McDONALD'S DRIVER RAHAL WILL MARK HIS ONE-YEAR OVAL RACING ANNIVERSARY AT THIS WEEKEND'S ROAD RUNNER INDY 300 WHILE TEAMMATE DOORNBOS WILL MAKE HIS DEBUT
KANSAS CITY, Kansas (April 24, 2009) --- This Sunday's Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 at Kansas Speedway will mark the first oval race of the 2009 IndyCar Series season as well as the first oval race of Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing (NHLR) driver Robert Doornbos' career. It will also mark the one-year anniversary for McDonald's driver Graham Rahal's oval racing debut. After two street races so far this season, both are looking forward to beginning an oval racing string of six consecutive events beginning with Sunday's 200 lap race around the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway oval.
"Driving on an oval is definitely different than I expected," said Doornbos, 27, after his first test day on an oval at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February. "It felt like going to a new school on the first day. I didn't really know what to expect but I got a lot of information from the team but you have to do it for yourself. The first five laps I thought 'Oh my god, where did I end up?' But that's because you have to run at a certain pace and once you reach that pace its actually quite fun so we ended the day on a good note and I can go to bed with a smile. I already got the bug and want to go faster and faster so that's a good thing. I will just take it as it comes. It's a steep learning curve but I enjoy it like this."
Doornbos progressed quickly through the ranks of European single-seater series such as F3, F3000 and on to Formula One when he changed his vocation from that of a semi-professional tennis player to a race car driver after meeting former Indy 500 and F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve at the 1998 Belgium Grand Prix. He finished third in series standings and earned Rookie of the Year in Champ Car in 2007 but there were no oval races on the schedule that season. Although oval racing is uniquely American, Doornbos knows that it commands respect around the world for the precision needed.
"Testing went well and obviously I don't underestimate the challenge of oval racing," said the Dutchman, who leads the four-man battle for Rookie of the Year. "It might look easy on the outside to some people because it is just turning left but once you understand the speeds that are involved and that the accuracy and respect among the drivers needs to be quite high, it's obvious that it is definitely a big challenge. My goal is to have a mistake-free weekend. We're looking to run in traffic comfortably and a strong, top-10 result would be a great result for my first weekend on an oval."
The 2009 event will mark the ninth time for the IndyCar Series to compete at Kansas Speedway while it will be NHLR's second race here. Last year Justin Wilson qualified 22nd here, led five laps and finished ninth while Graham Rahal qualified 20th in his oval racing debut and finished 12th. Rahal admits that it was a nerve-racking experience last year although the team set realistic goals.
"Was I nervous last year? Yeah, absolutely," admitted Rahal, driver of the No. 02 McDonald's race car. "I think everybody was nervous going into the Kansas race last year because it was our first oval in the series after missing Homestead. The race for us was pretty routine. We just wanted to get through it but we actually had a pretty good result with a 12th place finish, which was just about as good as it was going to be. It was a pretty straightforward race for us; we were just trying to get through the race distance and basically move on to Indianapolis. We really wanted to have as good of a finish as we could but we kept everything realistic."
Of the 17 races on the 2009 schedule, Kansas Speedway is the first of eight that the team will compete at for only the second time in their 27 year history. Although they have a full season of IndyCar Series competition behind them, the majority of the field has five more years of experience with the Dallara-Honda-Firestone racing package. The team continues to work hard to close the gap.
"I think the team has made a lot of improvements on the ovals but it's tough to quantify because we haven't run much on them," said Rahal. "My engineer Martin's (Pare) experience on ovals certainly should help us. I think we need to have a top-10 finish. I would like to say our expectation is to have a top-five finish but I think we need to keep things realistic. I imagine the car setup will be good but how quick it will be is the question. Our car was good last year but there was a difference in overall speed between ourselves and the long-time Indy car teams. A top-10 would be a good thing but a top-five would be a wonderful result for us on an oval. We'll keep chipping away at it and close the gap to other teams on the ovals. Prior to the split this team was one of the best on the ovals and we will get there again soon."
Prior to becoming the youngest pole sitter in series history in the 2009 season-opener in St. Petersburg, Rahal's previous highest qualifying of second place came on an oval in only his third start on this type of track. At the Milwaukee Mile last year, he narrowly lost pole to Marco Andretti by 2/10th of a second over a four lap average to start a then-career best second to Andretti in what was the first Andretti/Rahal front row since 1992 in Loudon, NH. While the road course qualifying he has taken part in consisted of multiple cars on track at the same time, he admits that having all eyes on him took some getting used to.
"Oval qualifying is different because its one car on track at a time," Rahal said. "It's pressure-packed because you know everybody's attention is on you but at the same time I think the road course format of qualifying is just about as tough as it gets but certainly oval qualifying is pretty nerve racking for sure."
"I did single-car qualifying before in Formula One so I have experience with that," added Doornbos. "Obviously this will be slightly different since it's on an oval. The thing I will need to learn as quick as possible is how to extract the maximum qualifying lap on an oval because when it's flat (pressure on accelerator), its flat. There are probably some tricks in the book that I have to find out."
Of the team's 107 victories, 27 have come on ovals while 18 of their 108 poles have been earned on the same type of track. Because the majority of their races have been run on road and street courses over the years, the team's success on those types of tracks make up a larger percentage. Former NHLR driver and four-time champion Sebastien Bourdais brought the team its most recent oval win on June 4, 2006 from pole at the Milwaukee Mile. He called the first win for the team there in 10 years his most important win of the season due to the fact it was their home race and they had struggled at the track in recent history. The next oval win will be even more meaningful.
The 2009 IndyCar Series season continues with Round 3 of 17 -- the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 at Kansas Speedway. Coverage of the event will begin with a qualifying and pre-race show on Saturday at 6 p.m. EDT while coverage of the 200-lap race will begin at 4:00 p.m. EDT on Sunday. Both broadcasts will be televised on the Versus network. As always all practice and qualifying sessions can be seen via a live timing and scoring and a video feed on www.indycar.com.