SALINAS, Calif — A little over a year ago, Christian Lundgaard came over to the United States to make his first ever start in the NTT INDYCAR Series. The ride with Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing was a two-fold audition. It was for him to show the series what he can do behind the wheel as well as the series to see if they can lure another displeased overseas driver trying to work his way through the Formula One ladder system to a brighter future over here.
Lundgaard loved what he saw. He qualified 4th in the INDYCAR-NASCAR doubleheader weekend on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. It opened his eyes to a potential shift to INDYCAR over F1.
“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,” he says.
“But I fell in love with it, and I’m here, and I love it. I won’t leave. I feel like it’s too political in Europe.
“I think it’s a personal opinion. I’m sure some other people have different opinions. I just prefer this racing series because it reminds me of what I fell in love with in go-karts, jumping in the car and having fun.”
Even though he was an Alpine academy driver, he felt like his best interests were here so RLL signed him as Takuma Sato’s replacement.
“Well, I mean, 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,” a happy Bobby Rahal said on Sunday. “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 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. Graham was fourth here last year. He was leading Portland. Much of the setup on that came from the bindings that we got through Christian at Indy.
“We felt that Christian could be — 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 didn’t necessarily feel like Rookie of the Year honors would occur that quickly but here he was 13 months after his debut getting some shiny new hardware to add to his Danish collection.
“I mean, moving over here wasn’t really that difficult,” he noted. “I’ve lived in a suitcase pretty much my entire life, so as my dad raised me when I was young, traveling and seeing him race, and for my brother and I, we saw the racing.
“Moving over here wasn’t the worst part. I think the worst part was — or the toughest part was getting ready and making sure we were there every weekend, and keep digging to gain performance.
“I must say, in the beginning of the season, it did feel like I could have done something more to help the team perform better earlier in the season, but at the same time, it was across all three cars.
“When I look back now, I wish there was more I could have done and something I could have done different to help us be better prepared. But we bounced back in the second half of the season, and I think that’s worthy to remember.”
Lundgaard was the top rookie this season though and left little doubt on Sunday. The 21-year old would finish 5th for his 2nd top 5 of the season and top David Malukas by 18 points for this year’s distinction of No. 1 rookie.
“Definitely the end of it,” Lundgaard said on if he’s satisfied “I think actually this race today might have been one of the better races we’ve had all year. 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.
“But no, you only get one shot at the rookie championship, so getting it was a big achievement for me.”
That gap was down to 5 entering the day after Lundgaard had a rough ending to his race in Portland. He had 2 problems on pit road and was still in the mix for a top 10 despite that. He was in the top 5 prior. But late race chaos with Alexander Rossi forced him off track and into a sign which forced him down pit road for repairs. He’d finish 21st and allow Malukas back in the door.
This weekend, Malukas started 6th. Lundgaard was 16th. There was a very real possibility that he would not take home this trophy on Sunday. Malukas struggled on red tires early while Lundgaard’s strategy thrived in running the first stint long on the primary tires. It allowed him to finish in the top 10 for the 3rd time in the final 5 races and show the series that he’s going to be a legitimate contender here in the very near future.
To come from 16th to 5th on a difficult track is telling. He qualified 3rd in Nashville and that came a week after finishing 2nd in Indy. Lundgaard was finding his groove in the 2nd half of the season with 7 top 11 finishes over the final 10 races. He had just 2 in the first 7.
Lundgaard is fully focused here. He signed a multi-year contract last month to stay with RLL and hopes that he can be in the hunt for a championship many times in years to come.
“I think everything is possible. I’m not racing to finish second, so I’ll give it my best shot,” he says.
Rahal is excited for the future ahead as well.
“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,” he says.
“I think he showed that this year. I mean, at Harvest Grand Prix, we won the race because we were the first legal car.”