PATRICK, SIMMONS AND RICE CARRY MOMENTUM INTO MILWAUKEE
HILLIARD, Ohio - There are numerous cliches that can be tossed around, but the bottom line is for the first time since Rahal Letterman Racing left Japan headed for Indianapolis the team carries momentum into a race weekend. The fourth place finish of Danica Patrick, a career best seventh by Jeff Simmons and a strong run by Buddy Rice prior to a mechanical DNF at Nashville have given the team momentum heading into the final five races starting with this weekend's stop in Milwaukee.
Patrick stayed strong through the eye of the media storm and posted her top finish of the season and equaled her best results from her rookie year.
"Nashville was a result of a lot of hard work at all levels of the team," said Patrick. "This has been a difficult transition changing from the Panoz chassis to the Dallara chassis, but last week demonstrated why we made the change. For the first time in a long time I had a car I could make adjustments to and improve throughout the race. With the old chassis you made adjustments, but it didn't always respond to the changes. Saturday night I was able to tweak the car throughout the run and that showed because we were stronger at the end than at the beginning."
Jeff Simmons has quietly put together strong back-to-back races. Simmons posted RLR's first top-ten result with the Dallara chassis at Kansas and he responded with a career best seventh at Nashville.
"We are coming into Milwaukee after a couple of good finishes, seventh at Nashville and tenth at Kansas. The Team Ethanol crew has put in a lot of hours to get this Dallara chassis up to speed in the middle of the season. And we are still working on it. But I am proud of their determination and working to give me a good car each week."
Buddy Rice remains the snakebit member of RLR. Rice saw a strong early run which included the second fastest lap of the race, derailed by a mechanical failure in his No. 15 Argent Mortgage Honda/Dallara/Firestone.
"I really don't know what else to say," said Rice. "We have found just about every conceivable way to DNF and it is frustrating. It is especially frustrating when you see the progress the team has made and you know you have a competitive car. Fortunately we are starting to figure out the nuances of this chassis and I think we can be a factor over the last five races. These are tracks where historically RLR has run very well. I wish we were talking about championships, but now we are focused on laying a ground work for next season."
RLR comes to the Milwaukee Mile this week looking to build on its past success. The team has won twice at Milwaukee. The first win came in 2001 when Kenny Brack posted his 'Brack-to-Brack' wins at Motegi and Milwaukee. The team's second win came in a dominating fashion when Michel Jourdain Jr. set a Champ Car record for lap leading 218 laps en route to his first win. The team has twice has a pole sitter at The Mile (Brack 2001, Vitor Meira 2004).
RICE LOOKING FOR RETURN TO '04 FORM AT THE MILE
Buddy Rice was on a roll. In 2004 the then Indy 500 champion Rice, had started on the front row in consecutive races when he came to the Milwaukee Mile. Rice would see his pole winning streak snapped by his teammate Vitor Meira, but he started third and finished second. Rice won three times in 2004 and bagged a pair of runner-up results en route to a third place finish in the championship.
"Milwaukee is not an easy track to figure out," said Rice. "It is the flattest oval we race on all year. So handling is extremely important at Milwaukee. In 2004, we had a good car at the end of the race and we nearly caught Dario (Franchitti, race winner). But it takes a combination of things to get the car to work. You have to get a compromise on your car setup. You don't want the car too loose (oversteer) but you also don't want too much push (understeer). There is a very fine line to have a good car at Milwaukee. I have always enjoyed racing at Milwaukee. In the smaller classes, I liked racing in Milwaukee and see my friend Robin Yount, who is a legend in town. He helped me in the early parts of my racing career since we met at the go-kart track in Phoenix in the winter months. Now, Robin is back working with the Brewers and I wish he could come to the races. But this year, the team is out of town. I hope to see him the day after the race."
The last season and a half has been a test for the personable American as Rice has been plagued with a run of ill luck. A year ago a freak injury sidelined the '04 Indy Champ from defending his Indy 500 championship and Rice has notched a DNF in 12 of the 24 races he has run due to a wide variety of causes, most recently a mechanical failure at Nashville.
