Rahal’s faith in Christian Lundgaard pays off with 2022 IndyCar Rookie of the Year title

IndyCar Christian Lundgaard Rookie
Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment
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MONTEREY, California – When a young, 19-year-old driver from Denmark arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the road course race on August 14, 2021, there was little known about him.

Just who was this Christian Lundgaard and why was he being given a ride from team owner Bobby Rahal?

He quickly showed why by qualifying fourth for his IndyCar debut. Lundgaard would finish the race 12th, but he proved to Rahal that he was capable of competing in the NTT IndyCar Series.

During the offseason, Rahal signed Lundgaard to a full-season ride in the No. 30 Honda at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Lundgaard rewarded him by winning the 2022 IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year Award – 40 years after Rahal was IndyCar’s top rookie in 1982.

“I have compatriots in Europe that I’ve trusted over the years, and everybody said, ‘You’ve got to give this guy Christian Lundgaard a shot,’ ” Rahal recalled. “(They said,) ’He’s the real deal.’

“So, we agreed, and we asked Christian to drive at the Harvest Grand Prix a year ago. He puts it fourth on the grid.

“Even more importantly, I think he helped develop a car in that short period of time, helped develop the car, gave us some direction on the car. That paid off for us the remainder of the year. Much of the setup on that came from the bindings that we got through Christian at Indy.

“It’s not a fluke when you perform like that. There’s substance to that. We believed that Christian could be something special. He’s very young, and we’re also looking at the future, and we thought, ‘Yeah, this is a guy that we want to have in this team for now and for the future.’ ”

Lundgaard finished 14th in te points standings, ahead of rookies David Malukas (16th), Callum Ilott (20th), Develin DeFrancesco (23rd) and Kyle Kirkwood (24th).

“I’m just so pleased for Christian,” Rahal said. “Rookie year, every track outside of Indy GP was a new circuit. You go to Texas, that’s an intimidating place. You go to Toronto; you go to Iowa. This young man had to learn as best he could these circuits in a very short period of time.

“I’d like to think we as a team helped him, but still, when you get out there and you start going, it’s kind of like holy (bleep) — sorry, holy smokes — this is a different place.

“So, I’m really pleased not just for Christian, but I’m really pleased for his team, his group. Ben Segal, his engineer who was new to us this year and new to Christian. This is kind of a beginning process, and they really, over the course of the year, grew together, and the results we see today are a reflection of that.”

On the three-driver RLL team, Graham Rahal finished the season 11th and Jack Harvey finished 22nd in the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda.

So, how is Lundgaard going to celebrate his IndyCar Rookie of the Year title?

“I’m going to Vegas,” he said. “I’m going back to my room, taking a shower, and then we are jetting off to Vegas tonight.”

Rahal quipped, “Well, he’s getting a bonus from somewhere else because it isn’t from me.”

Lundgaard, who in August signed a multiyear contract extension to remain at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, said, “I’ve got a contract. I guess that’s my bonus.”

In addition to getting a new contract, he also impressed the IndyCar paddock.

Lundgaard was able to become the “Great Dane” by driving fast but also controlling the car. While many of his fellow rookies made mistakes this season, Lundgaard rarely was criticized by other drivers for an error — even while he began racing on ovals for the first time in his life.

In Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca, Lundgaard finished just behind Felix Rosenqvist of Arrow McLaren SP.

“Tough race,” Rahal said. “Tires are all over the place. Strategies are all over the place. This young man, as we saw in Portland — yeah, a little mistake. But Indy, what have you, he was there. He was mixing it up with the top guys.

“All I can tell you is we’re really excited about next year, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure that Christian, Graham, Jack have the cars they need to really figure in the championship.”

Lundgaard’s best finish this season was a second place to race winner Alexander Rossi in the Gallagher Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on July 30.

“I think actually this race today might have been one of the better races we’ve had all year,” Lundgaard said. “I think we weren’t really competitive all weekend. We were sort of there but not really there. We didn’t qualify well enough. We were good on the blacks, but as soon as we put the reds on there was just no pace.

