been found and a more reliable car established.

“We also need to pay attention to everybody else gaining speed but I think we’ve taken the step forward that I think we needed,” Lundgaard said. “There’s more to come. We of course would like to be faster and I think we can with what we have right now.”


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