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

IndyCar Christian Lundgaard Rookie
Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

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 

‘It’s gnarly, bro’: IndyCar drivers face new challenge on streets of downtown Detroit

IndyCar Detroit downtown
James Black/Penske Entertainment

DETROIT – It was the 1968 motion picture, “Winning” when actress Joanne Woodward asked Paul Newman if he were going to Milwaukee in the days after he won the Indianapolis 500 as driver Frank Capua.

“Everybody goes to Milwaukee after Indianapolis,” Newman responded near the end of the film.

Milwaukee was a mainstay as the race on the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 for decades, but since 2012, the first race after the Indy 500 has been Detroit at Belle Isle Park.

This year, there is a twist.

Instead of IndyCar racing at the Belle Isle State Park, it’s the streets of downtown Detroit on a race course that is quite reminiscent of the old Formula One and CART race course that was used from 1982 to 1991.

Formula One competed in the United States Grand Prix from 1982 to 1988. Beginning in 1989, CART took over the famed street race through 1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle, where it was held through last year (with a 2009-2011 hiatus after the Great Recession).

The Penske Corp. is the promoter of this race, and they did a lot of good at Belle Isle, including saving the Scott Fountain, modernizing the Belle Isle Casino, and basically cleaning up the park for Detroit citizens to enjoy.

The race, however, had outgrown the venue. Roger Penske had big ideas to create an even bigger event and moving it back to downtown Detroit benefitted race sponsor Chevrolet. The footprint of the race course goes around General Motors world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center – the centerpiece building of Detroit’s modernized skyline.

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Motor City is about to roar with the sound of Chevrolet and Honda engines this weekend as the NTT IndyCar Series is the featured race on the nine-turn, 1.7-mile temporary street course.

It’s perhaps the most unique street course on the IndyCar schedule because of the bumps on the streets and the only split pit lane in the series.

The pit lanes has stalls on opposing sides and four lanes across an unusual rectangular pit area (but still only one entry and exit).

Combine that, with the bumps and the NTT IndyCar Series drivers look forward to a wild ride in Motor City.

“It’s gnarly, bro,” Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward said before posting the fastest time in Friday’s first practice. “It will be very interesting because the closest thing that I can see it being like is Toronto-like surfaces with more of a Long Beach-esque layout.

“There’s less room for error than Long Beach. There’s no curbs. You’ve got walls. I think very unique to this place.

PRACTICE RESULTS: Speeds from the first session

“Then it’s a bit of Nashville built into it. The braking zones look really very bumpy. Certain pavements don’t look bumpy but with how the asphalt and concrete is laid out, there’s undulation with it. So, you can imagine the cars are going to be smashing on every single undulation because we’re going to go through those sections fairly fast, and obviously the cars are pretty low. I don’t know.

“It looks fun, man. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s going to be learning through every single session, not just for drivers and teams but for race control. For everyone.

“Everybody has to go into it knowing not every call is going to be smooth. It’s a tall task to ask from such a demanding racetrack. I think it’ll ask a lot from the race cars as well.”

The track is bumpy, but O’Ward indicated he would be surprised if it is bumper than Nashville. By comparison to Toronto, driving at slow speed is quite smooth, but fast speed is very bumpy.

“This is a mix of Nashville high-speed characteristics and Toronto slow speed in significant areas,” O’Ward said. “I think it’ll be a mix of a lot of street courses we go to, and the layout looks like more space than Nashville, which is really tight from Turn 4 to 8. It looks to be a bit more spacious as a whole track, but it’ll get tight in multiple areas.”

The concept of having four-wide pit stops is something that excites the 24-year-old driver from Monterey, Mexico.

“I think it’s innovation, bro,” O’Ward said. “If it works out, we’ll look like heroes.

“If it doesn’t, we tried.”

Because of the four lanes on pit road, there is a blend line the drivers will have to adhere to. Otherwise, it would be chaos leaving the pits compared to a normal two-lane pit road.

