IRL: RLR - Now there are three

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IRL: RLR - Now there are three

Rahal Letterman Racing, winners of the 2004 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race - and MBNA pole position - with Buddy Rice has clarified its plans for the upcoming Indy Racing League IndyCar Series 17-race season. Danica Patrick. Photo by...

Rahal Letterman Racing, winners of the 2004 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race - and MBNA pole position - with Buddy Rice has clarified its plans for the upcoming Indy Racing League IndyCar Series 17-race season.

Danica Patrick.
Photo by Shawn Payne - IRL.
For the first time, the team will have three fulltime drivers at its disposal, as Danica Patrick, 22, the 2004 Toyota Atlantic third place championship finisher will join last year's lineup of Rice and Brazilian Vitor Meira, all three driving Panoz G Force/Honda/Firestone challengers in the League's tenth year of competition.

The team's plans were announced this morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of Rice's first momentous IRL victory. Present for the announcement were Bobby Rahal, team co-owner with David Letterman, Rice, Meira and Patrick, the team's three drivers for 2005 and, apparently beyond that time, Robert Clarke of Honda Performance Development and Sam Marouk, vice president of Argent Mortgage Company, which returns with the team in 2005.

In this year's IRL competition, Rice will again drive the #15 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer-sponsored car and his will be differentiated from the #16 of Patrick by only slight physical differences. Rice's car sports white accents while Patrick's racer has yellow upper and mirror accents on the burgundy and blue paint scheme. Meira's car was not unveiled at this time; the team is still finalizing sponsorships for next season.

In unveiling two of his three IndyCar Series entries, Rahal - the 1986 Indy 500 champ - noted that he has multi-year agreements with his drivers and partners, Argent Mortgage and Pioneer.

Most of the questions posed to Rahal concerned the ascension of Patrick, who has been with his team (and Argent Mortgage) for the past two season. "I'm convinced she's ready. She did a very good job in Atlantics and, while she didn't win I can't blame [the lack of a victory] all on her. She did finish second a a number of times," Rahal noted, and "she has her racecraft and pace.

"The biggest concern I have had with Danica is putting her here before she's ready and I do believe she's ready for this," he continued. Rahal intimated his future plans for Patrick' during the 2004 Indianapolis 500 when he said she'd likely run Indy in 2005. He now thinks "we won't make fools of ourselves" by bringing her to the tight constraints of Indy car racing. "I think she can handle the pressure."

Meira agrees after witnessing her tests at Kentucky Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway and on the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course. "She'll be fine," he said. "She'll have to learn the ovals and we'll help her as much as we can," referring to himself and Rice.

Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira.
Photo by Shawn Payne - IRL.
Coming to the RLR squad in the third race at Twin Ring Motegi, "Vitor stepped into an extremely difficult situation last year and excelled," Rahal stated. The 27-year-old's program came together quickly and he spent much of his third IRL season learning the team and the car he was driving; his prior experience came with a Dallara/Chevrolet package. "There was no grace period for Vitor and no proverbial honeymoon for him. Based on what he accomplished last season, I am optimistic that he will achieve even greater success this year," Rahal declared.

For his part Meira is "thrilled to continue with Rahal Letterman Racing and to team with Buddy and Danica. This time last year I had no ride," Meira recalled. "This has been a really big turnaround and it will be a big improvement for the team to have three cars. Even though we worked well together last year in 2005 Danica will make us even stronger."

The driver from Brasilia has goals for the coming year, his fourth in the Indy cars: "We're looking at the big picture, the championship for next year. We're going to push everything - I think I can win races and try for the title," he said. Meira, who will spend the holidays at home with his family lives about four minutes from Rahal Letterman Racing's Hilliard, OH offices.

Rice, who won his first three IndyCar Series races last season also was without plans this time last year. The 1999 Toyota Atlantic champion had been under contract to Rahal the following year but nothing ever came of it. He spent time with Red Bull Cheever Racing and, when Rahal's primary driver Kenny Brack was injured in the 2003 season finale at Texas Motor Speedway, the Arizonan got the call.

Finishing third in the 2004 standings didn't sate Rice who "showed what I can do" with this team. "We're solid the next couple of years and our goal is to run up front, win races and the championship. This team can do it," he contended.

Rice worked well with Meira during the 2004 season and believes, "Danica will be good for our sponsors, our series and our team. She'll bring different groups of people o the track," he said. While he recognizes the learning curve she faces, "We all have the same learning curve. The major issues are how the tires change [over the course of a race], how the track changes, the close competition and pit stops," Rice said.

Bobby Rahal and Buddy Rice with the 2005 Indianapolis 500 ticket, featuring images of Rice, Rahal and team co-owner David Letterman.
Photo by Ron McQueeney - IRL.
"It takes a bit of learning but we all have that same learning curve." Rice is looking forward to returning home for the holiday period later this week - he's had only seven days in the Phoenix area since the season ended - and spending time with family and friends.

Knowing a great deal of attention will be focused on her this coming season really doesn't phase Danica Patrick. "I've been preparing for this the last 13 years," she stated. "We'll let the results speak for themselves. I'm accustomed to media coverage and it's not like I'm coming out of nowhere. I need to stay focused, worry about my racing and no one can say I don't belong here."

"She's not easily intimidated," Rahal explained. "She's gone very quickly and she's very consistent," which is what he was looking for in a driver. "She's proven she's a racer and she's not afraid to mix it up, bang wheels, whatever it takes." Rahal thinks the most important thing for Patrick over the coming season will be showing improvement from race to race. "It's going to take a certain level of patience for her but having these two teammates will make it easier."

Brack, who intended to test for Rahal Letterman Racing after the end of the season has not yet been able to take his second IndyCar Series test after near-death injuries set him back in October of 2003. "We'll do it at some point," Rahal said. "Kenny has to figure out if he wants to continue; I know he's thinking long and hard about his future and we'll let him make his own determination." Brack competed in last weekend's Race of Champions in Paris.

During the discussions of drivers, Sam Marouk did confirm that his company, Argent Mortgage will once again sponsor the Kansas City IRL race, won last year by Rice over Meira by a scant 0.0015 seconds. The company also intends to lend its name to two other IndyCar series races in 2005 but has not yet divulged their location.

And Clarke, on hand to support Rahal Letterman Racing revealed that Honda Performance Development expects to have ten cars on the IndyCar Series grid for 2005 and that the company will be with the League at least through 2006. "For Indy we'll likely have a couple more," he noted. "Our goals are to do it again next season and that's been shown to be even more difficult," than winning a first championship.

"The competition gets tougher," Clarke said. He intimated Toyota will be difficult to beat in 2005 but that HPD's "complete focus is here; we have no other programs."

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