RLL Racing seeks to roll on with even better 2016 season

Associated Press

It’s not that Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing wasn’t capable of winning races or contending for Verizon IndyCar Series championships, because in its 20-plus year history it had done both with regularity.

But when RLL Racing as a single-car, relatively modest budget effort managed to do so last year after what had been a seven-year drought since its last win and after successive finishes of 18th and 19th in points with Graham Rahal, it came as a bit of a surprise.

Rahal won twice, at Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway and at his and the team’s home track of Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. He finished fourth in points after a tough final two races, but was as high as second, nine points back, after Mid-Ohio.

Now, after Rahal’s career year and bond with the new/returning people put in place by father and team co-owner Bobby, the good problem RLL Racing faces in 2016 is the burden of higher expectations for the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake/Hyatt/Mi-Jack Honda.

Not that either Bobby or Graham is acknowledging any pressure.

“I don’t think we should feel under pressure other than we have a chance to do really well this year,” Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s really the same people; same mechanics, same engineers. There’s one new truck driver, but otherwise, it’s the same.

“That’s the first time that’s been the case for us and Graham in quite a while. It gives us a reason to be more optmisic. I’d rather feel the pressure of expectations of success, versus, ‘When are you guys gonna win a race?’”

“I think there’s probably more pressure from the standpoint people will expect a lot out of us,” Graham Rahal added in a separate interview.

“Personally, I believe the sport is getting more and more competitive. Its gonna be more difficult this year than ever before. But this year we have a good solid base, setup-wise. Having that knowledge is definitely gonna help us going forward. Pressure standpoint, I don’t feel too bad. We’re pretty competitive, and can take some ease in the fact we won last year.”

The personnel and setup point is a key one. Bobby Rahal moved off the box with Ricardo Nault taking over on the bo as strategist. Then, with the combination of engineer Eddie Jones, aero specialist Mike Talbott and shock specialist Martin Pare, RLL found setups last year that worked that hadn’t clicked in the past.

It’s what allowed for a greater comfort level for Graham Rahal behind the wheel, and for Bobby Rahal in observing how well the car worked.

“The difference between now and a year ago is tremendous,” Bobby Rahal explained. “We didn’t have good setups for the circuits. It was a year of discovery in a lot of ways. We’d go for a race where we didn’t know where to start from, while Penske and Ganassi did based on previous setups.

“This is why as the year went on, we got more competitive. At ‘like’ circuits, we started from a better place. We go into this year so much further ahead of where we were last year.”

Graham Rahal, himself, was thankful to reunite with Pare, who helped contribute to his best races during his two year run with Chip Ganassi Racing from 2011 to 2012.

“What helped me last year was all the guys around me,” he said. “I had a tremendous group of people. I knew we’d be competitive, and we could run with everyone. Eddie does a great job of listening.

“Martin Pare is our unsung hero. I already had a great relationship with him, and his advice, even towards Eddie, was that he knew what I wanted and needed.

“For two years, I complained about rear on ovals. It was very numb, and I didn’t know if the rear would stick or not. I legitimately started to think, ‘It’s me; I can’t drive on ovals anymore.’

“But he’d just say, ‘Let’s just do this or that’ from prior experience. And now, my car’s good again! That’s where I got a lot of confidence. I didn’t want to point the finger at myself, but I was.

“Those three guys are magic. Our core is our mechanics, but those three brains behind it are key to keeping it together.”

If there is an area and key point of improvement in 2016 for driver and team, it’s qualifying. Graham Rahal’s grid position average last year of 11th place was eighth best in the field, and best Honda. He had seven top-10 starts, but only one via a Firestone Fast Six session, when he qualified sixth at the Sonoma season finale.

The improvements will come if Honda’s aero kit makes the key strides, but as Rahal related, he knows he can dig deeper in sessions and his Sonoma run was a confidence booster.

“That’s our weakness,” he said. “That’s what we need to get better at for sure. I don’t want to make my life any harder. I haven’t been good to myself.

“But at the same time, from what we’ve seen, I’d fully expect our competitors (Chevrolet) might have a bigger advantage on ovals. They should be quicker on road course qualifying.

“I want to make my life easier. If I can start fifth and only have to get by a handful of guys, it’s so much better than 15th. I know I have a great pit crew that can make up spots, and I know I can pass cars on the track.

“Sonoma gave me a lot of confidence. I wasn’t pleased at all but we qualified sixth. I muscled it around there hard. It gave me the confidence to know, if I have to pull a lap together, I think I can do it now compared to years past.”

While many people point to Graham’s marriage to NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Funny Car ace Courtney Force as the key confidence booster, as he alluded to earlier, the overall improvements he said came from the people around him in the team.

It’s a fact Bobby Rahal agrees with it in explaining how the 2015 season was such a success.

