Things are looking good for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing as the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season prepares to get underway later this week. Chalk it up to an ambitious offseason.
First, the team confirmed it would expand to two full-time entries for the first time since 2013 and bring back reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato - who left the team after 2012 - to team with Graham Rahal this season.
A flurry of announcements since the first of the year have given Rahal's No. 15 Honda a host of primary sponsors at races throughout the season. They include United Rentals for five races including the 102nd Indianapolis 500; Total, the fourth-largest global oil and gas company, for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach; One Cure, an initiative of the Flint Animal Care Center at Colorado State University to research cures for cancer in humans and animals, for two races; and Luther Automotive Group and Fleet Cost & Care for a race each.
It's quite the turnaround for a team forced to run only a part-time schedule due to lack of sponsorship just five years after winning the Indianapolis 500 with Buddy Rice in 2004. From 2009-11, the team made just four race starts and faced an uncertain future in the sport.
"I certainly didn't enjoy those early days, particularly given that when we were a full-time entrant in the '90s, early 2000s, we won as many races probably as Penske or Ganassi or anybody else in those days," said team co-owner Bobby Rahal. "Buddy winning the 500 in 2004, to come back and have that level of performance (now), I really have to hand it to my partners."
It was during those dark times, with the team's future in the balance, that the elder Rahal met with fellow co-owners David Letterman and Michael Lanigan.
"We sat down, talked about it," Rahal said. "We're either going to do this or we're not. We're not going to stay where we are. We really made a commitment to build our engineering group up. I think we've got one of the best groups out there, with Eddie Jones, Tom German, many of the other assistant engineers.
"We really made a conscious effort to try to go out and get the best people we could. We're continuing to do that."
The journey back to prominence was assisted by Sato, who put in an extraordinary effort at the 2012 Indianapolis 500, running second and making a last-lap move on Dario Franchitti for the win entering Turn 1. Although the effort ended with Sato in the wall and Franchitti in victory lane, the fight and grit gave a glimpse of what the team could do.
Graham Rahal began driving for his father's team in 2013, but struggled with just four top-five finishes in the first two seasons. Things began to turn in 2015 when Graham won twice - including his home race at Mid-Ohio. He's won a total of five races in the past three seasons and finished fourth, fifth and sixth in the championship.
"We have a lot of good guys, many of whom have worked with Graham before," Bobby Rahal said. "There was some familiarity there, a comfort level, but also really good people who didn't have egos that would get in the way of working together.
"I think you saw the results in 2015, in being that competitive. We're continuing to build. This year we're really starting to build up our marketing and sales group. You can see the number of announcements to date. … That's starting to work."
Things are also working on track. In the Phoenix open test at ISM Raceway last month, the only official gathering of all teams prior to the season opener, the RLL cars were fastest in each of the four practice sessions. Sato logged the fastest overall lap at 189.855 mph.
"It's making it fun to go to the races again," Bobby Rahal said of the recent success. "To see Graham run up front, to have Takuma (back on the team), I love the guy.
"The thing about Takuma, what you see is what you get. When you come to the race, you know he's going to give you 100 percent. Maybe he'll give you 110, but I love the guy. He and Graham work well together.
"I think there's real reason to feel we're going to have a pretty good year."
The 17-race Verizon IndyCar Series season starts with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this week. Practice begins Friday, Verizon P1 Award qualifying will be Saturday and the race airs live on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network at 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday, March 11.