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.

NHRA: Antron Brown takes major step toward team ownership

NHRA
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There will come a day that when three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown wants to talk to his boss, he’ll need to look no further than in the mirror.

The New Jersey native announced Tuesday that he has begun to lay the groundwork to own his Top Fuel team, eventually branching out from Don Schumacher Racing.

“It’s definitely exciting, but at the same time, it’s also nerve-wracking because the buck stops here right now,” Brown told NBC Sports. “Now the coolest part is you get to help and drive and motivate and push the team forward, to make decisions and leave a legacy behind for my family.”

Brown will continue racing for DSR this season while beginning the transition to eventual sole ownership of the new AB Motorsports in the future. Even when he officially leaves the DSR camp as a hired driver, Brown and his new team will retain a technical partnership with the Schumacher organization.

Moving toward team ownership is just a natural evolution for Brown, who previously ran his own Pro Stock Motorcycle team from 1998 until joining DSR in 2002. It’s also a move that potentially may lead other current drivers to start thinking about their own futures.

It’s no secret that many of the biggest names in drag racing – both drivers and owners – are getting up in years. John Force will soon turn 72, while Schumacher is 75. They’re among several others in the sport who are making contingency plans for their teams to continue to operate once they’re gone – and Brown wants to do his part to help the sport grow and flourish.

“When you’re able to have ownership, you’re looking at the talent coming up,” Brown said. “You’re able to reach down and see and give other people opportunities that you had. When I came to race for Don Schumacher at DSR, he’s given all these people at his place this opportunity to drive.

“But what happens when the Don Schumachers, the John Forces, the Connie Kalittas go? You lose all the owners of our series, so who’s next in line to take over that lineage or carry that torch? It’s a necessary means for the future for the upcoming people.

Antron Brown’s plans to become a team owner were embraced by his current team owner, Don Schumacher. (Getty Images)

“I’ve been in this sport for over 20 years. This is the next evolution of my chapter, the next page of my book. What am I going to do when I decide to hang the helmet up one day? I want to be there to bring that new crop of drivers and talent up and help mold them to be the best version of themselves to carry the sport forward and to share with them what was shared with me over all my years in the sport, from Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Big Daddy Don Garlits, Mark Oswald and Don “Snake” Prudhomme, all the people I looked up to.”

While Brown will start as a single-car team once he transitions to ownership, he hopes to eventually build AB Motorsports into at least a two-car operation, with his Top Fuel dragster and a Funny Car.

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The path to eventual ownership began nearly a year ago when Brown and Schumacher discussed the future.

“Me and Don had a heart-to-heart talk,” Brown said. “When I told him what I wanted to do, Don said, ‘Antron, I know this is what you want to do. I’ll support you in this.’

“That’s a cool experience when you have a gentleman that has done everything in this sport, from over 350 national event wins, 17 world championships – and I’ve done three with him – and is in every motorsports hall of fame there is.

“What is he going to do next? He’s making the sport better by pushing people like myself to do what I’m doing now. No matter how long it takes, I know I have him on my backside, pushing me to get to that point.”

Like father, like son: Antron Brown and son Anson, who is following in his father’s drag racing footsteps. Photo: Antron Brown’s official Facebook page.

His family’s future also figured into Brown’s decision. His oldest son, Anson, soon turns 16 years old and is heavily involved in NHRA’s Jr. Dragster program, as are Brown’s other children. It’s likely his son some day will follow in his father’s footsteps.

But don’t think that the elder Brown, who turns 44 in March, is ready to hang up his firesuit just yet.

“I’ll stop driving when I feel I’m not capable to drive no more and I’m not having fun no more,” he said. “That’s nowhere in the near future. I know I’m going to drive for at least another 15 years.”

Heading into this season, Brown will retain current sponsorship from Mac Tools and Toyota, as well as associate sponsorship from Hangsterfer’s on his 11,000-horsepower dragster. Global Electronic Technology also has signed on as a new associate sponsor in a multiyear deal.

“It’s no secret this has been a goal of Antron’s for a while now, and I’m happy to be able to provide the tools and resources needed for him to be able to successfully branch out on his own,” Schumacher said in a team media release. “It’s important for me to see my team members grow.”

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Brown burst upon the NHRA scene atop a Pro Stock Motorcycle in 1998, earning 16 wins over the next 10 seasons. He joined DSR in 2002 and made the switch to Top Fuel in 2008.

Since then, Brown – who now resides in suburban Indianapolis – has gone on to become one of the winningest drivers in Top Fuel history with 50 national event victories, as well as three championships between 2012 and 2015.

That performance recently earned him AutoWeek magazine’s Top Fuel Driver of the Decade.

Brown also announced Tuesday he is reuniting with former crew chief Brian Corradi, who returns to the team after spending the last two seasons as co-crew chief for 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force. Corradi will share crew chief duties for Brown with NHRA veteran Mark Oswald.

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When he won his first title in 2012, Brown became the first African-American world champion in Top Fuel history. He hopes his move to ownership will continue to grow NHRA’s already significant focus on opportunities for minorities and females in the sport.

“I think it’s important across all spectrums, period,” Brown said. “I think a lot of fans see me, and they can relate to me because I am them. I came from a good, hard-working family in Chesterfield, New Jersey, which is right next door to Trenton.

“Everybody in my family from my great uncles to my grandpop made their own way, had their own businesses, from swimming pool to paving to septic tank businesses.

“One thing my grandpop said to me is the world is wide open. He said, ‘Son, you can have anything you want in this world, as long as you put the effort and put the work towards it.’ If people can resonate with my story from where I came from and where I’m heading, I hope it gives them this energy, this ray of hope that ‘if Antron Brown can do this, so can I.’

“That’s the only way for motorsports to grow. It’s for the young ones to get interested in it and I want them to know the opportunity is there. All they have to do is take it.”

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Brown will be among more than 30 Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers who will take part in this weekend’s annual preseason “spring training” test at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in preparation for the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals Feb. 6-9 in Pomona, California.

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