“Last year, as the year went on, you’re competitive in a lot of races. The team is working well together. You continue to see progression on engineering, and working in a good communication between yourself. All that does is build your confidence,” he said.

“When a driver’s confident, that’s a pretty powerful component. Certainly that’s what we saw. Even at St. Pete last year, we went in and didn’t qualify that great, but in the race we were extremely competitive. We developed as weekend went on. Morning warm-up, I think we were fastest.

“Graham started passing people, got close to the front, but got penalized. I watched from Turn 1 on the grandstands. I told the team that our car looked better over bumps, with his ability to carry speed through the corner.

“You look at that race, and things were better. It’s just a matter for him, do well, and he’s had a great sense of confidence. Running up front all the time means you’re happier going to races. Everything leads onto the next. Good place mentally. From a personal standpoint, he and Courtney have been a great combination. You saw the results.”

The goal for 2016, of course, is seeing continued strong results for the primarily single-car team. Spencer Pigot is confirmed for three races in the second car, and while both Rahals are keen to see him continue for more, the primary focus will be on the No. 15 car this season.

It’s a message that Bobby Rahal thinks can help Graham win the title.

“All my championships were as a single-car team,” he said. “Everything’s dedicated to a single driver’s likes and dislikes. There’s a simplicity about one-car team that comes from it.

“For a team, the odds of winning are less, but for a driver, it’s greater. It’s about what you do with what you have. I really believe a strong sharply focused one-car team can vie for the championship against multi-car teams.”

Ford Mustang GT3 test has Austin Cindric dreaming of Daytona: ‘I want to drive that car’

Cindric Ford GT3 test
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Austin Cindric wasn’t the “mystery” test driver behind the wheel of the new Ford Mustang GT3 at Sebring International Raceway, but the Team Penske driver desperately wanted to be.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, an amateur sports car driver himself, made the big reveal via a Tuesday tweet that provided the first video evidence of the GT3 Mustang on track.

“I’ve watched the video in question about a million times,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Ford Performance Zoom news conference to promote NASCAR’s first road course weekend of the season at Circuit of the Americas. “Definitely exciting times for sure. I want to drive that car. It suits my experience level and also the relationships that I have.”

Ford will enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next season with its GT3 Mustang, entering a two-car factory effort (that will be managed by Multimatic) in GTD Pro and making customer cars available in the GT Daytona category.

That increases the likelihood of seeing more NASCAR drivers crossing over to IMSA. Cindric has been the only full-time Cup driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the past two years, but Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook has said the GT3 Mustang will provide more opportunities.

Ford has used its GT4 Mustang as a NASCAR driver development tool in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Harrison Burton and Zane Smith combining to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in January.

“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said at the announcement of the Ford GT3 program in January 2022 at Daytona. “We think it’s a great opportunity and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Given his sports car background, Cindric probably still would be in the Rolex 24 regardless. He has eight IMSA starts since the 2017 season opener at Daytona, racing a Lexus RCF GT3 and Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT category. The 2022 Daytona 500 winner made his second LMP2 start this year with Rick Ware Racing.

But Cindric’s preference naturally would be in a Ford, particularly with sports car racing enjoying convergence and crossovers in both GT and prototype racing.

“It’s an exciting time in GT racing, just as it is now for prototype racing with a lot of new regulations and manufacturers building new GT3 cars,” he said. “And also the opportunity with WEC (the World Endurance Championship) and Le Mans and how that all lines up for that category of car. It’s definitely an exciting time. I want to be as much of a part of that as possible.”

Though those odds seemingly will increase with multiple Ford entries in the Rolex 24 field next year, Cindric said NASCAR drivers still have to put in the networking to land rides as he has in recent years.

“Now how (the GT3 Mustang) relates to specifically NASCAR drivers and how often they want to be in the Rolex, could it be an influence? Absolutely, as far as the tie-in with the manufacturer,” Cindric said. “But the challenge and the drive and the logistics of getting an opportunity for a race like the Rolex 24 will be just as challenging as it always is to find your one-off ride for the race. At least from my experience, that’s what I still anticipate.”

It turned out the “mystery” test driver wasn’t from NASCAR (Farley revealed the driver to be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Joey Hand after a fan asked whether it was Joey Logano).

But Cindric believes there could be more Cup drivers — and perhaps himself — behind the wheel of Mustang GT3s in the future.

“There’s definitely more of a pathway than I think there would be before as far as Ford drivers are concerned,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to drive that thing. It’s obviously a great looking car. That’s the first box you’ve got to check. And it’s cool (to have) a guy like Jim Farley, no doubt he’s a racer just as much as he is steering the ship for Ford. It’s cool to see he’s just as excited as the rest of us about it.”