IndyCar team owner Bobby Rahal riding out the COVID-19 shutdown

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Honda team owner Bobby Rahal has seen a lot during his lengthy career as an IndyCar Series driver and team owner. But he never has experienced anything like the current COVID-19 situation that has shut down nearly every sport around the world.

Rahal is one of the principal owners of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing along with David Letterman and Michael Lanigan. That team features drivers Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato.

“We have kept our team on full salary,” Rahal told NBCSports.com. “Also, we have not reduced salaries, laid people off or furloughed people. We are still fully employed. That’s a big commitment on Mike and Dave and my part. Our sponsors have been tremendous. I hope for everybody’s sake we are able to get our hands around this thing, slow it down, stop it and get it to recede so we can all get back to what we do.

“The engineers are working from home. The mechanics can’t be doing that. We are trying to be as prepared as can be, so whenever the first race is, we will be prepared as well as we can be prepared.

“For the engineers, there is no shortage of work from that regard. Now, we have more time. The crunch will be deep in the season. No on-track testing will be allowed.

“Just because we aren’t going to races right now doesn’t mean we aren’t doing things to help us be more competitive when the races do start.

“From that standpoint, it’s full speed ahead.”

Rahal and his family live in densely populated Chicago in the well-to-do northside. Under normal circumstances, Rahal would be walking with his family to Wrigley Field to watch his Chicago Cubs open another baseball season. Rahal is a season-ticket holder with four choice seats behind the Cubs dugout on the third-base side.

But Wrigley Field is locked up these days. Chicago and the State of Illinois are in a “Stay at Home” order. Rahal and his family spent the time staying at their second home in Florida, where they have practiced their own lockdown.


When Rahal speaks about the current shutdown in IndyCar, he speaks with authority. Rahal won the 1986 Indianapolis 500 and was a three-time CART champion as driver. The 25-time race winner went on to become a very successful team owner in CART and later, the Indy Racing League. Buddy Rice gave Rahal’s team a victory in the 2004 Indianapolis 500.

NBCSports.com had a chance to talk to Rahal after IndyCar announced its revised schedule this past Monday. That schedule includes the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix cancellation, but additional races at Iowa Speedway, Laguna Seca and a third race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October.

“Everybody is doing what they can to make sure we have as close to a full season as possible,” Rahal said. “Thankfully, we have some dates. Previously, we’ve ended very early in the year in September. Now, we are going to end relatively late in the year in October and maybe later.

“The fall months are great months for racing. I don’t look at it as a huge loss by any means. It could well be better. Missing the fact, we won’t be at Long Beach and COTA and Barber, but I’m glad we are adding races. The double weekend at Laguna will be fabulous. The double weekend at Iowa will be challenging as all get out. Then, going back to the Indy GP, that’s a great road course.

“In our past, we’ve had multiple races at the same places in the season. That’s not really new. I’m glad we are going back, and we’ll just have to wait a little bit.

“Compared to previous years, it won’t be much of an offseason. We will end in October and be back testing in January. It will be tight, and it will be a grueling schedule, but that’s all good.”

Rahal believes a normal IndyCar Series season can end later in the year than September. During the Hulman-George ownership of IndyCar, CEO Mark Miles believed the series needed to be concluded in September to avoid NFL and college football.

This year, by necessity, the season will extend into October. Rahal believes it could be a great opportunity to prove the series can have October races in future seasons.

“Back in the heyday of CART in the 1980s and into the 2000s, we raced at Laguna in October, and we drew huge crowds,” Rahal said. “I don’t think it is a negative at all coming to these great events. I don’t care what sport you are in; you are trying to make the best of a bad situation.

“I think we are doing that.

“With Roger Penske (IndyCar owner) and Jay Frye (IndyCar president), they are committed to that. There is a lot of support from the owners for these two people and the staffs. There is no question, having as close to a full as possible is a critical step. They are making things happen and that is great.”

The revised schedule includes doubleheader races at Iowa Speedway and WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. That means twice as many points are available in one racing weekend than normal.

Also, there are two fewer races (15) than the original 17-race schedule.

“Those races aren’t double points races, but it will feel like it,” Rahal said. “That West Coast swing, will be big in September. On two weekends, you have three IndyCar races. You can harvest a lot of points in those three races. Teams will have to have your act together in those three events. You have to make sure you are going to be able to run hard and fast at these races because of the value of points and what they carry.”

At Laguna Seca, the back-to-back races will see the drivers and car flying down the challenging “Corkscrew” section of the famed road course. That will be quite a physical endeavor.

“When we had the Marlboro Challenge (an IndyCar All-Star Race in the late 1980s and early 1990s) we had that race on Saturday and then the regular IndyCar race on Sunday,” Rahal recalled. “The Marlboro Challenge wasn’t a 200-mile race, but it gave you a lot of direction of what you needed for the next day.

“Having those two races, the track will get faster and faster as the week goes on. It should make for a lot of interest.”


The addition of doubleheader races became important when Penske and his staff had to cancel the May 30-31 Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

“I feel for Roger because Detroit is a big commitment on his part,” Rahal said. “It’s unfortunate it couldn’t have been slotted in for later in the season. I’m sure they explored all options. It’s a shame because it’s a big race, and it’s important to be in Detroit.

“We’re just going to have to wait a year.”

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Rahal also is excited about the addition of a third race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Harvest Grand Prix scheduled for Oct. 3.

“Why not? I really like that road course,” Rahal said. “Will we have a third race there next year in 2021? Who knows. I’m all for going to great racetracks, and that is a great one.”

The bold actions made by Penske, IndyCar President Jay Frye and Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles underscore the gravity of the situation caused by the COVID-19 shutdown.

The latest revision could change, but for now, it indicates how seriously the IndyCar team is working on a solution.

“There is still availability of dates if that has to happen,” Rahal said. “It’s clear everybody is going to do whatever it takes to make sure we have a full schedule of racing as before and give our fans the kind of schedule they want to see.

“I don’t care what sport – football, baseball, basketball, social events and concerts – everybody is trying to figure out how to make the most of this situation.

“I appreciate the leadership of Roger and Jay because we aren’t waiting on things to happen. This is the third iteration of our schedule. They are working behind the scenes to make sure they are not caught out in terms of dates. If you look at the calendar, there are still some open dates in the summer. There are some open dates in August. Who knows? This may not be the last reschedule.

“Whatever it ends up being, it will be as close to a full schedule as possible.”

From a broader picture, Rahal also has hope the world will be able to move beyond the current pandemic, sooner rather than later.

“I have faith in the medical community in this country and around the world,” Rahal said. “I think we will quickly find some sort of vaccine or protocol to stop this thing in its tracks. More people are surviving this than dying from it.

“While it seems dark out there in many ways, there is also a lot of light out there.

“You hope the light comes to the fore more than anything else.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”