Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has endured quite the roller coaster over the last half-decade. Somewhat of a powerhouse in the early 2000s, they were once a three-car team that fielded such drivers as Buddy Rice, Vitor Meira, Kenny Brack, and Danica Patrick. However, since then, sponsorship issues forced the team to scale back, first to two cars in 2007 (with Scott Sharp and Jeff Simmons, eventually replaced by Ryan Hunter-Reay) and then one car in 2008 (Ryan Hunter-Reay).
No matter, though. They still managed a competitive 2008 season, with Hunter-Reay securing a win at Watkins Glen; if not for a string of bad luck, they may have cracked the top five in the standings by season’s end (they ended the year eighth overall).
However, when Ethanol pulled their sponsorship, the IndyCar operation folded. While their American Le Mans Sports Car team continued on and thrived, the IndyCar effort only raced twice in 2009 and 2010 combined (the Indy 500 each year, first with Oriol Servia and then with Graham Rahal). Their outlook improved in 2011, with Pippa Mann enjoying a three-race stint with them in the latter half of the season, complementing their Indy 500 efforts with Bertrand Baguette and Jay Howard.
For 2012, they’re back where they belong and have a full-time presence on the grid with driver Takuma Sato. Though they have only recently joined forces, team co-owner Bobby Rahal has actually been following Sato’s career since his days in Europe. “I'm excited that Taku has joined us for our 2012 IndyCar season. I had a chance to see Taku not when he first started racing but when he was Europe in England in Formula 3 in 2001 when I was over there with Jaguar Formula One,” said Rahal in a teleconference on Wednesday. “I managed to watch Takuma win a lot of Formula 3 races. I think Formula 3 has always been considered a very good judge of talent. Of course, you know, I kept an eye on him when he was in Formula One. So I've known his competitiveness, his speed. I've seen that many times over the years.”
This familiarity helped him in the pursuit of Sato, and Rahal believes the combination will be a successful one. “I think we all look forward to having him with us because, as I said earlier, he's shown his pace over the last couple years in IndyCars,” he explained. “As I said in the beginning when we reentered IndyCar racing, it was important for us to do so with someone who was going to be competitive. I had no real interest in just being here. Taku certainly fits that bill. I think we are quite excited for the start of the year. We have testing to do yet. We've done a little bit already in December, which went I think pretty well. So I think everybody's just anxious to get going.”
Additionally, the team’s reentry on a full-time basis will also see them make a change of scenery. Originally an Ohio-based outfit, the IndyCar operation will now operate out of Brownsburg, Indiana. Rahal described the move as a necessity to help the organization improve. “This has actually been under consideration for a number of years. It's really become the center of IndyCar racing, the Indianapolis area. You look at the resource that exists here within the area, both the human resource, the subcontractors, what have you, that can provide services for an IndyCar team. It just seemed to me that we needed to be in sort of the epicenter of IndyCar racing now that we were going to come back into it on a full-time basis.”
Sato, who captured a pair of poles last season, explained that, though the official announcement was recent, their deal has been in the works for a while. “We talk about lots of various options, the great stories, what could be the scenario,” Sato explained in the same teleconference. “It was just a matter of all the preparation. It was a long winter. But I was always confident that we could do a great deal with it. Suddenly the announcement, this February, very exciting. But I've known it's going to be happening from very early stage of the end of the season last year, so I'm extremely pleased.”
Sato added that the history of Rahal’s team shows that they could capable of great things going forward. “I mean, Bobby's team, Rahal Letterman Lanigan team, it's shown great history. The numbers in racing is very impressive, winning record. It's just great success. Okay, the IndyCar Series wasn't entered full-time in a couple years, but they showed great speed last year every single time they were entering IndyCar. So I was very confident.”
What’s more, there remains a strong possibility that Sato will have a teammate. Though no official announcements have been made, Rahal says they are close to adding a second entry, something he believes can be a nice boost if it's done properly. “For sure having multiple cars within a team is better I think up to a point. I think ideally a two-car team is probably the right number,” he elaborated. “We've run three in the past and been successful with that. But, nevertheless, organizationally it's a much tougher deal. That's part of the reason why we want to be a two-car team.”
Still, there remains plenty of time to both ensure Sato is properly prepared for the season and secure the resources for a second effort. “Quite frankly, there's plenty of time,” Rahal said confidently. “You're limited to 1,000 miles per driver pre-season anyway. So by doing Barber, Sebring and Sebring again, we'll be able to accomplish 1,000 miles. I think right now it's getting Taku's car ready for those tests and working hard to finalize our second driver. The second car is being prepared as we speak. As far as we're concerned, we're going to have two cars, two drivers, and that's really our focus at this point in time.”