INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens

Three-car program in 2020 can put Rahal Letterman Lanigan back in the INDYCAR fast lane

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PORTLAND, Oregon – NTT IndyCar Series team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports.com that he has to have plans for a three-car team finalized by the season’s final race at Laguna Seca on September 22 in order to hire the “right people” to work on an additional car.

Rahal’s intent is to increase Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing to a three-car effort beginning in 2020. For the past two seasons, it’s been a two-car operation featuring drivers Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal, the team owner’s son.

“I would say by mid-September we will know,” Rahal told NBC Sports.com. “We’re not there, yet. To me, the most important thing is the money. Without the money, you can’t hire who you want.

“It’s not just the driver, it’s the mechanics and everybody. We have to hire the right people. The people part is the most difficult part.

“I’m hoping we can do that.”

Watch Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland on NBC Sports.

The last time Rahal’s team was a full three-car effort for an entire season was in 2006. That is when Buddy Rice, Danica Patrick and Jeff Simmons participated in all but the opening race of that season.

The team parked its cars prior to the season-opening race that year after Rahal driver Paul Dana was killed in the Sunday morning warmup session at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Rice and Patrick did not start out of respect to their fallen teammate. Simmons would take over Dana’s ride on the team.

Rahal has been getting phone calls from numerous drivers and mechanics interested in the potential expansion to three cars. Fellow team owner Mike Shank, who fields a 10-car program for driver Jack Harvey. That team hopes to partner with another full-time Honda team, is also under consideration with Rahal.

“It’s still early for a lot of people,” Rahal said. “We have a good relationship with Mike Shank. Hopefully, we can put something together. We could do a lot of great things. We’ll have to wait and see.”

There is also the possibility that current Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver James Hinchcliffe may become available with one year left on his contract. That team is merging with McLaren next season to become Arrow McLaren Racing SP and will be a Chevrolet team in 2020.

Hinchcliffe has deep connections with Honda and there are discussions about freeing him up for 2020.

“I like James,” Rahal said. “I think he is a pretty damn, good driver. But nobody has told me anything. As far as I know, he is under contract to McLaren for next year.

“Knowing how embedded James is with Honda, that has to be uncomfortable with a lot of people at McLaren.”

As one of the three ownership partners at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Rahal has been able to slowly grow the operation while finding additional funding to help it expand.

“In the end, we have to be the best two-car team before we worry about being a three-car team,” Rahal emphasized.

Rahal also called Takuma Sato’s victory in last Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway one of the most satisfying wins of his career. That’s because it came after a week where the driver from Japan was heavily criticized and blamed for his role in a crash at the start of the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.

“Last weekend, like any win, was satisfying,” Rahal told NBC Sports.com. “Having said that, it was extra satisfying because of the public hanging of Takuma Sato.”

Rahal met with Sato in Colorado a few days before heading to St. Louis. The team issued a statement in support of their driver.

“I told him, ‘Don’t worry about what everybody is saying; go out and prove them wrong,’” Rahal said. “And, he did.”

Rahal was with team co-owner Michael Lanigan, who wasn’t feeling well at the time and was at a private airport near World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway waiting to fly home early. They saw Sato’s victory on television on NBCSN.

“It was a huge weekend for us,” Rahal said. “It was bigger for Takuma than anybody. You couldn’t have written a script any better than that one.

“It was a lynching. He was convicted in the court of public opinion without all of the facts. I just thought that was wrong. I thought we had to stand up for him because he didn’t do anything wrong.”

The victory was classic Sato as the strategy worked and once he was in front, Sato kept the car there.

“He did a great job keeping it up front because the tires were bad, vibrating badly, and he kept it on the track,” Sato said. “For a guy who supposedly crashes all the time, he didn’t crash.”

Rahal believes in most crashes “It takes two to Tango.

“I have no problem with Takuma Sato because it’s easier to detune a guy, than tune him up,” Rahal said.

Attention NASCAR teams: IMSA drivers available for Daytona!

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NASCAR will be making its debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course next month, and there’s a big fan who’d like to join the historic weekend.

This fan actually has impressive credentials, too — a few thousand laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout that annually plays host to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

In 2014, the winning GTLM team in the sports car endurance classic included IMSA Porsche driver Nick Tandy, who rabidly has followed NASCAR for more than 30 years since growing up in England.

So why not try racing NASCAR? Especially because Tandy has the weekend of Aug. 14-16 free.

He’s not picky, either — offering up his services on Twitter (as well as those of Porsche teammate Earl Bamber) for an ARCA, Xfinity, trucks or Cup ride.

Tandy’s affinity for American stock-car racing runs deep.

His first trip to the World Center of Racing was as a fan attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2008. During Rolex testing in January, Tandy, 35, said he hadn’t missed a Cup race on TV in 15 years.

Among his favorite NASCAR drivers: the Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. When IMSA ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014, Tandy stayed a few extra days at the Brickyard and bought Kyle Busch gear for himself and his children.

He briefly took the stage during a NASCAR weekend last October. After IMSA’s season finale at Road Atlanta, Tandy made a few demonstration laps and a burnout in his No. 911 Porsche before the Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He also has some experience in stock cars, having raced Modified-type grass-roots series on England’s quarter-mile short tracks.

Couple that with a Daytona road course record that includes two consecutive podium class finishes (including last Saturday) and a sports car resume with 13 IMSA victories and an overall win in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans … and maybe a NASCAR team should take a look.

And Tandy isn’t the only IMSA driver who likely would be available.

Corvette driver Jordan Taylor, who won the 2017 Rolex 24 overall title with Jeff Gordon as a teammate (and the inspiration for his Rodney Sandstrom persona), also tweeted his availability for the weekend on the high banks.

Sports car veteran Andy Lally, a GTD driver with multiple class wins in the Rolex 24 as well as 38 Cup starts (he was the 2011 rookie of the season in NASCAR’s premier series), also hung out his shingle.

There also is AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Jack Hawksworth (who just won at Daytona last Saturday), the Englishman who teamed with Kyle Busch at the Rolex 24 in January and made an Xfinity start at Mid-Ohio last year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Many sports car drivers (such as Taylor) already live in Florida, and many are hunkering down in the Sunshine State with IMSA returning to action at Daytona last week and Sebring International Raceway next week. Because of COVID-19-related travel concerns and restrictions, several IMSA stars who live outside the country are riding out the pandemic within a few hours of Daytona with nothing to do.

Why not a weekend at the World Center of Racing?

Over the years, scads of “road-course ringers” (including some Formula One veterans) have tried their hands in stock cars at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

How about considering the many sports car drivers who already have reached victory lane at Daytona by making a few right-hand turns, too?