INDIANAPOLIS – There is a calmness and confidence within Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing as it prepares to qualify Saturday for the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
The difference is night and day for a group that experienced a “nervous” qualifying bout a year ago when RLL managed to squeeze all three cars into the field of 33 despite struggling with pace.
Graham Rahal, son of team co-owner and 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, believes the newfound assurance is a testament to work put in from everyone within the organization, includes the offseason addition of his race engineer, Allen McDonald, on the No. 15 United Rentals Honda.
It allowed Tom German to move from being Rahal’s engineer to the team’s technical director, while fellow veteran engineer Eddie Jones remains on the No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda driven by 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato (right). RLL entered a third car again this year for Indy 500 rookie Jordan King, with Mike Talbott and Neil Fife sharing engineering duties on the No. 42 RLL Honda.
“I can't stress enough what Allen McDonald has done for me this year across the board from the start,” Graham Rahal said. “Tom was with me last year. He moved into a great role that suits him on the technical director side. Allen and Eddie, who is Takuma's engineer, they're like two peas in a pod. Really strange they're so alike.”
With two NTT IndyCar Series championships, along with two wins and three poles in the Indy 500, McDonald’s resume is about as sterling as they come. His driver knows it.
“We've come here with a setup that was immediately more competitive,” said Rahal, who would make his 200th career Indy car start in the race on May 26. “We've been able to work from there.
“I can't probably stress it enough, that's not only at Indy. You have seen all year the worst we've qualified all year is 10th on a road or street course. Last year that was probably the best we qualified. We've had a front-row start (at Barber Motorsports Park) and everything else. I think just think he's helped me a lot across the board.”
Sato (No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda) posted the third-fastest overall lap in Friday’s final full practice day before qualifying, at 230.755 mph. Rahal had the sixth-best no-tow speed, 229.449 mph. King (right) was 27th on the no-tow list at 227.409 mph.
While all three drivers are focused on getting their cars safely into the race in Crown Royal Armed Forces Qualifying Weekend, the bigger picture is how they perform on race day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. That’s where team co-owner Bobby Rahal is looking.
“It's real easy to get wrapped up in the whole idea of what you have to get on pole, all this,” Bobby Rahal said. “That's great if you can do it. More important to us as a team is to know that we have three drivers who are confident in what they have come race day – all the conditions – that we produce cars that can respond to changes made either inside the car or outside by the team, pit stops, what have you.
“If we have cars that can react to those changes in positive ways, then we're going to be looking pretty good. I think it's always a ratio of what's most important to you. For sure, winning the race is the most important thing to us.”