Graham Rahal’s team seeks balance, better weekends all around

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At a track where he has two front row starts and finished second in 2011, Graham Rahal is in need of a turnaround at this weekend’s Milwaukee IndyFest.

Although he’s only 24, what was expected to be a big season in the confines of his father Bobby’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team has been a struggle. The team chemistry and dynamic is just fine between Rahal, engineer Gerry Hughes and his mechanics. Still, team and driver have often struggled to roll off the trailer with the setup nailed.

Part of the issue is that Rahal’s driving style is very sensitive to the rear of the car, which is a 180-degree difference for RLL than what Takuma Sato has had last year. The issues were amplified last week at Texas, when Rahal had what he called the worst night of his racing career.

“We were terrible. Texas was the longest night of my career,” Rahal said Friday in the Milwaukee media center. “We took six percent out of the front wing. The first 100 laps were brutal. It was difficult confidence wise.”

This week, Rahal rolled out with a more conservative setup as created by the team’s second engineer, Eddie Jones, who works on teammate James Jakes’ car. Jones has a knack for finding the right setup at the short ovals – Rubens Barrichello thrived under Jones’ direction at Milwaukee and Iowa last year – and the plan was to get Rahal and Jakes more comfortable over longer runs.

Although Jones has taken the reins on the team setup strategy, it’s not a foreshadowing of any changes coming down the pipeline in the team. As Rahal noted, Hughes’ Formula One background isn’t immediately compatible with oval setup.

“Just these two events we’re trying his setup,” Rahal said. “Gerry came from F1 and he’s almost going in blind on ovals. Plus Sato crashed here last year so there’s not a great read. We’re at the point as a team going forward, where, if you have an idea, you need to speak up. We value all opinions and we have a great team, with our assistant engineers and mechanics. Everyone’s working really hard, and we feel like we’re working harder than most.”

One of the other issues Rahal has worked to overcome has been a lack of testing. He’s had only two full days this calendar year since an electrical issue didn’t allow him to run the second day of INDYCAR’s official test at Barber Motorsports Park.

Rahal has a best finish of second at Long Beach this year. Although he finished in the top-10 in both Detroit races, he said the all-around weekend performance could have been better. The series completes its mad dash of six races in five weekends next weekend in Iowa.

Theriault clinches ARCA title before finale at Kansas

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) There is no long, convoluted story about how Austin Theriault came to Ken Schrader Racing, forging a team that so dominated the ARCA Series that it captured the title simply by showing up for the finale.

“We both wanted something to do,” the folksy Schrader said with a smile and shrug before Friday night’s race at Kansas Speedway. “He didn’t have a car to drive and I didn’t have a driver.”

So, they solved each other’s problem.

Theriault hopped into the seat and proceeded to win seven times over the first 19 races, building such a lead on his nearest challenger that he sewed up the title at Kentucky. And that made for a rather enjoyable weekend at Kansas, where all the pressure was off their team.

Along the way, Theriault became the first driver to win at a superspeedway, short track, dirt track and road event in the same season, and he swept the superspeedway and short-track challenges.

If there was something to win, he won it.

“I hoped we’d have a shot at it and it’s proved out this year that we’ve really exceeded anybody’s expectations,” Theriault said. “We had some things to work on early. We kind of dusted off a bit, went back to work. We had some time between Daytona and the mile-and-a-halfs that came up later in the season, and we realized where we were strong and where we had to work.

“But in the end it came back to pure dedication, I think,” he explained. “The amount of time it took behind the scenes to make this happen.”

The 23-year-old driver from Fort Kent, Maine, knows something about dedication. He appeared to be on racing’s fast track, scoring a Truck Series ride a few years ago for Brad Keselowski, when a terrifying crash at Las Vegas left him with a broken back and sitting on the sidelines.

The best ride he could find last year was in the K&N Pro Series.

It was at a trade show in Indianapolis last December that Theriault ran into Schrader, who was busy putting together a team for this season. They had dinner a couple nights later and, Schrader said, it was his wife Ann who came away impressed by the yes-sir, no-sir driver.

“My wife doesn’t go to all the races,” Schrader said. “After we talked she said, `I like that guy. How good is he?’ She doesn’t know. I knew he was racing well in Keselowski’s truck, had an unfortunate wreck, had to sit out a bit. I told her, `That’s somebody who could make us very happy next year.”‘

Theriault delivered on that promise.

They weren’t the only ones happy Friday, either. Zane Smith earned his second pole of the season, beating teammate Sheldon Creed to earn the top spot for the Kansas ARCA 150, while 20-year-old Natalie Decker announced a full-time ride with Venturini Motorsports next season.

“This is obviously a big step in my career,” said Decker, who made six starts as a rookie this season. “I’m confident and ready for this next move. After tonight my focus shifts to next season. We’ll be ready to go at Daytona.”