IRL: Rahal makes team name official

IRL: Rahal makes team name official

In order to distinguish the team's Indy Racing League IndyCar Series program from its other activities, Bobby Rahal announced today that his IRL team will be known as Rahal-Letterman Racing. The squad used that moniker during its 2003 campaign at...

In order to distinguish the team's Indy Racing League IndyCar Series program from its other activities, Bobby Rahal announced today that his IRL team will be known as Rahal-Letterman Racing. The squad used that moniker during its 2003 campaign at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and decided to make it a full-time change in order to "pay homage and give credit to Dave's roots here in Indianapolis," Rahal said.

Bobby Rahal.
Photo by McQueeney.
The 1986 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner met the late-night host after his victory at the Brickyard oval, invited to appear on David Letterman's show to commemorate the win. They hit it off and Rahal made a point to see Letterman whenever he was in town. "I think I was one of the few guys who ever invited Dave out to dinner or a show," Rahal laughed at the memory.

While Letterman's schedule precludes his appearance at most of the Indy Racing League's 16 annual events, the Indianapolis native will be making his customary visit on May 30th for the 88th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, and maybe two or three others. "Ours has always been a very good partnership," Rahal noted. "Nobody promotes racing on TV more than Dave does." It's one of the primary rationales for the name transition, together with Rahal's intention to "formalize our commitment to the IRL."

Rahal is displaying some confidence about his three-car team's chances this May. In his second year with the Honda engine, Rahal-Letterman Racing changed its choice of chassis over the winter from Dallara to Panoz G Force. "I feel very confident in the performance and reliability of the Honda engine," Rahal stated. "There are no guarantees, of course, but it seems that Honda has the best engine to date at Indy."

From the first race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the change of chassis looked to be a wise choice as Buddy Rice, driving the #15 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz G Force/Honda in relief of injured Kenny Brack put the machine on pole and finished in seventh place.

Roger Yasukawa.
Photo by Hiroshi Yamamura.
Just a few weeks later, Rahal announced the intent to move his major open wheel focus to the Indy Racing League with a two-car team for the balance of the season. Rahal-Letterman Racing had already announced it would field a #16 Sammy Panoz G Force/Honda for Roger Yasukawa at Twin Ring Motegi and in the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race; now the team upped the ante by fielding three cars for those two events.

With Brack continuing his recovery from massive injuries incurred in the final race of the 2003 IRL season at Texas Motor Speedway, Rahal decided to put veteran Vitor Meira in his #17 Team Centrix Panoz G Force/Honda at Japan and Indy, fielding a three-car team for the first time at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Is it possible Rahal-Letterman Racing might expand to a four-car operation once Brack decides he is ready to resume his career? Rahal left the door open.

"There is definitely an advantage for us in testing. When you have a multi- car team that is properly organized, it can work," Rahal explained. "It would be a win-win proposition if we can keep all four drivers. I'm pleased with what these three guys have done and there's never been a better opportunity to win here. They work well together and exchange information."

The three Rahal-Letterman Racing drivers have been working on different programs since the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened for practice this past Sunday. Rice and Yasukawa have placed their emphasis on qualifying setups while Meira has concentrated on the 200-lap race.

The different aerodynamics packages introduced for this race (and the balance of the season) by the Indy Racing League has forced the drivers to change their approach to driving this most difficult of race tracks.

"With the new rules," Rice noted, "The League raised our ride height by 10mm. The undertray isn't as efficient and, while we might have gained some speed on the straightaways, by taking the downforce out the 'sweet spot' has been narrowed up a lot. This puts more demands on engineers and drivers," he said.

Yasukawa finds the "cars are more affected by the wind, particularly with the ride height higher than it had been. We're a little slower overall. Turns 1 and 3 are much more demanding than they were last year." Meira concurred: "The power band is narrower and you need to carry momentum around the track. It's definitely more difficult and the car has to be just right."

Buddy Rice.
Photo by Ron McQueeney - IRL.
The notorious bumps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway may be gone once the track is resurfaced after this year's Brickyard 400, but Rice pointed out that weather influences how one drives this track. "The ground freezes and then thaws each year, and the bumps get worse every time," Rice said. "The turns are always different as the track expands and contracts" with the weather.

Turn One is the toughest corner of this 2.5-mile oval, according to the trio of Rahal-Letterman drivers. "Turn 1 is the most difficult because it feels blind, with the grandstands" looming in front of him, Yasukawa stated. "The turns can look the same when you're outside the car, but inside the car it's completely different. If your car is good in Turn 1, you have a good car for the rest of the track."

The Indy cars are more difficult to drive this year, thanks to the aero changes and the lowered engine capacity from 3.5 liters to an even three liters. The rules makers also decreed a decrease of five gallons in methanol to 30 gallons on each car.

"The cars are tougher to drive this year and that puts more [responsibility] back on the driver," Rice explained. "It's not foot-to- the-floor driving around this place any more. It's more an engineering exercise and we need to do more to help the engineers. I think they'll play an even larger role on the smaller ovals," he indicated.

"I agree the car is definitely more challenging and on the longer runs," Yasukawa said, "You need better balance in the car." Meira has been doing a lot of full-tank runs over the past few days before rain arrived in central Indiana. "The car changes a lot from full to empty tanks; it's very demanding," the Brazilian said.

Vitor Meira.
Photo by Dan Helrigel - IRL.
Bobby Rahal likes the "idea that the cars are a bit less stable this year. Drivers have to extend themselves to see what the car is going to do. They have to push to go to the next level. We may not see the closest racing," Rahal said, "but the cream will rise to the top."

The lack of 33 cars on the Indy 500 grid - which could happen this May - is a tough thing for Rahal to tackle. "Tradition is a tough thing, but I always prefer quality to quantity. As a traditionalist I would love to see 33 cars line up but the economy certain has its effects on racing; even NASCAR has troubles right now. Backmarkers," he noted, "can affect the race, so I'd rather see 27 or 28 good cars" than have 33 cars of varying capabilities.

It's almost time for the first race during the month of May: the race to get to the front of the field and to take the $100,000 prize awarded the Indy 500 MBNA polesitter. "I think we've still got something left," Rice indicated. "I don't think we'll have much of a setback with the rain today. Everyone at Rahal-Letterman is doing their job and we're looking good. We're pleased with our cars and think we can contend for the front row, if not the pole.

"Remember, this is our first time working with the 3-liter Honda engine and with the domed skid plate. We've been working hard with Honda and with Panoz G Force and I think," Rice declared, "that we made the right decision to go with this package." The challenge to put together 10 consistent miles in qualifying "is the big challenge for both drivers and engineers."

"Gearing is a pretty big issue," declared Yasukawa, who thinks a four-lap average around 222mph could merit pole position, based on Wednesday's dry, warm and windy conditions. The race will certainly be exciting, the American-born Japanese driver said. "It'll be different from 2003 and strategy will play a much larger role," the sophomore said.

Bobby Rahal is feeling pretty confident about his three-car team and its opportunities during the month of May. He thinks he has the right combinations to put together a successful Indy 500 race with Rice, Yasukawa and Meira.

"Brave dumb drivers don't do as well as brave, smart drivers," Rahal opined as the trio sat alongside. No doubt he feels his three pilots fall in the latter category.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Bobby Rahal , Kenny Brack , Roger Yasukawa , Buddy Rice , Vitor Meira