IRL: Michigan: Rahal Letterman Racing preview

RICE LOOKS FOR A REPEAT VICTORY AT MICHIGAN HILLIARD, Ohio -- Michigan International Speedway has been a welcome mid-summer stop for Rahal Letterman Racing for most of the last decade. The close proximity of the track and the team's prowess on...


HILLIARD, Ohio -- Michigan International Speedway has been a welcome mid-summer stop for Rahal Letterman Racing for most of the last decade. The close proximity of the track and the team's prowess on the high speed ovals have made the annual trip north one filled with optimism. Still despite compiling a myriad of competitive runs it wasn't until last year when Buddy Rice won the Michigan Indy 400 despite leading only 13 of 200 laps, that RLR finally posted a victory on the 2.5-mile superspeedway. Rice's win exorcised some of the past demons of disappointment at MIS.

In 1999 Max Papis dominated the Michigan 500 in his first superspeedway race for RLR as the personable Italian led 143 laps and appeared headed for his first open-wheel victory. Papis day ended in tears as he ran out of fuel with a half-lap to go handing his friend Tony Kanaan the ultimate gift, a victory at Michigan.

An even more bitter pill came in 2001 when Papis and Kenny Brack swept the front row of qualifying and proceeded to dominate the race before the two took each other out while passing the lapped car of Bryan Herta a mere 17 laps from the end.

Michigan has always been a special track for Buddy Rice. It was at Michigan that Rice made his debut for Cheever Racing in 2002 as he finished second to his teammate Tomas Scheckter. Michigan is also the site of Rice's last IndyCar Series win which was August 1st of last year.

Rice's victory was ironic in that this time five years after the Papis heartbreak, it was Kanaan that had the dominate car, yet he watched another take the checkered flag.

"Winning the MIS race last year proved to be a very satisfying win, because we stayed right behind Tony (Kanaan) and played a waiting game," said Rice. "It is always tough for a driver to sit back and wait because you want to go to the front and lead if you have the car to win. We had a strong car and played out the strategy just right. You can't always do that in racing. We need that kind of performance again this week. I expect us to have another good race for our team. I think Vitor, Danica and I will be factors at the end on Sunday."

Rice has been plagued with a frustrating 2005 campaign. Rice's expected challenge for the series championship and a successful defense of his Indy 500 crown has been sidelined by five DNF's and an injury which kept him from racing at Indy.

"It has been frustrating this year, but you can't take anything for granted in racing," said Rice. "Fortunately for me this week I really like the track at MIS. It is wide and very fast. MIS is pretty special for me because my mom's (Nancy) side of the family is from Lansing and we have a good group come to that race. I have had very good runs there including my IRL debut in 2002. MIS was a good place for my IRL debut. It is wide and a driver can make a mistake and he won't pay for it."

A win at Michigan will go a long way towards jump starting Rice's season. "Even with all the difficulties we haven't changed the way we are going about things," said Rice. "We are doing the exact same things we did a year ago when we were winning races and the pole. I know that one of these weekends we are going to catch a break and the success will come. We just have to keep putting in the effort."


Vitor Meira would love to add his name to the list of driver's whose first IndyCar or Champ Car victory came at Michigan Speedway. Of the 12 drivers in the series who have won a race, three have won their first race at Michigan.

In 1999 Tony Kanaan won at Michigan in his 31st start in CART when RLR's Max Papis ran out of fuel on the last lap of the race.

In 2001 Patrick Carpentier captured his first CART win in his 79th start after Papis and Brack had dominated the race but they crashed with each other while running 1-2 with 17 laps to go.

In 2002 Tomas Scheckter won his first IndyCar race at Michigan in 2002. Scheckter's win stands as the last time a true rookie won an IndyCar Series event.

Meira who will make his 39th IRL IndyCar Series start this weekend has quietly mounted a stellar 2005 season. Currently seventh in points he lost potential podium runs at Richmond (led 40 laps) and Nashville (running second) when he was crashed out by other competitors. With those lost points he would easily be in the top-three in the title chase.

"We have had some tough breaks in the last few races, but those are the challenges you have to overcome in the course of a season," said Meira. "Fortunately for us Michigan is a great track for the Honda engine. You can use all of the horsepower that you need there. That track is wide enough for your car even if you don't have a really good handling car. Our team is very smart at Michigan. They have been fast many times and last year Buddy won with great race strategy. There is always a lot of drafting and you have to save fuel. That's how Buddy won the race last year. Last year, I was right with Buddy at the front of the pack and Helio's (Castroneves) front wing cut my rear tire. I had to pit earlier than we wanted and then Adrian (Fernandez) hit me in the pits. That got us back in the pack and we had to work up to the fifth spot at the finish. This year, our Menards/Johns Manville crew has been very fast in the pits. I can see them helping me at MIS for track position. I believe that all the Rahal Letterman cars will be a factor in the race. As a team I think we have a good shot to win again."