“If it wasn’t there, there’d be guys fighting for real estate where there’s one car that fits, and there’d be cars crashing in pit lane,” O’Ward said. “I get why they did that. It’s the same for everybody. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to play with. That’s the problem.

“But it looks freaking gnarly for sure. Oh my God, that’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing believes the best passing areas will be on the long straights because of the bumps in the turns. That is where much of the action will be in terms of gaining or losing a position in the race.

“It will also be really easy to defend in my opinion,” Palou said. “Being a 180-degree corner, you just have to go on the inside and that’s it. There’s going to be passes for sure but its’ going to be risky.

“Turn 1, if someone dives in, you end up in the wall. They’re not going to be able to pass you on the exit, so maybe with the straight being so long you can actually pass before you end up on the braking zone.”

Palou’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, was at the Honda simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, before coming to Detroit and said he was shocked by the amount of bumps on the simulator.

Race promoter Bud Denker, the President of Penske Corporation, and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, sent the track crews onto the streets with grinders to smooth out the bumps on the race course several weeks ago.

“They’ve done a decent amount of work, and even doing the track walk, it looked a lot better than what we expected,” Ericsson said. “I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I hope not. That’ll be something to take into account.

“I think the track layout doesn’t look like the most fun. Maybe not the most challenging. But I love these types of tracks with rules everywhere. It’s a big challenge, and you have to build up to it. That’s the types of tracks that I love to drive. It’s a very much Marcus Ericsson type of track. I like it.”

Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in the opening session, has competed on many new street circuits throughout his legendary racing career. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing likes the track layout, even with the unusual pit lane.

I don’t think that’s going to be something that catches on where every track becomes a double barrel,” Dixon said. “It’s new and interesting.

“As far as pit exit, I think Toronto exit is worse with how the wall sticks out. I think in both lanes, you’ve got enough lead time to make it and most guys will make a good decision.”

It wasn’t until shortly after 3 p.m. ET on Friday that the IndyCar drivers began the extended 90-minute practice session to try out the race course for the first time in real life.

As expected, there were several sketchy moments, but no major crashes during the first session despite 19 local yellow flags for incidents and two red flags.

Rookie Agustin Canapino had to cut his practice short after some damage to his No. 78 Dallara-Chevrolet, but he was among many who emerged mostly unscathed from scrapes with the wall.

“It was honestly less carnage than I expected,” said Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, who was third fastest in the practice after coming off his first career IndyCar victory in the most recent street race at Long Beach in April. “I think a lot of people went off in the runoffs, but no one actually hit the wall (too hard), which actually surprised me. Hats off to them for keeping it clean, including myself.

“It was quite a bit less grip than I think everyone expected. Maybe a little bit more bumpy down into Turn 3 than everyone expected. But overall they did a good job between the two manufacturers. I’m sure everyone had pretty much the same we were able to base everything off of. We felt pretty close to maximum right away.”

Most of the preparation for this event was done either on the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, or the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“Now, we have simulators that can scan the track, so we have done plenty of laps already,” Power told NBC Sports. “They have ground and resurfaced a lot of the track, so it should be smoother.

“But nothing beats real-world experience. It’s going to be a learning experience in the first session.”

As a Team Penske driver, Power and his teammates were consulted about the progress and layout of the Detroit street course. They were shown what was possible with the streets that were available.

“We gave some input back after we were on the similar what might be ground and things like that,” Power said.

Racing on the streets of Belle Isle was a fairly pleasant experience for the fans and corporate sponsor that compete in the race.

But the vibe at the new location gives this a “big event” feel.

“The atmosphere is a lot better,” Power said. “The location, the accessibility for the fans, the crowd that will be here, it’s much easier. I think it will be a much better event.

“It feels like a Long Beach, only in a much bigger city. That is what street course racing is all about.”

Because the track promoter is also the team owner, Power and teammates Scott McLaughlin and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden will have a very busy weekend on the track, and with sponsor and personal appearances.

“That’s what pays the bills and allows us to do this,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500