RLL team relieved to survive Bump Day

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That Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing put all three of their cars into the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil may be something of a surprise.

The non-tow charts on “Fast Friday” looked somewhat bleak, especially for full-time drivers Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal – Sato was 25th while Rahal languished in 34th. Oriol Servia, in the No. 64 Honda in a joint effort with Scuderia Corsa, was best of that threesome, ending up 20th on the no-tow board.

Saturday looked even more bleak, especially for Rahal and Servia. Rahal, who was one of the first drivers to make a qualifying attempt, turned in a four-lap average of 225.407 mph, which didn’t seem fast enough to make the show.

Yet, as the day went on, it proved to be just enough. Rahal was never in genuine jeopardy of getting bumped – he was never bumped out and had no fewer than four drivers in between him and the first car out of the field before Jack Harvey made a big jump on his second run to go up to 27th.

Still, that only knocked Rahal down to 30th, and even though he did not improve on his second attempt, it was still enough to put him in the field.

“We’re in the show and that’s probably as much as I can ask for. We get to go racing,” Rahal said afterward. “Obviously, we have our work cut out for us back where we are but it’s a long race and anything can happen. We will finish it up tomorrow to get our final starting position.”

Servia’s day, however, was much worse, as he and the team had to wave off after a major handling problem.

His second attempt wasn’t much better, forcing them to make a third attempt in the final hour. This time, however, things were much better – his four-lap average of 225.007 mph was enough to put him in 31st, and he was able to sneak into the field.

Oriol Servia did just enough to make the 33-car field for the 102nd Indianapolis 500. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s been probably the biggest roller-coaster of my life, just today,” Servia quipped.

He added that the laps he spent on track were the most hair-raising that he has ever experienced.

“It was just the hardest I’ve driven – the hardest 12 laps I’ve driven ever,” he said of his three qualifying attempts. “When the car is off, it’s not right, at a speedway like this, there’s not much you can do apart from trying not to crash, which is what I did. It was really difficult. At that point (on the last run), you’re committed. (Like what happened to James Hinchcliffe), if you come in, you might not have a chance to go out again. I knew I had to try to stick it in. I’m happy for the effort, and we’ll see what we’ve got tomorrow.”

Takuma Sato fared the best of the three, though he wasn’t exactly happy. Sato could do no better than 29th with a four-lap average of 225.513 mph.

Takuma Sato during Indy 500 qualifying. Photo: IndyCar

Sato explained that track conditions didn’t mesh with their setup, but their lack of speed was a much bigger issue.

“The track conditions were not necessarily good, but we are lacking speed, for sure,” he explained. “I ended up lifting off the throttle because I simply couldn’t make the corner (on the third lap). We have a lot of work to be done. We gathered a lot of data over three cars and it’s going to be a long night.”

The three RLL drivers will look for better qualifying performances on Sunday.

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New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”