‘We had the performance’: Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman Lanigan rebound from slow start


INDIANAPOLIS – At 21 years old, Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Christian Lundgaard has the savvy of a racing driver much more experienced than his age.

That is why he was able to put the disappointment of his fourth-place finish in Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix in proper perspective after starting from the pole position for the first time with high hopes of scoring his first career victory.

“Going to bed last night, my one target was to see what we could do today,” the driver from Hedensted, Denmark, told NBC Sports as he sat on the pit wall after the race. “Yes, I was optimistic. But I didn’t believe it was going to be a clear and easy race taking off from the beginning.

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“We had the performance this weekend. We need to keep that in mind. It might not have been on Saturday, but we were much better than in the past.

“It was a positive at the end.”

It was also a sense of relief.

“I have relief that the race is over because the car was really tough to drive today,” Lundgaard admitted. “At least to get a top four, we can be happy with. Shout out to the whole RLL team today. We’ve been quick. To get a top-four is a relief.

“It’s points.”

Though the second-year IndyCar driver didn’t win Saturday on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, he knows his racing career is a journey, not a sprint.

“To be in the top five is where we want to be, really,” Lundgaard said. “That’s a positive.

“Starting on the pole and not getting the win is disappointing, but overall, it has been a great weekend. We were second in both practice sessions and came away with the pole. To get out of here fourth, I think we can be happy with that today.”

He also knew that he gave it all he had over the 85 laps.

“I think I gave it a little more than I had,” Lundgaard told NBC Sports after he climbed out of the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda. “We struggled with balance today. The car was, from one run to another run, a different balance. It was very difficult to understand the car.

“There was a point where I didn’t think I was going to make it through on balance. The car was so difficult to drive. If we had started eighth with the car like we had today, we wouldn’t have finished fourth.

“But we are in the top five and that is a positive.”

Despite a car that was difficult to drive, Lundgaard led 13 laps in Saturday’s race. He lost the lead at the end of the first lap when eventual race winner Alex Palou (the only driver in the top seven to start on the alternate faster tire) passed him in Turn 14.

From that point, Palou’s No. 10 Dallara-Honda was able to control the outcome of the race, which featured 12 lead changes between eight drivers.

“Alex’s car had grip,” Lundgaard said. “That was the edge. Their car was strong on tire management today. Sure, there was some strategy that we could have done better, but they were just quick.

“It just wasn’t our day today.”

The driver from Denmark wrestled with a car that change dramatically from one run to another – a nature of the difference between the Firestone black (primary) and red (alternate) tires and whether they were new or used.

The blacks are more durable and last longer but are a harder compound with less pace. The reds are faster but softer and don’t last as long.

Also, engineers and team members try to determine the best setup for the car based on what the track conditions will be on the extremely weather-sensitive Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The driver can make certain adjustments with the controls inside the car, but other changes to the wings are done during pit stops.

“We are trying to adjust to the balance with the wings on the pit stops, but I don’t think we got it right today,” Lundgaard told NBC Sports. “I don’t think the setup of the car was optimal for today’s race conditions and the tires.

“But it’s great points for us. I would rather be happy to say now we finished fourth, than cry over a 10th.

“We’re in the mix.”

It was a stint on used tires that kept Lundgaard from contending for the victory.

“I told the crew, ‘What are we doing?’ Let’s get off of these,” Lundgaard said. “That car was horrible to drive at that point.

“It was a tough day. It wasn’t as quick today unfortunately, but to come home fourth, there was a point in this race where I thought we weren’t going to finish in the top-10 with that pace and balance of the car. To end up fourth is a win right now.

“But we have to look at the perspective of how great performance wise we were all weekend. That’s the positive we can take away from this weekend.

“Now, we have kick-started the ‘Month of May.’”

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing finally had a moment of success after a terrible start to the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series season.

Entering Saturday’s race, the team owned by 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal, former late night host David Letterman and Southside Chicago industrialist Michael Lanigan was contending with Meyer Shank Racing for underachiever status in IndyCar.

Veteran driver Graham Rahal had a promising start to the season with a sixthin the March 5 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg but followed with finishes of 24th at Texas Motor Speedway, 12th at Long Beach and 17th at Barber.

Jack Harvey had struggled all season with a 22nd at St. Pete, 18th at Texas, a decent 13th at Long Beach and a 24th at Barber Motorsports Park.

