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Kanaan, Leist look to bring Foyt team back to Indy victory lane

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It has been five years since A.J. Foyt Racing was last in the winner’s circle – with Takuma Sato at the 2013 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

And their last win before that? You have to go all the way back to 2002 with Airton Dare at Kansas Speedway.

Those two races remain the Foyt team’s only wins in the 21st century. In short, the last 15+ years have been very hard on A.J. Foyt’s operation, this despite solid funding and resources from sponsor ABC Supply.

As such, sweeping changes were made ahead of last year’s Verizon IndyCar Series season. New team personnel, new mechanics and engineers, and new drivers in Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly highlighted such changes.

While a handful of decent results came their way – Munoz had six top 10s while Daly scored the team’s lone Top 5, a fifth at Gateway Motorsports Park – the team still languished at the bottom of the IndyCar field.

Munoz was 16th in the standings at the end of the year, with Daly down in 18th – they scored the least amount of points of any team that ran full-time last year.

As a result, more sweeping changes were made, most notably on the driver front. Out were Munoz and Daly, and in were Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist, fourth-place finisher in last year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship.

Results have still been hard to come by – a pair of eighth-place efforts from Kanaan at ISM Raceway and Long Beach are the team’s only Top 10s this year – but the pace has improved.

And that improved pace was perfectly on display during qualifying for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500. Although neither made the Fast Nine Pole Shootout, both actually were faster than ninth-place qualifier Scott Dixon during Pole Day qualifying.

Kanaan ended up tenth, the best of the non-Fast Nine group, with a four-lap average of 227.664 mph. Leist ended up 11th with an average of 227.571 mph – for reference, Dixon’s average was 227.262.

Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist celebrate strong qualifying efforts for the Indy 500. Photo: IndyCar

Kanaan was especially enthusiastic about the result, and highlighted the efforts of the entire team for their success.

“What a great effort. As a team. (Team owner A.J. Foyt) and (team president Larry Foyt) put so much effort into this over the winter. They gave us everything I asked and they stepped up. I have a brand new car for this race, Matheus has a brand new car. They spent every single dime to give us a good car. We’re a little team, but we’re having a lot of fun. This is for them. I told them today our pole is going to be 10th. This is pole in my books,” Kanaan asserted afterward.

Leist was equally as elated, similarly spotlighting the effort of the team in the process.

“Since our first day here, the car has been quick,” Leist echoed. “We knew that we could have a fast car (on Sunday). I’m so happy for the team and for Tony (Kanaan). Both crews did an awesome job preparing us for qualifying. We were just fast. I think that if qualifying was yesterday and we had this car, we would probably be in the Fast Nine. I’m just so happy for this team. Everyone deserves it. I’m looking forward to the race now.”

Both drivers enter Sunday’s “500” as darkhorses at the minimum, if not outright contenders. Kanaan, of course, is a former Indy 500 winner (2013), and is one of the best modern drivers at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with seven Top 5 finishes to his name. And his 2013 triumph came after he started 12th on the grid, so he can easily win Sunday’s race from tenth.

Leist, meanwhile, dominated last year’s Freedom 100, leading all 40 laps after starting on the pole, so he has had his own success at IMS.

In some ways, especially given the team’s recent history, an A.J. Foyt Racing victory would be something of an upset. But, don’t be surprised if Kanaan and Leist are major factors on Sunday.

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Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”