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.

Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”