Heads up, America. Are you ready for some open-wheel racing?
We’re not talking Formula 1, or even the latest season of Netflix’s Drive to Survive which dropped last week. No, we’re focused on open-wheel’s stateside soiree, the NTT IndyCar Series.
After what’s felt like an endless off-season, IndyCar will kick off its 2023 schedule this weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida. Of the 11 teams that will be represented on the grid, none is looking for a bigger rebound than Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLL)—a group that features many of IndyCar’s household names including co-owner David Letterman and lead driver Graham Rahal.
It sometimes seems as though Rahal, has been around forever. Fifteen years have passed since he became the youngest winner in IndyCar history. (The record has since been broken by fellow second-gen standout Colton Herta.) At the time, a lot of people thought the 19-year-old wunderkind was poised to embark on a career eclipsing the one amassed by his father, 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal.
However, the younger Rahal hasn’t won an IndyCar race in five years, and RLL Racing hasn’t been to Victory Circle since 2020. With Arrow McLaren stepping up to challenge the longtime dominance of Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, and Andretti Autosport, it feels like RLL is in danger of being left in the dust.
Not so fast, says IndyCar driver-turned-TV announcer Townsend Bell. “If you’re talking about resources and commitment, then RLL is part of the Big Five,” he says. “You should see how much they’ve invested in their new facility.” RLL recently moved into a state-of-the-art $20 million, 115,000-square-foot facility near Indianapolis that now houses not only its IndyCar team but also its BMW IMSA GTP program.
We caught up with Graham Rahal at a preseason test in California, a couple weeks back. “It means more space, having more simulation guys, being able to manufacture more parts in-house,” he says. “We have a whole room dedicated to damper dynos. It’s definitely going to help.”
With the bigger and plusher digs came several new hires. None of them was more important than freshly installed technical director Stefano Sordo, an F1 veteran who worked as the chief aerodynamicists at Red Bull during Sebastien Vettel’s glory years and then as head of vehicle dynamics at McLaren.
“It’s not like we’ve fired a bunch of engineers,” Rahal says. “I think what we needed most was pretty simple, and that’s just direction. I thought that from the top on down, we needed a clearer path, from the engineer corps in particular. We didn’t have a technical director. We didn’t really have somebody that was leading the charge. We didn’t have enough depth.”
Although there haven’t been any changes in the RLL’s driver lineup, the team isn’t standing pat. Rahal will be working with a new race engineer, Eddie Jones, hoping to recapture the magic that brought them five wins during an earlier pairing from 2015 to 2017. The team is also looking for big things from 21-year-old Dane Christian Lundgaard. “He very quietly and methodically stayed out of the limelight but ended up as the Rookie of the Year,” Bell says.
Supremely confident and wicked quick, Lundgaard often matched Rahal on pace and regularly outperformed more experienced teammate, Jack Harvey. Next year, he’s looking to improve upon a season that featured seven top tens and a second-place finish on the Indy road course.
“I’m not expecting to win every race,” he admits. “[But] looking at how the second half of 2022 ended, I’m not at all in doubt that I’ve got what it takes. I’ve just got to do it.”
Harvey also has something to prove after a dismal 2022. The likable Brit moved to RLL after several year of punching above his weight with the small Meyer Shank Racing Team. Instead of competing for wins, he managed only one top 10 finish and was classified 22nd out of 25 full-time drivers in the final points standings. Ouch.
Looking back, Harvey says that one of the problems he faced last year was the team’s inability to get his car to feel the way it had during better times in 2021. “I think sometimes having the experience of a good car can be great,” he explains. “It also can be not great when you’re not able to replicate that feeling. I knew how the car should feel, and we were struggling to kind of get to that phase.”
Rahal is confident that Harvey, and the rest of the team, can leverage the new race shop and additions to the engineering staff to find the time they need—a tenth here and a tenth there—to run with the lead dogs at the front of the pack.
“So much of it comes down to getting the most out of the tires,” he says. “We’re very good on race days because we don’t have the tire degradation that most guys do. But we can’t seem to figure out how to get the most out of the tires in qualifying. We’ve definitely been frustrated with the lack of performance, and we’ve pushed really, really hard. It’s not that we had the wrong people. We just weren’t focused on the right things.”
Speaking of focus, Rahal—who grew up as a track rat—has forged a life outside racing. Married to former Funny Car driver Courtney Force, he has a young daughter and a burgeoning business empire devoted to high-performance cars and motorcycles. At 34, he’s now a grizzled veteran. But he insists he’s just as quick as ever.
Old age hardly seems like a problem in a series where reigning champion Will Power and perennial front-runner Scott Dixon are both 42 and four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves is 47. Don’t be surprised if an older but wiser Rahal finds his way back to the top step of the podium in 2023.