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After 'embarrassing' Indy 500, Rahal Letterman Lanigan is still searching for speed at the Brickyard

By The Associated Press
Posted 12:44PM on Wednesday 22nd May 2024 ( 1 month ago )

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The was a quiet sort of confidence among the four drivers at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing on the eve of Indianapolis 500 qualifying this year.

The team had invested heavily over the previous 12 months, shoring up parts of its program that had fallen behind, and there was a steadfast belief there was speed in their cars.

But by the end of the weekend, Graham Rahal nearly found himself in the exact same spot as last year.

That was when the son of team co-owner Bobby Rahal was bumped from the 33-car field on the final run of qualifying, though he would ultimately race as the replacement for injured Stefan Wilson. And it was then that the elder Rahal told Steve Eriksen, the team's chief operating officer, “In 30 days, I want a plan for how we're going to turn this ship around.”

The plan involved investments in technology. Infrastructure. Most importantly, people. The team built out its engineering department so that Rahal and teammates Takuma Sato, Christian Lundgaard and Pietro Fittipaldi wouldn't sweat qualifying.

“It was a big investment for Mike and I,” Bobby Rahal said of co-owner Mike Lanigan, “but we're not here just to be here.”

The gains appear to have translated to the track for some of the drivers. Sato, a two-time race winner, put his car in the Fast 12 that raced for the pole, and he will start 10th on Sunday. Lundgaard and Fittipaldi will start in Row 10, deep in the field but in a position that allowed them to avoid the pressure of bump day.

Then there was Graham Rahal, who was among the four drivers left fighting for three spots last Sunday.

As the last-chance qualifying session was drawing to a close, Rahal found himself holding onto the 33rd spot as 19-year-old rookie Nolan Siegel headed out for one last try. The similarity to last year, when then-teammate Jack Harvey was attempting to bump him from the field, was not lost on Rahal, who was left to watch his fate unfold from pit road.

The wait wound up being short. Siegel crashed on his qualifying run and Rahal was in the field.

“I know a lot of you guys are probably sitting in here thinking I’m out of my mind, but we did make gains this year. It’s that simple,” Rahal insisted. “We were five to six miles an hour off. We’re not there anymore.”

They are still well back of Team Penske, though, which nailed down the first row, with Scott McLaughlin setting a pole qualifying record of 234.220 mph. Rahal, by comparison, ran a four-lap average of 229.974 to get himself into the field.

In that respect, Rahal was still left wondering what the issue might be. His team swapped Honda engines, changed everything from gear ratios to aerodynamic bits and yet still couldn't seem to figure out why the No. 15 car had struggled to find speed.

“There’s a lot of little bits to this that make a difference,” Rahal said, “and then you guys see how close it is. It’s very, very, very close. A mile an hour makes I don’t know how much of a spread, but a ton of cars (on the race track).”

When asked why Sato has been able to run closer to the front, Rahal replied: “I think Takuma is an anomaly. You can see that. Takuma, he’s got a hell of an engine, man. Unfortunately or fortunately. But compared to the rest of us? You see where the other three cars are the same, right? There’s one that’s different. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.”

But it's not supposed to be the way it goes. Not after all the investments Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has made since last year, when Bobby Rahal called qualifying “embarrassing” and “hell,” and Lanigan admitted, “It was ugly."

The speed and depth to which the team sank remains head-scratching. Sato gave RLL its second win in the race in 2020, when it was run in August because of the pandemic. The following year, Rahal was leading just past the midway point when his tire came off after a pit stop, sending him careening into the Turn 2 wall and ending such a promising day.

So what happened? What left RLL in such a bind?

“We got caught sleeping, frankly,” Lanigan surmised. “Very depressing winter. Bob and I totally committed to the resources required for this to not happen again, and quite frankly, the sting will not go away until one of these guys are on the podium.”

Maybe that will happen Sunday, even if there seems to be so much ground still to make up.

At least this year, all of Rahal Letterman Lanigan's cars will have a chance.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

Graham Rahal, right, talks with his dad, Bobby Rahal, during qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Saturday, May 18, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Graham Rahal looks at the speeds of cars before climbing into his car during a practice session for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Graham Rahal is greeted by his family after qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

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