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Graham Rahal fitting in with Penske’s IMSA program

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As Team Penske begins testing its brand new Acura ARX-05 in advance of the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, new signee for the endurance races Graham Rahal is taking advantage of the chance to get to know the team and its drivers.

With a little testing already under his belt – he first tested with the team last week at Daytona International Speedway – Rahal revealed on “Trackside” Presented by Verizon that the environment within the team is a little different from what he expected.

“I would say (Penske) is more relaxed than I expected, but a lot of fun. We had a great time,” Rahal told hosts Curt Cavin, IndyCar’s Vice President of Communications, and Kevin Lee, IndyCar on NBCSN pit reporter and commentator.

That environment is helped by the Acura connection. Aside from his 2007 campaign in the Champ Car World Series, which used Ford engines, Rahal has raced with Honda engines in the back of his IndyCar chassis every year, and that connection means he’s working with some familiar faces within the Penske and Acura camp. He also raced one of Michael Shank Racing’s new Acura NSX GT3s at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, in the factory-run effort as the new cars premiered.

“It’s with Acura, so it’s family for me, with all my Honda guys and the HPD guys,” said Rahal. “All the engineers who are working on the Acura are some of the guys who have worked on my car before in IndyCar. I know all of them, so at least there’s no new faces on that side of things.”

Rahal explained further that the relaxed environment is also, perhaps surprisingly, a result of the expansive organization, which dwarfs many other race teams, including Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, with whom Rahal is a full-time competitor in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“The IndyCar environment (with RLL) is lean, so everybody is so dedicated and focused on so many different areas that for a driver, it requires a lot more to be on your game,” Rahal explained.

“With Penske, when I first got there – first, the shop is the size of Keystone Shopping Mall. There’s a lot of people, 400+ employees. There’s a lot of guys who are dedicated to a certain task, and they’re very good at those tasks. From that standpoint, it’s a little bit relaxed.”

However, Rahal also knows that because the team is still testing, and early in its testing program at that, the intensity level has yet to be ramped up to where it will be on race weekends, especially at events like the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

“We’re durability testing, we’re pounding laps just doing long runs and stuff like that. It’s not as intense yet. Now, ask me when we get to the (Rolex 24 at Daytona) or (the 12 Hours of Sebring), that’s going to be a different feel to it, there’s no doubt about that,” Rahal added.

Further, Rahal is using the test days to get to know his new teammates, most notably Helio Castroneves, against whom Rahal sparred in IndyCar. He’ll co-drive with Castroneves and Ricky Taylor, who like Rahal is a son of racing champion (Wayne Taylor).

Rahal noted that his impression of Castroneves as a teammate greatly differs from what he thought it would be.

“I had so many perceptions of Helio from competing against him. But then you compete with him, and the guy is awesome,” Rahal said of his relationship with Castroneves. “He is very relaxed. He’s obviously very quick, that doesn’t surprise anybody. He’s funny, that doesn’t surprise anybody. But it’s so cool to share the same car as him and learn from him as well. It’s been a pretty good group so far.”

Specifically, Rahal noted how Castroneves handles sharing a car with a driver who is significantly taller – Rahal stands at 6’2″ while Castroneves is 5’8″. The height difference means each driver requires different pedal positions, and while that may throw off some drivers, Rahal revealed that Castroneves didn’t even bat an eye about it.

“I’m a tall guy. I need those pedals as far away as I can get them. There are guys I’ve raced with before, if you move them (five millimeters), some scream and cry like a little baby. Helio’s the opposite. He’s just like ‘Yeah man, I’m good. You get ‘em where you need them and I’ll make it work.’ I guess I didn’t know that’d be what he’s like. It’s been awesome. We’ve had a great time so far.”

Rahal also tested the ARX-05 at Sebring International Raceway this week as Penske continues its development work of the car and chassis ahead of its debut at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

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Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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