INDIANAPOLIS, August 10, 2004 - Is Rahal Letterman Racing the team to beat this year for the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series title? It's starting to look that way with the results posted to date by drivers Buddy Rice ( ...
INDIANAPOLIS, August 10, 2004 - Is Rahal Letterman Racing the team to beat this year for the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series title? It's starting to look that way with the results posted to date by drivers Buddy Rice (#15 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz G Force/Honda/Firestone) and Vitor Meira in the #17 Team Centrix Panoz G Force/Honda.
These two guys and the other 20 racers chasing them head to Kentucky Speedway in Sparta this weekend for race #11 in the 16-event campaign, the Belterra Casinos Indy 300.
Six months into the season, it's hard to recall that Rice and Meira were without jobs for the 2004 season; Rice landed his post with Rahal Letterman before the season began while Meira got the nod in time to compete at Twin Ring Motegi, race #3.
To prepare for this weekend's race Rice, who lies second in the points chase to Tony Kanaan's #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda, just 57 points behind and Meira, seventh in the standings both did a bit of testing. While Rice checked out Nazareth Speedway, Meira went to Kentucky, site of an accident last August that knocked him out of the race. He said the track has been improved a large bit.
"The track is way better than last year and there are not as many bumps," the Brazilian noted. This 1.5-mile oval is quite similar to Kansas, where Rice and Meira posted the second-tightest finish in IRL history this past July of .0051 seconds.
"We've been strong on the mile-and-a-half ovals," Rice acknowledged. "We stand a strong chance to go for the win. Kentucky is very fast and it sounds like they've grinded the track," because it is much smoother as Meira said.
The hoopla surrounding Rice's victory at Indy afforded him some treats he'd not had before, such as throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium, great fun for a guy who chose racing over baseball. "I'd been to the White House before," he said tongue fully in cheek, "but never on a personal level. I'd always wanted to do these things and worked so hard to get there."
Kicking around doing so little after winning the 2000 Toyota Atlantic Championship, Rice bided his time until Eddie Cheever hired him to race at Michigan in July 2002 as a rabbit for then-driver Tomas Scheckter. Dumped after last year's Nazareth race by Cheever, Rice still doesn't think there are that many flaws in the way team owners make their hiring choices, "Everybody does a pretty good job evaluating open wheel racing talent."
Today, of course, Rice is with "such a much better team. That we've come together is a big hit for all of us."
Meira's first two years of IndyCar Series competition came with John Menard's team, which disbanded at the end of last year as a separate organization to merge with Panther Racing. "I'm not sure people recognized the job I did over those two years," Vitor noted about his walking the paddock during the first two 2004 races.
Bobby Rahal noticed him, as did David Letterman and Scott Roembke. As the team changed chassis over the winter, staying with Honda power, "A big part of our rise is the car and the teamwork," Meira maintained. "The work that Honda and Panoz G Force have been doing are a big part, of course, but we've been the team to beat since the beginning of the championship this year."
Rice agrees with Meira - they seem to do a lot of that these days, another sign that the mojo is good at RLR. "Something happened at Indy in terms of our confidence. We only had two test days prior to the season and we spent a lot of time learning the package," Rice recalled.
"We went from worst on the short oval at Phoenix to second place at Milwaukee. We grew as a team and learned what the chassis needs. Having Roger [Yasukawa, who drove for RLR in Japan and at Indy] and Vitor combined to make it happen."
There's no doubt a special energy exists in the Hilliard, OH shops. "I think it's the intensity, work ethic, clear goals and knowing how to get there," Meira insisted. "The quality of the people is the biggest asset on this team. That, and how well everyone works together. Me and Buddy work really well together and we all have one goal: the championship."
This particular duo were not what Rahal Letterman Racing had in mind toward the end of the 2003 season when they began to put plans in place for 2004. "Nobody anticipated Kenny being out of the seat," Rice said of Kenny Brack, injured in the season finale at Texas Motor Speedway.
"They were already making adjustments to make things better for this year with Panoz G Force and Honda. Those were the right decisions," as it has panned out for the team. There were internal changes with engineering staff shuffled from one series and car to another, as RLR decided to focus its full energy on the IndyCar Series. "It's all kind of clicking and everyone's on the same page," Buddy allowed.
Meira realized, "It's all about the teamwork we do. You can't be this strong without everybody doing a perfect job. If anything goes wrong you can't win races. That's why we've been so strong."
What does it all mean? When the season began, most people thought the Honda team to beat was Andretti Green Racing with its quartet of superstars: Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta. The energy on that squad had others sitting up and taking notice. "There are these two big Honda-powered teams running up at the front right now and that's what Honda wants."
Maybe it's what Honda wants, but what Bobby Rahal, David Letterman, Scott Roembke and their duet of drivers, Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira are vying for is this year's IndyCar Series championship. There may not be four of them on the grid each week, but everyone at Rahal Letterman Racing is showing power in numbers. Winning numbers.