Bobby Rahal

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s decision to take a different approach to qualifying preparation this week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway raised eyebrows among rival teams.

But when Team Penske’s Will Power questioned Graham Rahal about RLL’s strategy, Rahal fired back.

“I reminded him what happened 12 months ago and why it was important that we figure that out,” Rahal said Friday.

The NTT INDYCAR SERIES is at the doorstep of the 108th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, with PPG Presents Armed Forces Qualifying set for this weekend. The fastest 30 car-and-driver combinations will secure an opportunity to race Sunday, May 26. The other four must battle each other for a spot in the 33-car field.

Last year’s qualifying session was an unqualified disaster for the team owned by Bobby Rahal, Mike Lanigan and David Letterman. Its four cars were among the slowest five cars in four-lap timed runs, and Graham Rahal failed to earn a starting position when then-teammate Jack Harvey bumped him out in the final run.

The enormity of the failure sent shock waves through RLL, which had been in Victory Lane only three years earlier with Takuma Sato. Lanigan said he “cried a lot,” and Bobby Rahal, who himself was bumped from the field in 1993, said the despair went to the team’s core.

“It was hell,” he said. “Like Mike said, it was embarrassing. God, it was just awful.”

The first step toward a bounce back was admitting where things went awry.

“(The owners) totally agreed that we may have gotten a little lackadaisical on the engineering side, quite frankly,” Lanigan said. “In 2020, we were extremely competitive. Takuma won the race, Graham (finished) third. I think we got caught sleeping, frankly.”

Bobby Rahal said the ownership group “had a plan how we’re going to turn this ship around” from its chief operating officer, Steve Eriksen, within 30 days, and they haven’t rested since. Additional engineers have been brought in, and every detail has been considered. By all accounts it was a full-go offseason for the team based in nearby Zionsville.

Said Bobby Rahal, “It was a big investment for Mike and I, but we’re not here just to be here – we’re here to win.”

The results will be revealed over the course of the weekend. Graham Rahal acknowledged the team took a step backward on Fast Friday as the Chevrolet-powered teams made larger gains than those using Hondas, which power RLL.

On Friday’s no-tow report, RLL had cars in the seventh, 21st, 27th and 28th positions. Of course, that’s just a record of a single lap rather than four in succession, but it’s a reflection of raw speed.

“We need to find a good mile an hour,” Graham Rahal said. “Positions 15 through 28 are going to be separated basically by nothing.”

Qualifying begins at 11 a.m. (Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network).

Last year, RLL got Katherine Legge’s car to the 30th position while those of Harvey, Rahal and Christian Lundgaard were relegated to the Last Chance Qualifying session with Dale Coyne Racing’s Sting Ray Robb.

To avoid such a predicament, RLL was the first team in the paddock to begin qualifying simulations. That was early Thursday, and that’s what surprised rivals. Because Sato qualified eighth last year for Chip Ganassi Racing, RLL officials asked him to compare their cars to Chip Ganassi’s before having him focus on developments intended for this weekend’s qualifying sessions.

Bobby Rahal liked the results.

“I think we're already several miles an hour faster than we were at this time last year when we did (qualifying) sims a year ago,” he said. “I think that's a good indicator for us. … You know, I’m pretty happy with where we are.”

“A lot of work has been put in by our team members over the course of the last year – is still being put in. We've probably doubled, if not maybe a little bit more, our engineering department since that time, done more (research and development) work than we've ever done before, so I think it will pay off. It is paying off and will pay off.”

Said Graham Rahal: “No doubt we’re in a safer spot, but …”

Lundgaard, who hasn’t forgotten the pain of being lapped early in last year’s race, said the team still has “more (speed) to come.” Lanigan said only a good performance the rest of this month will help the team completely move on from the awful memories of 2023.

“The sting will not go away until one of these guys is on the (winner’s) podium a week from Sunday,” he said.