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IndyCar notables come out in force for IMSA’s Motul Petit Le Mans

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Since the merger of the NASCAR Grand-Am and American Le Mans Series created the Weathertech Sports Car Championship in 2014, the Motul Petit Le Mans has closed out the year. As the combined series heads into its fifth season, it will once again wind down at the 2.54-mile Road Atlanta.

There are a few races that always attract drivers from a wide array of disciplines. The Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta is one of these. The green flag will wave over the 10-hour race shortly after 11 am ET this Saturday with several IndyCar and other notable drivers behind the wheel.

Here is a look at how they have performed in previous editions:

• Sebastien Bourdais is the only notable with a victory during the past four Petit Le Mans races. Driving a Daytona Prototype in 2015, he was part of the winning combination in class. The overall victory that year was scored by a GTLM fielded by Porsche North America. Second overall went to the GTLM BMW Team, with Bourdais and his team finishing third overall. Last year, he finished seventh in the GTLM class, which is where he will compete again in 2018.

• Scott Dixon finished second in class in 2015 in Chip Ganassi’s No. 01 Prototype, giving him a fourth-place finish overall. In 2014, the same team finished third overall and in class. In 2018, Dixon will be racing in the GTLM class where he finished with a best of eighth (14th overall) last year.

• Simon Pagenaud has made appearances in the last two Petit Le Mans, scoring a pair of top-fives in the process. He finished fourth in a Prototype in 2016 and improved to third last year. In 2018, he will once again climb behind the wheel of a Prototype.

“I really enjoy being part of this race,” Pagenaud told IndyCar.com. “The long races is a great way to keep my eyes open and keep an open mind as well on driving style and other ways to race. I enjoy it. It great to be here and race with some old friends.

“The goal at Team Penske is always to win races, but personally my goal is a little different. It’s just about making no mistakes, being fast and being consistent. I don’t need to set the world on fire because it’s a long race. The goal is more to look long term than short-run speed.”

• Gabby Chaves has made only one previous start at Road Atlanta in the Weathertech Series. He finished fourth in 2014 in a Prototype, which he will wheel again in 2018.

• Ryan Hunter-Reay is set to make his third appearance in a Prototype this year and hopes that it will go better than his two previous attempts. In 2016 and 2017, he was part of a team that failed to finish either time. His best overall performance in this class was only 35th in 2016. His best overall appearance in any class came in 2014 with a third-place GTLM result that was good enough for 11th overall.

• NBC analyst Townsend Bell will get some seat time this week in the GTD class. He has run that class three times previously with a best of fourth in class and 20th overall in 2015.

• Spencer Pigot will make his second appearance in a Prototype this week. His previous effort ended early with a 37th-place overall finish in 2016 out of 38 cars entered.

• Graham Rahal will make his first appearance in a Weathertech Petit Le Mans this week, but he has two fourth-place finishes in the Rolex 24 Hours since it went under the combined sanction umbrella in 2014.

“I have only done Petit maybe once before, but it’s always been a race I’ve wanted to compete in,” said Rahal, who rejoins Castroneves and Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura Team Penske for the first time since the 12 Hours of Sebring in March, told IndyCar.com. “To do these three races with Acura Team Penske this year has been awesome and I’m excited for the weekend. For it to be the last race of the year for not only me but everybody makes it an important one. Hopefully, we can go out and get a win. This is definitely a long race. It’s a test of endurance and man and machine. A lot of things can happen here, so we’ll go out and battle hard.”

For the 2019 season, the Weathertech Sports Car Championship will move to the NBC family of networks.

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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.”