For the first time since 2005, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s two cars qualified to the front row of an NTT IndyCar Series race — an achievement not lost on its drivers nor team owner Bobby Rahal.
Rahal’s 1992 championship under Rahal/Hogan Racing marked an early success for today’s RLL operation, which has experienced many ups and downs during its nearly three decades entrenched in open-wheel competition.
A challenging 2018 season was partially saved by Takuma Sato’s win at Portland International Raceway, one of seven top-five finishes earned in the combined 34 races started by full-time drivers Sato and Graham Rahal throughout the year. That 21% success rate for finishing near the front was down from 35% in 2017 and 50% in 2016.
The season-opening weekend in St. Petersburg extended that trend to 2019 when Rahal and Sato finished 12th and 20th, respectively. The team fared better at Circuit of The Americas where Rahal came home in fourth after starting 10th while Sato gained seven positions to finish seventh.
With a partial third data point to add to the season-long archive following RLL’s lockout of the front row during qualifying at Barber Motorsports Park, the trend has been altered, which team owner Rahal attributes to one thing.
“We work hard,” said Rahal. “This team works very hard to compete against the level of teams that we do, like Penske, Ganassi and Andretti obviously. Today is a fulfillment of that effort. Tomorrow is the day that counts. Now we have to finish the job.”
The job is converting the pole position — or a second-placed start, in the case of Rahal’s son — into a victory. Based on IndyCar’s history at Barber, the chances of such a conversion are good: In nine previous races at the Birmingham, Alabama track, the pole sitter went on to win four times.
Still, thanks to the level of competition in modern Indy car racing, a front-row start isn’t a guaranteed harbinger of a top-two finish.
“We have to recognize we have to have a perfect race, and we have to recognize that other teams are going to try to have a perfect race, too,” said Rahal. “It’s going to be a hard race tomorrow, I don’t think there’s any question of that.
“There’s a lot of tire degradation. It’s really going to come down to who is the best on old tires. It should make for an interesting race, as this race has been for many, many years.”
Irrespective of the impact of tires, one thing Rahal can point to is the responsibility he and fellow co-owners David Letterman and Mike Lanigan feel toward the team that bears their names.
“We’ve made the commitment to the team to give them the tools and the resources they need to (succeed),” continued Rahal. “You can see what happens when we give them the cars. We give them the cars, they’re going to be up front. It’s really our obligation to do that every weekend.”
Sometimes even strong cars and hard work fall short, requiring something extra to push a team and its drivers to the next level. Qualifying on pole for the eighth time in his career was once such instance for Sato.
“I think today with a bit of luck — the conditions were liking us,” said Sato.
With weather a concern almost every time IndyCar visits the Birmingham area, the conditions during Sunday’s 90-lap race may play as big a role in Sato and Rahal’s finishing position as their qualifying efforts. Both drivers will roll off from Row 1 shortly before the 3:15 p.m. CDT green flag.