IRL: Homestead: Rahal Letterman Racing preview

RAHAL LETTERMAN RACING BRINGS RE-ENERGIZED INDYCAR PROGRAM TO MIAMI HILLIARD, Ohio - Make no mistake about it, 2006 was not a year that will be warmly remembered at Rahal Letterman Racing. The season began on the darkest possible note and ...

RAHAL LETTERMAN RACING BRINGS RE-ENERGIZED INDYCAR PROGRAM TO MIAMI

HILLIARD, Ohio - Make no mistake about it, 2006 was not a year that will be warmly remembered at Rahal Letterman Racing. The season began on the darkest possible note and seemingly remained stuck in neutral over the course of the 14 race IndyCar Series season. When the curtain finally fell on the season at Chicagoland, Bobby Rahal moved quickly to re-energize his IndyCar team. A season which saw the proud organization not only finish without win, but without a single podium result was simply unacceptable.

"Last season is in the past and with the passing of every day we put it further behind," said RLR co-owner and founder Bobby Rahal. "I can't imagine what else could have gone wrong for our team in 2006. When you step back and take an honest assessment of what happened last season, you are able to keep things in perspective. We were only a season removed from being one of the dominate teams in IndyCar. To foolishly panic and make wholesale changes simply wasn't the answer. I felt as though our resources, and by resources I mean our people, were simply stretched too thin by the three-car operation. I felt that we should get back to the basics and return to the two-car operation that had been so successful for us throughout our history."

One of the first moves in the off-season for RLR was the hiring of Jay O'Connell as the team's new Technical Director. O'Connell brings a wealth of motorsports engineering and development experience to the team. Optimal is that experience is spread across multiple disciplines ranging from Formula 1, to North American open-wheel competition to sports car racing. O'Connell is charged with leading the highly respected RLR engineering staff that has long been a strength of the organization.

"We have always been an engineering driven team and adding Jay to the talented mix of engineers we already had was a winning situation," said Rahal. "When I looked closely I saw that the team had been forced into a reactionary mode and was not tapping into the proactive approach that has been so successful for our team. I think Jay's involvement will help enable our core people to pursue those developmental projects."

Finding the right teammate for Jeff Simmons (No. 17 Team Ethanol Honda/Dallara/Firestone), RLR's lone returning driver, was next on the agenda and when veteran driver Scott Sharp (No. 8 Patron Tequila Honda/Dallara/Firestone) became available Rahal new he had the combination he had been searching for.

"I almost hired Scott [Sharp] in the mid-90s, so I have always been impressed with his abilities on the track and his professionalism off the track," said Rahal. "In Scott I see the perfect teammate for Jeff. As a veteran

Scott has a wealth of experience and I have no doubt he will be an excellent leader for our team. Jeff was forced into a difficult situation last season and without the benefit of an off season testing program, he was learning on the job. I was impressed with how Jeff showed improvement over the season and the strength of his last half of the season speaks for itself."

Simmons wasn't the only one learning as the season went last season. RLR started the year with the Panoz chassis, the chassis that had dominated at Indianapolis the two previous seasons, but the Panoz failed to carry its advantage into the season. Mid-way through the year RLR switched to the Dallara chassis. Not only was RLR the last team to switch to the popular Dallara chassis, but the lack of any off season testing left the RLR team trying to test and develop the chassis while it raced.

Predictably the results for RLR were sporadic, but Simmons managed to collect six top-ten results in the last seven races. Strong runs at Nashville, Milwaukee and Chicagoland convinced Rahal he was on the right track with the personable Connecticut native.

"This has been the first time in my IndyCar Series career that I actually had a full off season of testing," said Jeff Simmons. "When I made my debut in 2004 and the Indy 500 I had only a couple of days prior to practice. When I drove at Kansas later that year I literally found out on Monday that I was racing on Sunday. Then last year everything happened so fast and before I knew it I was flying to Japan to drive for the team. Now we will see if the extensive testing pays dividends during the season. I have never worked harder to prepare for a season and I have never felt better prepared."