Rice and RLR have not won a race since Michigan in 2004. The nearly two year old streak stands at 31 races. The longest drought for RLR since the mid-90s.
DANICA'S CONSISTENT RUNS PAYING OFF IN POINTS
It isn't often that one can say something about Danica Patrick is under the radar, but in the case of her 2006 season, her results have in fact been somewhat overlooked. Entering Milwaukee Patrick, currently ninth in the championship, is third in laps completed since the Homestead Race trailing only Vitor Meira and Scott Dixon. Patrick has collected five top-ten results, including a fourth place finish at Nashville. A year ago Patrick claimed seven top-ten results en route to the Rookie of the Year honors and an eleventh place finish in the championship.
This week Patrick heads to Milwaukee where some experts feel she ran her best race of the 2005 season before a late spin in oil on track ended her day in a 19th place finish. Patrick started sixth and was the lone Panoz running in the top-ten before her incident.
"We had a strong run at Milwaukee last year and I think that was a real turning point for us in terms of the short oval program," said Patrick. "Our first short oval at Phoenix was a nightmare and Richmond was only slightly better, but Milwaukee was a the first time we really had a car we could race with on a short oval. With the strides we have made and with the Dallara chassis I think we have a shot to be pretty good."
JEFF SIMMONS UPPING THE CAREER MARK
Back-to-back top-ten results for Jeff Simmons has also had the effect of pushing his career best IndyCar Series result up the charts. Simmons, a seven time winner in the IPS, posted a then career best tenth place result at Kansas (7/2). He came back to collect a seventh place finish at Nashville last week.
"Obviously this has been a tough season for me, but I am really starting to feel comfortable in the car and the crew is getting comfortable with the new chassis and I think the results are starting to speak for themselves."
Simmons comes to Milwaukee seeking a third straight top-ten result.
"The Milwaukee race will be a tough one. It is a flat track and handling is everything there. We won the IPS race at Milwaukee last year and I was actually shifting down twice in each turn. I don't think we'll be doing that with the Indy car. We haven't been able to test on a short track so we'll have to work together as team. Buddy, Danica and I will try concentrate on selected parts of the car during practices. Buddy worked on race setup at Nashville and I think that paid off for Danica and myself. Unfortunately, Buddy didn't get the chance to finish the race last week. Overall, I feel good with the Team Ethanol crew and I hope we can continue to improve our results."
Jeff Simmons, driver of the No. 17 Team Ethanol Honda Dallara Firestone car, spent an enjoyable day behind the scenes assisting in brewing his own beer at the pilot research center inside the famed Miller Brewing Company. Simmons worked with Troy Rysewyk, brewmaster, and John Hensley, brewer, to prepare a special upcoming winter brew that takes months to age and prepare. The dark beer, a new product for release by Miller in October, has been in the works but had a Simmons touch as the IndyCar driver added "hops" to the mix Wednesday in a special media event. Simmons was in town early for this weekend's ABC Supply/AJ Foyt 225 at the Milwaukee Mile. Simmons will be busy Thursday as well when he meets Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle in Madison to promote the use of ethanol in the IndyCar Series as well as in Wisconsin passenger cars.
DANICA BOBBLE HEAD GIVEAWAY
Although she was born in Beloit, Wisconsin, she grew up in Roscoe, Illinois and the closest track to her childhood home is The Milwaukee Mile. This week the Mile will honor 'the local girl' with a limited edition bobblehead doll. The first ten-thousand fans coming to Sunday's ABC Supply AJ Foyt 225.
Patrick was in her hometown of Roscoe this week and attended the Rockford Riverhawks where she signed autographs and help raise money for Muscular Dystrophy Association on 'Danica Patrick Night.' Danica signed autographs and copies of her book, "Crossing the Line," and then signed all of the home team's jerseys. The baseball team wore alternate jerseys that were modeled after Danica's racing uniform. After the game, there was an auction to sell off all 33 of these jerseys which were also autographed by the player that wore them raising over $12,000.