RAHAL LETTERMAN AIMS TO CONTINUE KANSAS SUCCESS HILLIARD, Ohio -- It was one of the defining moments of the 2004 season. A 20 lap mono-a-mono shootout between teammates Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira that showcased the...
RAHAL LETTERMAN AIMS TO CONTINUE KANSAS SUCCESS
HILLIARD, Ohio -- It was one of the defining moments of the 2004 season. A 20 lap mono-a-mono shootout between teammates Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira that showcased the wheel-to-wheel racing that defines the IRL IndyCar Series. The difference between the two cars was measured in inches or on the timing sheet .0051 thousandths of a second, the second closest finish in IndyCar Series history. In the end Buddy Rice in the No. 15 Argent/Pioneer Honda had won his second race of 2004 and Vitor Meira had his second runner-up result.
For Rahal Letterman Racing it was the team's first 1-2 finish in the IRL IndyCar Series and just the second 1-2 result in team history (Germany 2001).
"I think that race was one to remember," said Buddy Rice. "Whether it was me or Vitor or the team or the fans that day. It was the second closest finish in IRL history. Vitor and I had good cars and we were both ready to win. My car worked better on the bottom of the track and his seemed to work better up high. So when it came down to the last 15 laps, we raced side-by-side for the rest of the race. There could have problems if we weren't teammates. That's because I really couldn't see him and he couldn't see me. We had to rely on our spotters (Lee Orebaugh for Rice and Bill Van de sandt for Meira) and they did a great job that day too. We changed the lead several times at the end. I don't think we knew who won but I thought I was just a few inches ahead. I'd like to repeat that show again this year, however, the competition is very tough this year but I think we'll be in the hunt for the win."
"I don't know if I could have run that many laps side-by-side if it wasn't with my teammate Buddy," said Meira. "He gave me the room to race with him that day. Actually, I thought I had won the race, but in the end it doesn't matter because it was a great day for Rahal Letterman Racing. We changed the lead at the start/finish line several times before the checkered flag. That race was important for our team because it showed that our team had two strong cars and we would be competitive for the rest of the year. Every time I would look over as we crossed the line, I was a few inches ahead and then he was a little ahead. It was exciting for us and I bet it was for the fans in the stands and on television. Those kind of tracks -- the high-banked, 1.5 and two mile speedways -- always seem to produce great finishes and it will be tough to get a better one than last year. Well maybe this time I can win, that would be better."
This year Rahal Letterman Racing brings a third entry to Kansas. Rookie sensation Danica Patrick has been extremely competitive on the big tracks (Homestead, Motegi and Indy) and she also figures to be a factor this weekend.
PATRICK TACKLES THE ROOKIE LEARNING CURVE
In the aftermath of the Indianapolis 500 and media groundswell it would be easy to forget that Danica Patrick is a rookie in the IRL IndyCar Series. Patrick will make her eighth IndyCar Series start this weekend and will race on an oval for just the ninth time in her racing career.
Staring Patrick in the face after the success at Indy were two of the most difficult races on the IndyCar schedule. The infamous Texas Motor Speedway with its 24 banked corners and the three-quarter mile oval at Richmond were unlike anything the 23-year-old American had ever raced on.
She was able to qualify third at Texas but her lack of experience in the heavy traffic TMS is know for caught up with her. She ran consistently in the race and finished on the lead lap in 13th.
At Richmond the compressed practice and qualifying schedule of a two-day event exacerbated the steep learning curve. Again Patrick persevered and after starting 21st she finished tenth.
"To be honest I am pretty happy to be going back to the big tracks where I have more experience and as a team we have had a lot more success," said Patrick. "We always knew that Texas and Richmond would be two of the toughest races of the season, because I simply didn't have any kind of experience on those kind of tracks. I am a rookie and as a rookie I am going to have some very good weeks and some weeks that aren't so good. Bobby told me at the start of the season the most important thing I could do this year was finish races and gain experience."
Patrick and her RLR teammates Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira head to Kansas Speedway this week for the Argent Mortgage Indy 300. Last year Rice and Meira dominated the race and battled each other to the end of the race with Rice winning by 51-thousandths of a second.
