IRL: Chicagoland: Rahal Letterman Racing preview

RLR TRIO SEEKS A STRONG FINISH FOR FRUSTRATING 2006 SEASON HILLIARD, Ohio - The 2006 season for Rahal Letterman Racing has been a long and difficult campaign. A season of promise began on a dark note with the tragedy at Homestead involving the...

RLR TRIO SEEKS A STRONG FINISH FOR FRUSTRATING 2006 SEASON

HILLIARD, Ohio - The 2006 season for Rahal Letterman Racing has been a long and difficult campaign.

A season of promise began on a dark note with the tragedy at Homestead involving the No. 17 Team Ethanol entry driven by Paul Dana. When the team withdrew the Argent Mortgage entries of Buddy Rice and Danica Patrick, the team effectively removed itself from championship contention before the season began.

When the RLR cars did take to the track the Panoz chassis, which had so aptly served the team over the two previous campaigns, was simply outclassed by the Dallara chassis on ovals. The chassis issue combined with the now universally supplied Honda engine left RLR further back on the grid and the results sheet than the team was accustomed.

At Motegi the team welcomed a new driver in Jeff Simmons to drive the Team Ethanol entry, but after a pair of accidents RLR co-owner Bobby Rahal made the decision that the team would make the difficult, but needed, switch to the Dallara chassis. A top-five result for Buddy Rice gave the team momentum going to the biggest race on the schedule, Indianapolis.

RLR headed to Indy, where the team had dominated the two previous years, armed with what it felt was the chassis to run, but the Panoz issues grew larger. Suddenly the month of May felt like a season in itself as the team fought the weather and a lack of practice time to make the cars competitive. A solid top-eight finish by Patrick drew praise, but a pair of crashed cars in the race left the team scrambling to finalize the chassis switch for Texas and run the following week at Watkins Glen.

When the team finally rolled the new Dallara chassis' off the truck at Texas the magnitude of the chassis change came clearly into focus. The crews had been working non-stop to prepare the cars and race the old Panoz cars at Indy and Watkins Glen. Now the drivers, crew and engineers had to make up for an off season of testing and development while trying to race. The results were not instantaneous, but three races later the first glimmer of hope broke through when Patrick posted the first of back-to-back fourth place results at Nashville.

"In the middle of the season, Bob (Rahal) and Dave (Letterman) wanted to upgrade the team with the new Dallaras after Indy," said Rice. "It was a big decision to change, but it showed that they are committed to improving the team. Sure, we have a little behind the other Dallara teams, but I think we are getting back to the front of the field with the new cars. We were running a basic Dallara early on and we now have some of the other (special) parts the other teams are running. We haven't qualified as well with the Dallara's as we did the Panoz, but we are racing better and that is the reason we are here every week."

The last two months have seen RLR make giant strides forward with the Dallara chassis. Patrick has climbed solidly into the top-ten and Simmons has displayed the skill and patience that drew Rahal's attention during those difficult days at the start of the season.

"There would be no better way to finish the season than with a win," said Patrick who will be driving her final race for RLR this Sunday. "I am really proud of how this team overcame some tough circumstances and we have made some great strides with the chassis and have run competitively the last few races. There was a point earlier this year that I didn't think we could get to this point, but it has taken a lot of hard work from everyone at RLR and we can say we have really accomplished something."

Simmons who has posted a top-ten result in five of the last six races thinks that the improvement will continue at Chicagoland Speedway.

"The Dallara chassis feels similar to the Dallara I drove in the Indy Pro Series when I won the race at Chicagoland," said Simmons. "Sure, the car is bigger and the Honda power is larger, but I think the Dallara cars have been getting better for us. We have been improving our setups with each race on the ovals. The draft is so big at Chicagoland that you can run with everyone and get in position to run towards the front. With the four guys running for the championship, I think the front of the pack will be tough. You will have to have a good handling car that can race up high as well as on the low groove. Chicagoland always seems to have wild finishes and I think you'll see that again this Sunday."