By comparison, Lundgaard had become the leader of the team based on finishes.

He started the season ninth at St. Petersburg but dropped to 19th at Texas Motor Speedway and 14th at Long Beach. He rebounded at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, by starting and finishing sixth.

Friday on the IMS road course provided some hope for the team. Lundgaard won his first career NTT IndyCar Series pole, Harvey qualified fourth, and Rahal was 14th.

The race was a different story for Harvey after he locked up his tires and lost several positions on the track. He finished 20th. Rahal was able to fight his way to a 10th.

Lundgaard was in position for a podium finish before Arrow McLaren’s Alexander Rossi raced him hard in the infield section of the course and took third.

Lundgaard still held off another Arrow McLaren driver, Felix Rosenqvist of Sweden, for fourth in a “pick me up” weekend for the team.

“Absolutely,” Lundgaard said. “A shoutout to the whole team. We were competitive across all three cars. Graham was there in qualifying but struggled in the practice sessions. But Jack and I were there all weekend.

“We got the pole and two cars in the Fast Six. It’s the closest RLL qualifying in a long time so we can be satisfied with that.

“These are the things we need to learn moving on, but we will try our best.

“We fought in the top all weekend. It’s a huge relief for the team to have the performance for once. I wish we could have won the race today, but we were up there with the pole.

“The whole weekend has been a pleasure.”

Rico Nault is the team manager at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and oversees the entire operation for all three cars. The team moved into a spectacular new shop in Zionsville, Indiana, during the offseason.

It may be the best of any IndyCar team at the moment because of its layout, spaciousness and amenities.

Unfortunately for the team, there has been little to celebrate in 2023.

That is why Lundgaard’s performance was so important on Saturday.

“Honestly, we’ve been bad the last couple of years,” Nault told NBC Sports. “We’ve historically been quite a bit better than that and we haven’t been doing good.

“It’s been a disappointing couple of seasons and was really surprised when we started off as bad as we did. I’m glad we had some good results here, and hopefully, this will push us forward to more results in the future.”

Nault and his crew had Sunday off and will reflect on Saturday before getting ready for Indianapolis 500 practice on Tuesday at 9 a.m. ET (the session will be broadcast on Peacock as part of more than 60 hours of NBC Sports coverage from IMS in May).

“It was a solid weekend as far as our pace,” Nault said. “Unfortunately, our race strategy leaves something to be desired today. All three cars had issues. Jack Harvey locked it up and went off once and Graham Rahal had an issue and had a flat tire.

“There are a lot of positives to be said here. It’s really good when you super (angry) that you end up fourth, but I’m super (angry) that we ended up fourth.

“If you’re not winning, you want more. Fourth place from the pole is disappointing but still a great weekend for Rahal Letterman Lanigan. My God, the team really needed this.”

They realize in order to win, first they must return to being competitive. Lundgaard led a return to competitiveness over the weekend and Nault hopes it’s the start of the team’s return.

“The guys did a great job this weekend,” Nault said. “All three cars were solid, but we have to do a little bit better. When you get up there, it’s a whole new level, and we are out of practice.

“We have to get back in practice.

“I’m happy for the team. Think the guys did a really good job. I’m impressed by the engineers what they have been able to do.

“We just have to finish the deal.”

Christian Lundgaard will shave off his mustache after his first IndyCar victory (Bruce Martin).

Lundgaard grew an offseason mustache on a bet that he would shave it off when he won his first NTT IndyCar Series race. He told NBC Sports on the grid before the GMR Grand Prix he had planned to shave it in victory lane later that day.

The ‘Stache lives on, for at least another two weeks. His next chance to shave it off is May 28 — the Indy 500.

“The next race will not be a bad one to shave off the mustache,” Lundgaard said. “Right now, it’s how can we improve more off this race.”

The 107th Indianapolis 500 on the 2.5-mile oval will require a completely different skillset than what was needed on the IMS road course for a talent such as Lundgaard who has vast experience racing similar circuits in Europe.

“We’ll be going the other way around and a lot faster so we will definitely need to bring some new underwear for that,” he said. “I’m excited. It will be my second Indianapolis 500.

“Now, I know what it is all about. I’ll take it all in and enjoy it as much as I can.”

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