"I know Rahal Letterman is going to be competitive this week at Kansas," said Patrick. "That makes it a lot easier on a rookie heading into an event. Our team has had a lot of success on the bigger tracks. For me it will be a case of getting some laps under my belt and becoming familiar with the track. The good thing is the car will be very good and that makes it a lot easier to get comfortable and up to speed."
RICE LOOKS TO RETURN TO HIS WINNING WAYS
A year ago everything seemed to fall into place for Buddy Rice during his breakout season. Rice mounted a championship bid by winning five pole positions and three races en route to a third place finish in the championship. A year later Rice can't seem to catch a break. His season has been one of ups and downs highlighted by a strong run at Motegi in April which was followed by the ultimate frustration of missing the Indy 500 due to an injury in May.
It was a long night in Richmond for Buddy Rice and the No. 15 Argent/Pioneer Honda/Panoz/Firestone. Rice's race served as a microcosm of his entire season. He started 14th and climbed to second on pit strategy before an ill handling car sent him backwards. Rice battled till the end and brought home his third running finish of the season in six races.
"I am glad we can follow up a race like Richmond with a race like Kansas," said Rice. "We had a lot of success on the big tracks last year and I am hoping we can jump start our season with a couple of strong races. Nothing has changed in our approach, it just seems we can't catch a break for the No. 15 Argent/Pioneer car. It is only a matter of time until things start to go our way. I think we had some momentum heading into Indy after we had a strong race in Japan. The injury certainly curtailed any positive momentum and we have been fighting to get back on track since."
MEIRA LOOKS TO REBOUND AFTER HIS FIRST DNF OF '05
After starting 15th at Richmond Vitor Meira had quietly moved forward and used pit strategy to lead 40 laps and move the No. 17 Rahal Letterman Team Menard/Johns Manville Honda/Panoz/Firestone into the top-five at Richmond. On lap 145 Meira was entering Turn 4 when Tony Kanaan spun and clipped Meira's car ending the day for both Brazilian drivers. For Meira who entered the race fifth in the championship it was his first DNF of the 2005 season and his first DNF by contact in his 21 race Rahal Letterman career.
The DNF dropped Meira to seventh in the championship and marked just the second time this season that the personable Brazilian hadn't posted the highest finish of the RLR trio.
"It will be important for us to bounce back at Kansas and have a big race," said Meira. We lost some ground in the championship and as we saw with Buddy last year those DNF results can really hurt you late in the season. Fortunately it is still pretty early in the season and we have a lot of races left. Still we can't afford to let the leaders get too far in front."
Meira comes to Kansas seeking his first IRL IndyCar Series win. A year ago he finished 51-thousandths of a second behind his teammate and race winner Buddy Rice. It is one of three runner up results Meira has in the IndyCar Series, including a second at Indianapolis this season.
"We have been competitive and run some very good races, but we haven't got to the point where we were a year ago where we felt we were the team to beat week in and week out. I think this stretch of races will be critical to our championship hopes. If we run well and can close the gap on Dan Wheldon over the next few weeks then we have a great shot at being a factor in the championship."
RAHAL LETTERMAN RACING NOTABLES. . .
Danica Patrick's tenth place finish at Richmond marked the first time this season the rookie has posted the highest RLR finish. Buddy Rice was the highest RLR finisher at Motegi and Vitor Meira has claimed the other five races. . .Patrick's season low qualifying effort of 21st at Richmond snapped a streak of three straight races of qualifying in the top-four. . .Vitor Meira led 40 laps at Richmond which marked the first time he has led this season since he led the first lap of the 2005 season . . .Patrick is currently the leader in the Bombardier Rookie of the Year competition. Patrick is vying to become the second RLR driver in the team's history to win Rookie of the Year honors. Kenny Brack captured the CART Rookie of the Year honors in 2000. . .Although she is a rookie, Danica Patrick is actually the senior member of the RLR driving trio in terms of starts with the team. Patrick will make her 37th start this weekend when she takes the green flag at Richmond, while Buddy Rice will make his 23rd start and Vitor Meira his 22nd start. Bobby Rahal is the career leader in starts for RLR with 116 starts. . .Meira's 40 laps led at Richmond allowed Rahal Letterman to surpass the 3500 laps led (3526) mark in team history. . .After seven rounds of the 2005 season Vitor Meira (170 points) leads his teammates Danica Patrick (149 points) and Buddy Rice (116 points) in the Hilliard, Ohio Mayor's Cup Standings.