So a leaner and re-energized Rahal Letterman Racing operation will make its debut at Homestead this weekend. Entering the season opening event a year ago anticipation was high that the team could build on its 2005 success. Now the team is seeking to recapture the success of the recent past and to move past the painful memories of last season.

Sharp and Patron ready for RLR debut

Scott Sharp will make his RLR debut on Sunday at his home track the Homestead-Miami Speedway. For the Florida native, it is somewhat symbolic because he has found a new home at Rahal Letterman Racing. The only driver to have competed in every year of the IndyCar Series, Sharp suffered through one of his most difficult seasons in 2006 posting only a pair of top-five results and leading only nine laps. This came on the heels of a stellar 2005 in which Sharp finished fifth in the championship by winning a race (Kentucky), posting six top-five results and 13 top-ten efforts.

The last two times Sharp has joined a new team in the IndyCar Series (1998 Kelley & 2005 Fernandez) he has responded with a top-five finish in the championship. Will he continue the trend at RLR in 2007?

"It is always great to race at Homestead, but to start the season under the lights should be pretty exciting," said Sharp the 1996 IndyCar Series champion. "The move to Rahal Letterman has been advantageous. This is a talented group of individuals who have something to prove after a difficult season in 2006, not unlike myself. I have been impressed by the attention to detail and the commitment to winning that runs through the organization from Bobby to all levels of the team."

Joining Sharp at RLR is his new sponsor Patron Tequila. An personal sponsor for Sharp a year ago, Patron has embraced the IndyCar Series and has crafted an aggressive marketing and hospitality program to fully take advantage of its first year as a primary sponsor.

"This weekend will be a big moment for Patron to finally be on and to have the entire program activated," said Sharp. "Patron wasn't content to come in and settle for the status quo in their hospitality and their marketing program. They have truly tried to capture the attitude and essence of Patron and translate that into their at track experience. I think there are a lot of existing sponsors who could learn from their thinking and their approach. It has been a gratifying process to be involved in taking this from an idea to something that is going to have an impact this weekend."

Mister Simmons goes to Washington

In his role as a spokesman for the Ethanol industry Jeff Simmons has logged a lot of miles and met a number of politicians. On Wednesday the second year driver will be on Capital Hill with a replica of his No. 17 Team Ethanol Honda/Dallara for a Congressional salute to the IndyCar Series.

At Noon Eastern Indiana Senators Richard Lugar and Evan Bayh will lead a congressional delegation that will honor the IndyCar Series and the Ethanol Industry for their historic program which will see all the IndyCars run on 100% fuel grade Ethanol in 2007.

Last season the IndyCar Series made history by running a 90-10% mix of methanol and Ethanol. This year the League has moved to 100% Ethanol. The change has had positive performance impact on the IndyCar Series including a remarkable 30% improvement in fuel mileage.

"This week marks a significant landmark in the Ethanol program," said Simmons. "It is gratifying to know our Ethanol program is making a difference not only in the public 's perception and understanding of Ethanol, but also in reinforcing the growing support in Washington for renewable fuels and most notably Ethanol."

RLR Andersen Racing

This weekend at Homestead will mark the first event for the RLR Andersen Racing, the joint effort between Rahal Letterman Racing and Andersen Racing in the Indy Pro Series. The involvement in the Indy Pro Series continues Bobby Rahal's commitment to the developmental ladder system. Over the years Rahal has run support series programs for: Mike Borkowski (1998 IndyLights); Graham Rahal (2004 Formula BMWUSA/Ethanol) and of course Danica Patrick (2003-04 Toyota Atlantic) among others.

Young American Andrew Prendeville of New Jersey and Australian native Joey Scarallo will pilot the RLR Andersen Racing Indy Pro Series entries.

-credit: rlr

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Scott Sharp , Bobby Rahal , Graham Rahal , Andrew Prendeville , Mike Borkowski , Jeff Simmons , Danica Patrick