Although it’s been a struggle for most of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, the team stands a good chance of playing spoiler to the proverbial heavy hitters this weekend. It’s a race promoted by team co-owner, Mike Lanigan.
RLL enters the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader weekend with Graham Rahal riding renewed confidence and momentum in working with new engineer Neil Fife, and James Jakes seeking his third Firestone Fast Six appearance on a street course.
Rahal’s been busy during IndyCar’s month-long break, having participated in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course test and providing invaluable feedback for the series as it plans for the race on the road course there next year.
After only one start better than 15th on the series’ first nine road and street course races, Rahal qualified eighth at Sonoma and should have made the Firestone Fast Six at Baltimore, before his two fastest laps were deleted for causing a red flag. He still started 12th and was a passing demon in the early stages. Additionally, his best result of the year came on a street course, with second place at Long Beach.
“We absolutely had a turn around coming out of Mid Ohio into Sonoma,” Rahal said of the recent surge. “Suddenly our team started to click with (race engineer) Neil (Fife) in charge. We found a balance I felt confident in and started to put in some great laps. I wish we could have the ultimate results we deserved, but we certainly have been amongst the quickest for the last couple of races.”
Rahal races this weekend in the blu eCigs livery for another race, but with a matte black finish and blue accents, as opposed to a white, blue and black livery he had run earlier this season on his No. 15 Honda. He scored his first IndyCar (then Champ Car) podium at Houston, finishing second to teammate Sebastien Bourdais in 2007.
Jakes, meanwhile, can complete a trifecta of Firestone Fast Six appearances for the first half of doubleheader races this season. He and Dario Franchitti, who scored pole for Race 1 at both Detroit and Toronto, are the only two drivers in the field with that opportunity. Jakes finished a career-best second at Detroit Race 2 and generally has been down on luck and reliability, but not on pace of late in the No. 16 Acorn Stairlifts Honda.
“I think we have to be looking at the top three and nowhere else,” said Jakes, whose best starts this year is second for Duel 2 in Detroit. “We have been competitive on the street tracks for the most part this season and there is no reason why it should change. I’m really looking forward to the challenge of the weekend and getting a solid result on the final street track of the year.”
(Editor’s note: This story on the Heart of Racing sports cars shootout for women is one in an occasional Motorsports Talk series focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)
Heart of Racing driver and team manager Ian James says his daughter, Gabby, isn’t so interested in auto racing. But she is interested (as a New York-based journalist) in writing about the sport’s efforts and growth in gender equality
It’s a topic that also was brought up by James’ wife, Kim.
“They’re always saying, ‘Hey, you manage all these guys, and you help them, so why not a woman?’ ” Ian James told NBC Sports. “And I feel like there are a lot of women that haven’t had a fair crack at it in sports car racing.
“Our whole DNA at Heart of Racing is we give people opportunities in all types of situations where there’s been crew personnel or drivers. And I felt like we hadn’t really addressed the female driver situation. I felt like there was a void to give somebody a chance to really prove themselves.”
During the offseason, the team took a major step toward remedying that.
The season will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway with Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt behind the wheel. The team also picked a third driver, 17-year-old Annie Rhule, for a 2023 testing program.
The Phoenix audition included 10 finalists who were selected from 130 applicants to the program, which has been fully underwritten by Heart of Racing’s sponsors.
“We didn’t want it to be someone who just comes from a socio-economic background that could afford to do it on their own course,” James said. “We can pick on pure talent. We’re committed to three years to do this and see if we can find the right person. I’m very hopeful.”
So is Grisham, a Southern California native who has been racing since she was 6 in go-karts and since has won championships in Mazda and Miata ladder series. She has several victories in the World Racing League GP2 (an amateur sports car endurance series). The last two years, Grisham has worked as a test driver for the Pirelli tire company (she lives near Pirelli’s U.S. headquarters in Rome, Georgia, and tests about 30 times a year).
Starting with the Sonoma during SprintX event weekends (which feature races Saturday and Sunday), she will split the Heart of Racing car with O’Meara-Hunt (a New Zealand native she got to know at the shootout).
“It’s huge; the biggest opportunity I’ve had in this sport,” Grisham, 23, told NBC Sports. “Now it’s up to me to perform how I know I can. But I’m super lucky to be with such an amazing team and have a good teammate. The Heart of Racing has a family vibe and energy to it that’s really amazing. It’s super exciting. It’s hard to put into words.”
Grisham is hopeful that a strong performance eventually could lead to a full-time ride with Heart of Racing. The team has full-time entries in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and won the GTD category of the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 piloted by James, Darren Turner, Roman DeAngelis and Marco Sorensen.
James said “there’s no guarantee” of placement in an IMSA entry for Grisham and O’Meara-Hunt, but “if they prove themselves, we’ll continue to help them throughout their career and our team. The GT3 program is an obvious home for that. If they get the opportunity and don’t quite make it, we’ll be looking for the next two. The next three years, we’ll cycle through drivers until we find the right one.”
Grisham described the two-day shootout as a friendly but intense environment. After a day of getting acclimated to their cars, drivers qualified on new tires the second day and then did two 25-minute stints to simulate a race.
“Everyone was super nice,” she said. “Once everyone gets in the car, it’s a different level. A different switch gets turned on. Everyone was super nice; everyone was quick. I feel we had an adequate amount of seat time, which is definitely helpful.
“It’s always cool to meet more women in the sport because there’s not too many of us, even though there’s more and more. It’s always cool to meet really talented women, especially there were so many from all over the world.”
James believes “a breakout female driver will be competing with the best of them” in the next five years as gender barriers slowly recede in motorsports.
“It’s been a male-dominated sport,” James said. “It’s still a very minute number of women drivers compared to the guys. I’m sure back in the day there were physical hurdles about it that were judged. But now the cars are not very physical to drive, and it’s more about technique and mental strength and stuff like that, and there’s no reason a girl shouldn’t do just as well as a guy. What we’re just trying to achieve is that there isn’t an obvious barrier to saying ‘Hey, I can’t hire a guy or a girl.’ We just want to put girls in front of people and our own program that are legitimate choices going forward for people.”
“There’s been some really good female drivers, but a lot of them just haven’t been able to sustain it, and a lot of that comes from sponsorship. I think (with the shootout), there’s no pressure of raising money and worrying about crash damage. We’ve taken care of all that so they can really focus on the job at hand.”
Funding always has been a hurdle for Grisham, who caught the racing bug from her father, Tom, an off-road driver who raced the Baja 1000 several times.
“I don’t come from a lot of money by any means,” she said. “So since a young age, I’ve always had to find sponsorships and get people to help me, whether it was buying tires, paying for entry fees, paying for the shipment of a car to an actual race. Literally knocking on the doors of people or businesses in my town.
“So yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve always struggled with and held me back because the sport revolves so much around money. So again to get this opportunity is insane.”
Grisham credits racing pioneer Lyn St. James (an Indy 500 veteran and sports car champion) as a role model who has helped propel her career. She was hooked by the sights, smells and sounds of racing but also its competitive fire.
“There’s a zone you get in, that subconscious state of mind when you’re driving. It’s like addictive almost. I love it. Also I’m just a very competitive person as I think most race car drivers are.
“For sure I want to stay with the Heart of Racing. Obviously, I’m still getting to know everyone, but it’s a super family vibe. That’s how I grew up in the sport with just my dad and I wrenching on the cars. That’s what I love about this sport is all the amazing people you meet. And I think this is one of the most promising teams in this country. For sure, I want to learn as much as I can from them and hopefully continue. I feel so lucky and grateful to be one of those chosen.”