Graham Rahal

Never one to mince words, Graham Rahal acknowledges Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing is playing catch-up as it prepares for the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season.

Rahal candidly laments how the cars he and teammate Takuma Sato drove last season weren’t consistently good enough, and the team has been feverishly working through the offseason on identified areas in need of improvement.

RLL has brought in a new voice in longtime engineer Allen McDonald, hired as senior development engineer in a multiyear deal announced in October. Rahal dropped two spots to eighth in the points last season and Sato, despite collecting the team’s only win at Portland, finished 12th.

As a six-time race winner in his Indy car career, Rahal expects his team to field one of the fastest cars at each race and be a championship contender. The 30-year-old Ohioan’s best points finish was fourth in 2015. Expectations are also high for Sato, whose three career wins include the 2017 Indianapolis 500 while driving for Andretti Autosport.

“I’m looking forward to change this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a bit of a tough one for myself and the team. I’m looking forward to what I’m seeing out of Allen so far. Allen is an extremely accomplished engineer that definitely brings a different mindset to our program to what we had last year. He and Eddie (Jones, returning RLL engineer) are very close friends and I think that’s going to help us from the standpoint that they’re really on the same page. They’re like an old married couple. They pretty much don’t even need to talk to each other. They know what each other is thinking, which is good.

“That was something I think we needed. We needed life brought back into the team. If anything, challenges, I kind of expect to get everything in order in time from the standpoint where we’ve figured out a lot of areas we were lacking in development last year and even before that, frankly, that have kind of put us behind.”

McDonald’s lengthy career includes a seven-year stint with Andretti Autosport, when he was Dario Franchitti’s race engineer for an Indy 500 win and series championship. He was chief engineer for Dan Wheldon’s second Indy 500 victory, in 2011 with Bryan Herta Autosport. He’s also worked for Ed Carpenter Racing, FAZZT Race Team, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and PacWest Racing.

How long it takes for RLL to close that gap is the question. After winning races in three consecutive years, Rahal started 2018 with a runner-up finish at St. Petersburg. But his best results thereafter were a pair of fifths.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to win six times. A lot of people come into the sport and never win,” Rahal said. “Having said that, I also fully recognize that there’s no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks, when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the people out there.

“We’ve just got to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. That’s a fact. We have to get better. And we know where it is. When it comes to qualifying, when we both have to push a little harder, both of our cars go very loose. We know the rear of our cars are just not good enough. We’ve seen that in preseason testing this year. Same thing as last year. When we need to find that extra tenth or two (of a second), it’s just not there for Takuma and I and we have to correct that.

“We want to win. You better believe I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to see us not win. Our team owners don’t invest in us year after year to not win. We absolutely feel it.”

Although he just turned 30 in January, Rahal is one of the more established series regulars, entering his 13th full-time Indy car season. He’s amazed at how quickly time flies, how he arrived at 18 and earned his first podium in his third Champ Car World Series start in 2007, when he finished second at Houston while driving for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said of that race. “I didn’t have to go to prom, and it was my first career podium.

“You know, it’s gone by pretty darn quick. It feels like a while ago when I look back at pictures. But I feel like it’s actually happened pretty fast. I’m excited that, while I’ve been here forever, I still feel like I’ve got a long time ahead of me to push this sport forward for the next generation."

Rahal commends INDYCAR’s direction and growth, and like other drivers and teams is encouraged by several offseason announcements, including NTT as the new title sponsor and NBC Sports taking over exclusive televising rights. He’s eager to be a part of that on a team that is more successful.

“I’m excited for what I see and I know in the end it’s going to pay off,” he said of offseason preparations. “It’s just a matter of when.

“Andretti cars seem like the best right now. They were last year, I thought, better than Ganassi if you didn’t count (series champion) Scott Dixon. The Penske cars are going to be good. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of space to close up and hopefully we can do it.”

Rahal gets his first chance in 2019 at the site of his first Indy car win 11 years ago. The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg opens the NTT IndyCar Series season on March 10 (12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).