Seven different drivers have won races for RLR since the team was founded as Rahal-Hogan Racing in 1992. Four of the seven have been first time winners with RLR including Rice (2004), Papis (2000), Bryan Herta (1998) and Michel Jourdain Jr. (2003).


Michigan International Speedway will be the eleventh race of Patrick's rookie IRL IndyCar Series campaign. She has posted five top-ten results including a pair of top-five finishes (Motegi & Indy) and has led 60 laps. Patrick holds the lead in the Bombardier Rookie of the Year standings entering round 11.

Despite her impressive rookie credentials much of the mainstream media has initiated the 'Danica Win Watch' keeping an eye on the high profile rookie and anticipating her first IndyCar series win. Of the 22 drivers who took the green flag at Nashville, 12 had posted an open-wheel racing win in the IndyCar Series or Champ Car. The average number of races it took those drivers to post their first win was 33. Only three of the 12 posted a win in their first 17 races, the number of races Patrick will run in her rookie season.

"I'm very early in my career," said Patrick. "I've done so little, and I've done so little oval racing, and there's just so many things that are new to me. People who are close to racing and know what is going on in the sport understand where I'm at in the learning curve. They have a good grasp of what's going on each and every weekend and they understand that this is a process that takes time. Nobody wants me to win more than I want to win for myself. With media expectations or without expectations I will give the same effort and try just as hard for that win."

In the history of the IRL IndyCar Series only three true rookies have ever won a race. The last to do so was Tomas Scheckter in 2002 and he won in his eleventh IndyCar Series start at a little track called Michigan."

Patrick will be making her debut at Michigan this weekend. The 23-year-old American has excelled on the big tracks (Motegi, Indianapolis) and has demonstrated marked improvement as the season has progressed.

I've never been to MIS, but I know it's a bigger track, and I do think we have a chance to do well there," said Patrick. " I think we've been pretty strong so far this year overall. Even this past weekend at Milwaukee, with the troubles we've had at the short ovals, we walked into that and were hoping to do better than what we did at Richmond. We did a lot better qualifying sixth, running in the top six or seven for the whole race until I fell out. Big improvement. We're the strongest at the big ovals. I think the successes are hoped for there."


Vitor Meira has posted the top Rahal Letterman result in seven of the ten races this season, including the last race at Milwaukee. . .The three Rahal Letterman drivers have combined to lead 116 laps this season led by Danica Patrick with 60. RLR cars have led in six of the ten races. . .Rahal Letterman Racing has won at least once race every season since 1998. That seven year streak is the second longest such streak in North American open-wheel racing. . ,Patrick is currently the leader in the Bombardier Rookie of the Year competition. Patrick is vying to become the second RLR driver in the team's history to win Rookie of the Year honors. Kenny Brack captured the CART Rookie of the Year honors in 2000. . .Although she is a rookie, Danica Patrick is actually the senior member of the RLR driving trio in terms of starts with the team. Patrick will make her 40th start this weekend when she takes the green flag at Michigan, while Buddy Rice will make his 26th RLR start and Vitor Meira his 25th start. Bobby Rahal is the career leader in starts for RLR with 116 starts. . .Buddy Rice needs one win to move into a tie for the all time leader in RLR wins. Bobby Rahal won four times during his championship season of 1992 and Kenny Brack won four times during his 2001 season in which he finished as the runner up. . .After nine rounds of the 2005 season Vitor Meira (241 points) leads his teammates Danica Patrick (209 points) and Buddy Rice (161 points) in the Hilliard, Ohio Mayor's Cup Standings. . .Patrick appears on the cover of this week's TV Guide. It marks the sixth magazine cover she has appeared on in the last three months. First came Northwest Airlines NWA World Traveler, then came Sports Illustrated, Racer, IndyCar Magazine, Beckett Racing Monthly and now the Midwestern edition of TV Guide. . . Four times in the team's history RLR has swept the front row in qualifying. The first time was at the Grand Prix of Long Beach in 1998 (Herta & Rahal), the second time came at Michigan in 2001 (Brack & Papis). The team has done it each of the last two seasons. In 2004 Rice and Meira swept the front row at Nashville and this year the team posted its first 1-2-3 sweep when Patrick, Rice and Meira swept the front three spots. RLR has never won a race where it has swept the front row in qualifying. . .Patrick's league high eight race finishing streak was snapped with her DNF at Milwaukee. Patrick finished 22 straight races in Formula Atlantic for Rahal Letterman Racing and she has posted a running result in eight of the ten races this season. Patrick has finished 30 of her last 32 races for RLR and has posted only five DNF's in 39 races.


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Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Max Papis , Bobby Rahal , Patrick Carpentier , Tony Kanaan , Bryan Herta , Kenny Brack , Buddy Rice , Danica Patrick , Michel Jourdain , Vitor Meira