Buddy Rice has endured some tough luck at Chicagoland the last couple of years.

"The last couple of years at Chicagoland we have been right in the thick of things, but it just didn't work out," said Rice. "I got put upside down in 2004 and last year we were in third before the last yellow flag. I got push wide at the restart and I couldn't get back in the hunt. I believe we can get things going in the right direction this weekend."

Patrick who won the pole at Chicagoland in 2005 and finished sixth knows everyone will be pushing with Sunday's race being the last of the season.

"Last year it seemed like everyone was a lot more aggressive at the last race, and sure enough I got caught in a crash. I expect more of the same this weekend, but there are four cars that will be fighting for the championship so they have to be aggressive, but they can't take unnecessary chances. All I know is that is always makes the off season go smoother if you finish on a high note. I always approach each race the same, but the last race of the season is always special."

DANICA DAZZLES THEM AT WRIGLEY

With her cool demeanor in the bright spotlight of media attention it would seem hard to imagine anything that makes Danica Patrick nervous, but she had a genuine case of the nerves on Thursday afternoon when she appeared at Wrigley Field to throw out the ceremonial first pitch and to sing Take Me Out To The Ball Game. For Patrick, a lifelong Cubs fan, it was a huge honor and one she took serious enough that she insisted on a warm-up session before her first pitch.

"I have had the opportunity to do a lot of cool things in the last couple of years, but this is an honor that I can relate back to my youth watching the Cubs on TV with my Dad," said Patrick. "I was really nervous, but I had a lot of fun and I hope I can do it again in the future."

ETHANOL PUMP TOUR SET FOR FRIDAY

Team Ethanol driver Jeff Simmons will be joined by three other IndyCar Series drivers at the Chicago Ethanol Pump Tour on Friday afternoon. The four IndyCar Series drivers will pump Ethanol blended fuel at the Romeoville, Illinois 7-Eleven from 11:30--1:00 pm. The fuel will be sold for $2.20 a gallon matching the 220 mph speeds of the IndyCar Series cars.

JOHN ANDERSON RETIRES AFTER FORTY YEARS IN INDYCAR

RLR will say goodbye to a long time member of its team this weekend when John 'Sarge' Anderson will retire after 40-years in IndyCar Racing. Anderson broke into the sport in the spring of 1967 with Robins Specials. Two years later he joined Michner Patrick Racing as a fueler and gearbox specialist. He fueled for Johnnie Rutherford, Gordon Joncock and Emerson Fittipaldi and later worked overseeing hospitality for Patrick Racing. Anderson has overseen RLR's hospitality unit operation since he joined the team in 1992 when Bobby Rahal formed Rahal Hogan Racing.

Along the way Anderson has been part of four Indy 500 winning efforts (Johncock 1973 & 1982, Fittipaldi 1989, Buddy Rice 2004) and three series championships (Johncock 1976, Fittipaldi 1989, Rahal 1992).

"One of the great attributes of this sport are the diverse personalities of the people who make up this sport," said Bobby Rahal. "John has been not only one of the great colorful characters that has been around the paddock, but he has been a friend and a mentor to a lot of people in this sport. It won't seem the same around hospitality next year without him. He will be missed."

Anderson plans to travel and enjoy some of the sites that he has driven by over the last 40 years, but he has never had time to stop and visit. What site tops his list to visit? The National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

RAHAL LETTERMAN NOTES

Buddy Rice will make his 45th IndyCar Series start for RLR this weekend and the 63rd of his career. Rice is the career leader in IndyCar Series starts for RLR. Danica Patrick will make her 30th IndyCar Series start this weekend and her 59th start for RLR having run Barber Dodge and Atlantics from 2002-04. Jeff Simmons will make his eleventh start for RLR this weekend and his 13th IndyCar Series start overall. Bobby Rahal is the career leader in starts for RLR with 116 starts.

-credit: Rahal Letterman Racing

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Bobby Rahal , Buddy Rice , Emerson Fittipaldi , Jeff Simmons , Paul Dana , Danica Patrick