“We did the job today, and I’m just happy that the team gave me the opportunity to be here and achieve this. I’m grateful for Bobby. Thank you for giving me this opportunity and keeping me. I’m happy about that. Now I’ve got another championship to win.

“You only get one shot at the rookie championship, so getting it was a big achievement for me.”

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Christian Lundgaard takes a selfie with girlfriend Anna Briand before finishing a career-best second in the IndyCar race July 30 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (Marc Lebryk/USA TODAY Sports Images).

Team owner Rahal admits that in many ways, Lundgaard was the shining star of his race team.

“It has been a tough year for us,” Rahal admitted. “The first third or half of the year, it was very spotty. We did not give our drivers, Christian, Graham or Jack, the cars that they deserved to have.

“Having said that, everybody pulled themselves together and kind of figured it out. Probably since, I guess, Toronto or just before Toronto, the performance as a team increased measurably compared to where we were, and then we really saw what our drivers could do.

“As a driver, and I’ve been there, if you don’t have the right equipment, I don’t care how good you are, you’re not going to be able to show it. But this team really came together. There was a lot of hard work throughout the team.

“It was tough. Midpoint of the season, it was tough. But everybody stayed the course, worked really hard, and we saw the improvements in the performance overall.”

In 2020, a rookie driver from Spain joined Dale Coyne Racing and was so impressive, he was hired by Chip Ganassi Racing the following year. That driver from Alex Palou, who won the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series championship and also won Sunday’s race.

Could the same thing happen with Lundgaard in IndyCar?

“I think everything is possible,” Lundgaard said. “I’m not racing to finish second, so I’ll give it my best shot.”

His team owner is certainly sold on that idea of a championship with Lundgaard coming in the near future.

“Well, we wouldn’t have taken our option up on him if we didn’t think,” Rahal said. “I think Christian is a big part of the future of RLL, and as you saw earlier this week, we’re bringing people in to help raise the game of RLL, and I think combined — there’s Christian, obviously, other new people coming in, and the whole idea, we’re here to win, and we feel that Christian can win.

“I think he showed that this year. I mean, at Harvest Grand Prix, we won the race because we were the first legal car.”

Rahal was referring to the fact that winner Rossi’s car failed postrace technical inspection because a water bottle put the car overweight. Rossi was docked points but kept the win.

“That is true,” Lundgaard said. “We did score the most points.”

“Just saying …,” Rahal replied.

Although Lundgaard came up through the European ladder system, he believes IndyCar is his racing home, rather than Formula One.

“I’ve watched IndyCar before,” Lundgaard sad. “Actually, I would say I’ve watched many road courses and street circuits because I still follow F1. I still follow some junior categories. I even still follow some go-kart races. I would say I did before coming over here.

“When I got the opportunity to test at Barber, I wouldn’t say no anyway, because I like the challenge of a new car just to drive the car and get to know America.

“But I fell in love with it, and I’m here, and I love it.

“I won’t leave.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Houston Supercross by the numbers: Five riders begin to gap the field

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Chase Sexton stumbled in San Diego and Eli Tomac had a hard fall in Anaheim 2, but the Monster Energy Supercross numbers for Houston suggest they will continue to be the ones to beat in Houston. To do so, they will have to turn back challenges from another pair of riders who have swept the top five in the first three rounds and another with a worst finish of sixth.

Houston Supercross numbers
Cooper Webb’s ability to close races makes him a Houston favorite. – Feld Motor Sports

Despite an accident in his heat in San Diego that sent him to the Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ), Sexton recovered to score a top-five that weekend. His podium finish in Anaheim 1 and overall win last week in Anaheim 2 makes him one of the three riders with a perfect top-five record. He is joined by Cooper Webb, who finished second in the first two rounds and fourth last week, and Ken Roczen, whose consistency in the first three races contributed to him grabbing the top spot in this week’s NBC Supercross Power Rankings.

There are reasons to believe Webb and Roczen can keep those streaks alive.

