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.
RETWEET to congratulate @lundgaardoff!
He wins the NTT @INDYCAR SERIES Rookie of the Year Award. pic.twitter.com/BsJuuSEaKV
— INDYCAR on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) September 11, 2022
“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.”
Rahal Letterman Lanigan & Christian Lundgaard to continue with multi year deal.
Thank you team. Let’s keep this going. pic.twitter.com/VGWHjg8fNO
— Christian Lundgaard (@lundgaardoff) August 16, 2022
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.”
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.”