Title contender and flagship Honda team – these are labels we expected to be placing on Andretti Autosport in 2015, not Graham Rahal and company.
It’s been easy to write-off second generation Verizon IndyCar Series driver Graham Rahal over the past few years. After coming into the series with a bang, winning his first-ever IRL race on the street-airport course at St Petersburg in 2008 for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing as the youngest series winner, Rahal’s career went into a bit of stagnation.
The past does not reflect the present
Sure he finished seventh on the season for NHLR the following year, but by 2010 when the team ceased operations, Rahal was forced to drive for four different squads before landing with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2011. Much was expected and Rahal did record a ninth place result in the season-long standings with six top-10 results. That partnership continued in 2012 and Rahal recorded a tenth-place championship result, but it wasn’t enough to stay on for a third year with CGR.
An opening was available at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Graham went to work for his father, David Letterman and reunited with Mike Lanigan in 2013. An 18th place result in the standings, albeit with a second place podium at Long Beach wasn’t what the team or its driver wanted or expected in 2013 and a similar year in 2014, again with a second place (this time at Belle Isle I) finish just didn’t cut it as Rahal finished 19th in the overall standings.
Much of the lack of cohesion in the team and its paltry results could be traced to the loss of team leader and avid Indianapolis 500 lover Scott Roembke, who had been with Bobby Rahal as an advisor since 1991 and was chief operating officer from 2000 until his untimely death in 2012. Roembke was the core of the team and when he was gone, they floundered.
Everything is coming together in 2015
It appears, though, that 2015 is the year that Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Graham Rahal move beyond loss. Graham Rahal’s personal life has solidified, as he’s engaged to drag racer Courtney Force and learning much from his new family about the marketing side of motorsports, something at which his father-in-law John Force excels. The INDYCAR team, which was once based solely in Hilliard, Ohio now has an ancillary office in Brownsburg, Ind., not far from John Force Racing.
The addition of engineer Eddie Jones and the work that Martin Pare (vehicle ride control development) and Mike Talbott (vehicle dynamics) have done to the No. 15 Steak n Shake/Maxim Honda Indy car have Graham Rahal surging in the points, helped by finishes no worse than 11th in the first five road/street courses that include consecutive second-place results at Barber Motorsports Park and on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road/oval course.
Bobby off the pit box
Taking three-time CART champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal off the timing stand and letting him function as team co-owner and racing father, rather than a dictator of on-track activities has helped as well. Graham now holds fifth-place points and, with a little bit more of that elusive racing luck, who’s to say Rahal wouldn’t be standing atop a podium by now?
There’s an air of contentment in the team’s paddock, not to mention an air of resolve. That elusive win isn’t far away. “We’re going to win one of these things; I keep saying it,” Rahal pronounced after his second straight P2 result last weekend at Indianapolis. “We’re getting closer and closer and it feels good. I’m so proud of my team. To be the lead Honda again feels good but we want to win these things.”
The little team that could, and might just...
At this point, heading into the 99th Indianapolis 500 on May 24, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Graham Rahal ARE the lead Honda team. They’re a single-car entity, bench-pressing against the likes of Andretti Autosport, who have been fielding three, four and even five cars at a clip. Veteran Oriol Servia rejoins the team for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, yet their footprint is considerably smaller than most in the Indianapolis garage. Looking at their results, it seems to be the right way to go.
I’m reminded of 1995 as I look at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, their tightly-knit crew and driver Graham Rahal; their small group hearkens back to Team Green, who not only won Indy but nailed the CART championship as well that year with Jacques Villeneuve. It may be a bit much to hope for or to expect from this team, but that second win for Graham coming very soon? Now that's definitely not a far-fetched idea.