Webb is the only multiple winner at Supercross’ current Houston stadium. His pair of wins came in 2019 and 2021, the same year he won his two 450 championships.

Clinton Fowler points out this week, that Webb has carried that strength into 2023. Webb had a late surge in Anaheim 1, advancing from fifth to second in the final six laps. In San Diego, he set his ninth fastest lap with two to go and his eighth fastest on the final lap. He posted his fastest lap of Anaheim 2 on Lap 12 while the rest of the field did so on Lap 6 on average.

By comparison, Tomac set his 14th fastest lap on the final circuit in route to winning the Main at San Diego while he was trying to keep Webb at bay.

With a sixth at San Diego, Dylan Ferrandis barely missed sweeping the top five in his first three races as did Tomac with a sixth last week at Anaheim 2.

This will be the 46th year Supercross has visited Houston and with 55 races the city is tied for the second-most with Detroit.

Jim Pomeroy won the first race in the Astrodome during the inaugural season of 1974 on a 250, which was the premiere class at the time. Houston was one of three races held that year along with events at Daytona International Speedway and the Los Angeles Coliseum. All three venues return in 2023 with the first SuperMotocross championship finale returning to the famed LA Coliseum in September.

Webb won most recently in 2021 in the final race of three held there that year as the series executed a strategy of racing in residencies to limit travel during height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomac and Justin Barcia also won in Houston in 2021.

Two privateers have started the season on a high note.

Joshua Cartwright and Joshua Varize have each made the last two Mains. Cartwright finished 18th in San Diego and 21st last week in Anaheim 2 – all while working fulltime as a Business Intelligence Analyst at the University of Texas, Dallas. Varize earned a top-15 (12th) in San Diego and was 21st in Anaheim 2 in his third season on a 450.

Michael Mosiman scored his first 250 win last year in San Diego. – Feld Motor Sports

The numbers show none of the active 250 Supercross East riders have won in Houston, so no matter who steps on top of the box, there is going to be a fresh face. That is not surprising since most of the top competitors have not raced at this venue yet.

Michael Mosiman has a pair of top-fives there, however. His best finish was a second in the second 2021 race. Garrett Marchbanks scored a top-10 in his rookie season of 2019 in Houston.

In the 250 East division, Hunter Lawrence is one of the favorites to win the title now that Christian Craig has moved to 450s. Last year he had four wins and nine podiums, but failed to set a fast lap in a race.

The other 250 riders with 2022 wins this week are Mosiman, who earned his first Supercross win last year in San Diego, and Nate Thrasher, who became the fifth new class winner at Daytona.

Jeremy Martin will attempt to extend a record this week in Houston. His division leading SuperMotocross podiums number 65. He has 26 wins in the combined sessions, which ranks fourth all time.

Last Five Houston Winners

450s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Cooper Webb
2021, Race 2: Eli Tomac
2021, Race 1: Justin Barcia
2020, no race
2019, Cooper Webb
2018, Jason Anderson

250s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Colt Nichols
2021, Race 2: Jett Lawrence
2021, Race 1: Christian Craig
2020, no race
2019, Dylan Ferrandis
2018, Aaron Plessinger

By the Numbers

Anaheim 2
San Diego

More SuperMotocross coverage

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Power Rankings after week 3
Malcom Stewart out for “extended duration” after knee surgery
Haiden Deegan makes Supercross debut in Houston, Justin Cooper to 450s
Talon Hawkins set to relieve injured Jalek Swoll in Houston
Jalek Swoll out for an indefinite period with broken arm
Ken Roczen urgently needed a change
Chris Blose joins Pro Circuit Kawasaki in 250 East opener
Seth Hammaker to miss Houston with wrist injury
Jo Shimoda joins Seth Hammaker, Austin Forkner on injured list
Injury sidelines Austin Forkner for remainder of 2023 SX
Chase Sexton wins Anaheim 2 in 450s; Levi Kitchen takes 250s
Results and points from Anaheim 2