Rayhall and Falb win at Le Mans. Photo: United Autosports

Rayhall: A special, dream win on debut at Le Mans!

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Editor’s note: Sean Rayhall, one of America’s rising driving talents, will file a series of blogs throughout the year chronicling his season in the European Le Mans Series, co-driving with John Falb at Zak Brown and Richard Dean’s United Autosports team in its Ligier JS P3 Nissan. His second blog looks at the team’s voyage to the Michelin Le Mans Cup Road to Le Mans race, which sees LMP3 and GT3 cars tackle the Circuit de la Sarthe. His first blog after Silverstone is linked here.  

So I don’t think many drivers have weeks like these their first time at Le Mans! Anyway, I’ll attempt to recap.

I arrived in Le Mans by myself Tuesday because John (Falb) had a later flight and did the European train thing to get to the hotel. Well to be honest, it wasn’t really a hotel; it was a castle. So I did a bit of running around the castle to get rid of jet lag, and had a nice dinner with our United Autosports team.

Photo courtesy Sean Rayhall

The next day, Wednesday, was very long. Our first practice session was at 8:30 p.m., and that didn’t go exactly as planned. The first lap I bed in the brakes, but the second lap we had an engine failure coming out of Tertre Rouge. Our run plan was for me to do the entire first session and John to do the second, so this meant I was going to have no laps before qualifying to learn it or dial in the car. But it worked out despite this minor setback; I ended up qualifying sixth in the first session, and John qualified second in the Bronze session, which was absolutely remarkable.

I had a lot of faith in United Autosports being able to get us on the podium after working all night and not even getting to go back to the hotel for a shower, I really wanted to make something happen for the guys.

Thursday was our first of two roughly one-hour races, with the second race on Saturday morning before the 24-hour race. In race one, John had a great stint, which put me in a good position leaving the pits in fourth place. From there I was able to pass the for the lead by the end of the second lap of my stint and make a gap.

Photo: United Autosports

When our guys came over the radio and said I was leading, I could not believe it. It was like Indy Lights at the Indy GP all over again (Editor’s note; Rayhall won race two at IMS with 8Star Motorsports in 2015) and everything got really quiet in the car and I just went to work for the rest of the stint to win the race.

Winning in Europe is one thing, but winning at Le Mans is another… and at that moment it hit me once I got on the victory podium.

Photo: United Autosports

Hearing the U.S. national anthem and having the American flag fly above us was very surreal. I still can’t really wrap my finger around what exactly I felt that day, but I can tell you it was special.

For race two, John once again opened for us with another fantastic stint before we got blocked in the pits while we tried to leave. That cost us 10-12 seconds in total, in which track position wise kept us from being able to fight with the Norma. So after pushing as hard as I could, we ended up second in race two.

It is the first time I’ve truly been happy with second, because the way the BOP was, we were about 10 kph down on the straightway compared to the Norma, one of the other LMP3 chassis. For us, in reality, it felt like a win because with all of Le Mans’ long straights, it’s impossible to catch a car that has that much more top speed.

I have to thank United Autosports for their work this week, staying at the track all night with zero sleep and getting us a car to win after that is just special. Also John Falb drove flawlessly, by far the best drive of his entire life the whole weekend. Thanks to Sports Insure, AERO Paint, Ligier UK, and Oreca gear for giving us the chance to do this!

Oh yeah, and you can imagine the night we had after. I don’t think the celebration on the podium really gives you the full effect of the fun we had the next few nights!

I’ll check in again soon. Thanks for reading!

Photo: United Autosports

IndyCar’s revised schedule gives Tony Kanaan an extra race in 2020

INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
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Tony Kanaan got a bit of good news when the latest revised NTT IndyCar Series schedule was released Monday.

Kanaan’s “Ironman Streak” of 317 consecutive starts would have concluded with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 15. That race was postponed, and the races that followed have been canceled or rescheduled later in the year. The season tentatively is scheduled to start June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the reason for the tentative nature of this year’s 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, started the season with a limited schedule for A.J. Foyt Racing in the No. 14 Chevrolet. That schedule included all five oval races, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.

A silver lining for Kanaan is that this year’s trip to Iowa Speedway will be a doubleheader, instead of a single oval contest. His schedule has grown from five to six races for 2020, should the season start on time with the June 6 contest at Texas Motor Speedway and the additional race at Iowa.

“I’m really happy that IndyCar has been very proactive about the schedule and keeping us posted with the plans,” Kanaan told NBCSports.com Tuesday afternoon from his home in Indianapolis. “I’m double happy that now with Iowa being a doubleheader, I’m doing six races instead of five.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Kanaan’s “Last Lap” is something that many fans and competitors in IndyCar want to celebrate. He has been a fierce foe on the track but also a valued friend outside the car to many of his fellow racers.

He also has been quite popular with fans and likely is the most popular Indianapolis 500 driver of his generation.

Scott Dixon was Kanaan’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing from 2013-17. At one time, they were foes but eventually became friends.

“I hope it’s not T.K.’s last 500,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “I was hoping T.K. would get a full season. That has changed. His first race of what was going to his regular season was going to be the 500. Hopefully, that plays out.

“You have to look at T.K. for who he is, what he has accomplished and what he has done for the sport. He has been massive for the Indianapolis 500, for the city of Indianapolis to the whole culture of the sport. He is a legend of the sport.

“We had our differences early in our career and had problems in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 when we were battling for championships. We fought for race wins and championships in the 2000s. I’ve been on both sides, where he was fighting against me in a championship or where he was fighting with me to go for a championship. He is a hell of a competitor; a fantastic person.

“I hope it’s not his last, but if it is, I hope it’s an extremely successful one for him this season.”

Even before Kanaan joined Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon admitted he couldn’t help but be drawn to Kanaan’s personality.

“T.K. is a very likable person,” Dixon said. “You just have to go to dinner with the guy once, and you understand why that is. The ups and downs were a competitive scenario where he was helping you for a win or helping someone else for a win. There was never a dislike or distrust. We always got along very well.

“We are very tight right now and really close. He is a funny-ass dude. He has always been a really good friend for me, that’s for sure.”

Back in 2003 when both had come to the old Indy Racing League after beginning their careers in CART, the two drivers were racing hard for the lead at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 13, 2003. They were involved in a hard crash in Turn 2 that left Kanaan broken up with injuries. IRL officials penalized Dixon for “aggressive driving.” Dixon had to sit out the first three days of practice for the next race – the 2003 Indianapolis 500.

Kanaan recovered in time and did not miss any racing. He started second and finished third in that year’s Indy 500.

“We were racing hard and going for the win,” Dixon recalled of the Motegi race. “It was a crucial part of the season. Everybody has to be aggressive. I respect Tony for that. He was not letting up. That is what I always saw with Tony, how hard the guy will push. He will go to the absolute limit, and that is why he was inspiring and why he was a successful driver.

“Those moments are blips. You might not talk to the guy for a week, but then you are back on track. T.K. is very close with our family and we are with his.”

This season, because of highly unusual circumstances, T.K.’s IndyCar career will last for one more race than previously scheduled.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500