Graham Rahal remarkably enters his 17th season in the NTT INDYCAR Series. The 34-year-old Ohio native has seen a lot over the course of his career. That experience and how the entire Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing team ended the 2022 season is to what has the second-generation driver budding with confidence to get going in the open test at Thermal Club this week.
Rahal had 5 top 10 starting positions in his last 9 races to the season in comparison to 3 in first 7. He also had scored 5 top 10’s in the last 8 races at that.
His teammate and Rookie of the Year, Christian Lundgaard, had 7 top 11 finishes over the last 10 races on the season. The Dane had just 3 in the first 7. He was runner-up in the July 30 Gallagher Grand Prix, 8th in Nashville and 5th in the season finale at Laguna Seca. Also if not for a couple of bad pit stops and a run-in at the end of the race at Portland with Rossi, he would have had at the very least a top 5 there too.
While all the entire Top 10 in points were filled with Penske, Ganassi, Arrow McLaren and Andretti drivers, RLL took 2 of the next four in the standings outside of the top 10 and are hoping to build upon that end of season surge.
They’re right there. Last year was honestly the first time since 2014 that Rahal didn’t finish in the top 10 in points. He wants that back and see promise on the horizon in 2023 to do so. The thing is, where do they stand?
Penske and Ganassi have combined to have won each of the last 10 championships and 14 of the last 15 in general. Andretti has won 5 races the last two years with McLaren 4. RLL is next up.
But, with that gap from Andretti/McLaren to RLL so small, did they do enough to join that mix again of the next tier and what can they do to separate themselves from those two to challenge that “Big 2” further ahead?
Rahal thinks so. It’s all part of the changes made internally with the engineering and planning side. While the trio of drivers return, how the team operates further solidifies that RLL is moving forward.
“Yeah, I feel really good about where we’re at,” Rahal said. “As I was thinking about this exact kind of media conference last year, I was pretty reserved in some of my comments about the outlook, and I was thinking about it this year, I feel a lot more positive.
“I think Stefano (Sordo) has done a great job as he’s come in, but I think also organizationally from the team perspective we seem to be in a much better place. Everybody is working towards achieving the same goals.
The engineering side is more focused I would say. Not that they weren’t last year, but I would say more focused on the right things and not spending time doing things that aren’t moving the program forward.
“I feel really good about where we stand.
“I’m excited to be back with Eddie. I had a great time with Alan. I love Alan. But I think it was time. It was time for a change, and I think it was time for Jack, too, in particular.
“I felt like Jack, when I sit back and look at things from an unselfish perspective and the team, which I often do, I feel like Jack was going to need change to get him on track this year, and to be back with Mike or to be back with Eddie, who he was with last year, I didn’t feel like for him that was going to move the needle on his side of the team enough.
“But for me to have Eddie is awesome. Eddie and I are kind of both pretty low-key guys. We’re on the same page. Super fiery and competitive, but off the track I think we both have a similar mindset.
“Adam Kolesar is going to be the assistant. He’ll be race engineer I’m sure shortly with us. Adam has been under Alan for a long time. He’s a great kid. The hardest working guy on our team by far, not even close, and to have him with Eddie I think will also help further his career.
“We’ve got a really good staff obviously with Derek Davidson on my car, as well, this year. I’m excited about that because I’ve never gotten to work with Double D in that regard, and he’s a guy I have tremendous respect for as a leader, an organizer and a manager and everything else.
“I’m excited about that.
“We’ve had a little bit of turnover this year, as to be expected. There was time for change in certain things. But with Eddie, he and I won five times in three years. We know how to win together, and hopefully we can get this thing back on track. We’re pretty fired up about it.”
Rahal also mentions that a huge positive is that the direction is now simplified. Bringing Sordo on was a huge moment with is experience and direction which solidified Rahal’s thinking process from before.
“I think what we needed most was pretty simple, and that’s just direction,” he noted. “I thought that from the top on down, we needed a clearer path, from the engineering corps in particular. We didn’t have a technical director. We didn’t really have somebody that was leading the charge. We didn’t have enough depth.
“That’s becoming clearer to us now that we know like what McLaren is doing. With Stefano coming in you see what all they’re doing, and we were not even in the ballpark as far as depth and stuff like that. We’ve learned that now. We’ve been able to add. We’ve gotten ourselves into a really good spot.
“You see, though, it’s not like we’ve fired a bunch of engineers. Our guys are good. We’ve got good people. But we needed direction, and we needed somebody to kind of stand up and go, no, this is a — I’m not going to say what it is, but there was some testing we’ve done for a while that we’ve all been saying, this is worthless, we’re getting nothing out of it, but we kept getting told, no, we’ve got to do it.
“Luckily Stefano comes in and says, that’s worthless. Why are you doing that? Thank goodness. Here’s somebody else who can back up what we’ve been saying for a long time. Now we can focus our energy. Engineers aren’t doing all these crazy projects. It’s just let’s focus on what actually can move the needle.
“I thought that’s what Stefano really brought to the table. Kind of helped drive us a little bit better, so I’m really excited about that. We’ve obviously all talked about Ryan Harbar a lot this off-season. I gave him — he’s our trainer, head of human performance for us.
“Given him a lot of s— about the fact that he’s gotten more media attention than anybody else in the INDYCAR paddock this off-season.
“But having said that, he has absolutely changed the mental side and the culture within the team and gotten everybody locked in and focused and working out and using the sauna and playing pickleball tournaments at the end of the day for the camaraderie and the competition, and getting everybody — I mean, the pit stop practice have been amazing, the breakdown of the videos and everything.
“Ryan has also done a great job, I think, just moving the needle on the mental scope for the staff, for us to make our game to the next level.
“Hopefully we can put all those pieces together and have a great year.”