IRL: RLR rising?

This has been quite a year of change for Rahal Letterman Racing.

The Hilliard, OH squad began their 2004 season with a different name than it has now - Team Rahal - and it was a trisected team with one foot in the Champ Car World Series, one in Toyota Atlantic and yet another with the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series.

Before either season began that changed. Bobby Rahal, the former CART president and 3-time champion pulled his interest from Champ Car and joined the League fulltime.

Buddy Rice and Bobby Rahal with the Borg Warner trophy.
Photo by Shawn Payne - IRL.
He began the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway with Buddy Rice as team leader once the team ascertained Kenny Brack wouldn't be ready for action after his Texas October 2003 accident.

And suddenly the Panoz/Honda/Firestone package they'd chosen was a winner right out of the box when Buddy took the first pole of the year and nearly won the race. It only got better for Buddy Rice, sponsors Argent Mortgage and Pioneer Electronics, for Team Rahal.

It was at the Brickyard this year that this team made it's big metamorphosis.

Changing the name to Rahal Letterman Racing and readily acknowledging the participation of Indianapolis native David Letterman was a step. Winning Indy's pole and race with Rice for the big score of the year made the change of name nearly a prescient matter.

Today in Indianapolis Buddy Rice saw his likeness on the Borg Warner Trophy that signifies the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner and accept his "blingy" winner's ring.

In town for the Indy Racing League's annual safety meeting Rice wryly remarked, "It would look better if I were wearing a hat" when he saw his image on the big perpetual Indy winner's cup.

After earlier speaking with local hero Arie Luyendyk he said, "To be in company with people like that, and A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and everybody else that made this trophy so coveted and what makes everybody from around the world and all different motorsports come to this race and run, this is what we do it for."

Clearly understanding his victory's relevance Rice noted, "It is because we love racing, but to be associated with the people that are on this trophy, It's just a phenomenal feat for myself and the team. This is one for all the guys."

Third-year IRL veteran Brazilian Vitor Meira, who'd never driven the setup Rahal Letterman chose for 2004 came onboard with the team at Twin Ring Motegi and never looked back.

Pretty much in competition with Roger Yasukawa for the second fulltime slot on the team in lieu of Brack, Meira vanquished the Honda favorite with his skills from Race #3 on. Centrix Financial backed the Brazilian through the year, which resulted in the eighth place standings despite missing two early races.

Rice and Meira hooked up and challenged one another through the year; their Kansas finish of 0.0051 seconds with Rice atop was one of the true heart-stopping duels of the season.

Rahal Letterman Racing really had no choice but to find a way to keep both of these drivers in 2005, even as they enrolled Danica Patrick from the Toyota Atlantic Championship ranks to complete their repatriation with the Indy Racing League.

It would be three IndyCar series entries for 2005 at Rahal Letterman Racing, but they showed off two of the three cars right before the Performance Racing Industry show opened early in December in Indianapolis. The team trotted out Danica, Buddy and Vitor, but made no announcement or inference about the third car's colors or alliances.

Patrick and Rice share Argent Mortgage and Pioneer colors with personal identification on each tub. Today their teammate's partnerships and colors were announced and they are apt.

When Vitor Meira broke into the Indy Racing League, he successfully drove a Dallara/Chevrolet combo for home improvement magnate John Menard and his partner Johns Manville Corp. Then Menard aligned with Panther Racing for the 2004 season and Meira was hung to dry.

Vitor Meira.
Photo by Ron McQueeney - IRL.
About ready to return to Brazil and drive for Helio Castroneves' saloon car team at the end of May, Meira got lucky and joined Rahal Letterman Racing. Menard's time with Panther didn't work nearly as well so it was a natural for the two realign.

Headquartered in Eau Claire, WI, Menard's home improvement store chain is prevalent in the upper midwest states, with more than 200 locations in ten states, including the Rahal Letterman team's home area.

"The opportunity to partner with Rahal Letterman, Johns Manville and my friend Vitor Meira creates a program that will have success on the track and at Menards," John Menard proclaimed.

Rahal saw how natural the partnership could be for his team: "Over the years John Menard has repeatedly demonstrated his passion for open wheel racing. His support and dedication to the IRL IndyCar Series since its inception is well documented."

During the unveiling of his teammates' cars in December, Meira displayed no signs of worry, having committed to Rahal Letterman Racing for an extended term, both parties stated. Whether the commitment from Menard was on the table or not at that time, he knew he had earned his place on the team.

The chance to continue with the team that helped him achieve his best starts and finishes in the series and the same team owner who helped propel him to this point is a win-win situation for Meira.

"The opportunity to drive for Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and John Menard would be a thrill for any driver," Vitor exulted. "For me it represents the people who have given me the opportunity to compete in the IndyCar Series over the last few years.

Following his 2004 top ten finish despite running 14 of 16 events, "With a full off-season of testing and strong support from the team and our sponsors, we have an opportunity to run for the championship and that is exactly what we are preparing to do."

It should be an interesting situation then, this year at Rahal Letterman Racing, with Rice expecting to come back strong following his three race, five-pole 2004 campaign that kept the Arizonan in the hunt until the final of 16 races.

"I'm going to do the exact same thing I did last year. Whether it's Indy," he declared, "Homestead, Phoenix or on down the road, it's going to be the exact same from start to finish."

Well, not exactly.

Buddy Rice will have the same tough teammate Vitor Meira challenging him again and Rice has the responsibility of being the current Indy 500 winner. As team leader he also accepts the task of mentoring newcomer Danica Patrick. "You can be a mentor; it depends on how people perceive and take it in. The door is always open."

Things sure have changed since this time last year. Poles, wins and challenges for victory can do that; the knowledge that a secure system is in place assists. Rahal Letterman Racing appears to have made the right changes and accepted the best associations available.

When wheels start turning in testing next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway, there will be three Rahal Letterman Racing entries on hand. Will their 2004 success breed the same results again a season later?