After its darkest days, RLL has rediscovered its fighting spirit

EXHIBITION PLACE, CANADA - JULY 16: #45: Christian Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda at Exhibition Place on Sunday July 16, 2023 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Jake Galstad / LAT Images)
EXHIBITION PLACE, CANADA - JULY 16: #45: Christian Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda at Exhibition Place on Sunday July 16, 2023 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Jake Galstad / LAT Images)

​Bobby Rahal didn’t want to hear it.

Nearly two months of intensive work to find his IndyCar teams’ competitive shortcomings were starting to bear fruit, and behind the scenes, the 70-year-old was lighting a fire under Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s managers and chiefs and engineers and mechanics to get creative in solving its speed deficiencies.

Privately, the three-time IndyCar champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner was said to be putting in an extreme number of hours to help the organization turn itself around, and not with a soft target for “as soon as possible.” He wanted it now. But in typical Rahal fashion, he didn’t want to take any credit for the newfound strength the team he co-owns with Mike Lanigan and David Letterman has demonstrated since weathering a brutal month of May.

“You need to talk to Mike Lanigan, for starters, because he’s pushed as hard as anybody to get us to where we are,” Rahal told RACER. “Give him the credit. Go talk to (new COO) Steve Eriksen, who’s been huge for us since he came​​ onboard. Steve’s brought a lot of things managerially and perspective-wise that we needed, and we’re better off for having him. Go talk to (veteran RLL team manager) Rico (Nault), who’s been with me for longer than I can remember, because he’s been getting his hands full this entire time trying to get us moving in the right direction. There’s a lot of others, also, because they’re the ones to talk to instead of me.”

Bobby Rahal, Steve Eriksen, Ricardo Nault and David Saulters of HPD — the brain trust that’s helped Rahal Letterman Lanigan go from zero to hero in the span of mere weeks. Michael Levitt/Lumen

Fresh off the team’s first win since August of 2020, RLL’s in-season efforts were rewarded by first-time IndyCar winner Christian Lundgaard, a native of Denmark whose pursuit of Formula 1 stalled and subsequent rerouting to America with RLL proved transformational for the team and the 21-year-old.

Rahal’s son Graham, who was in tears after failing to qualify for the Indy 500 in May, nearly earned pole for the July 2 race at Mid-Ohio, and put on an epic performance on Sunday in Toronto that started in 27th-place and finished in ninth.

And as his father suggested, speaking with Ricardo Nault revealed the rest of how RLL overhauled itself through fixes in engineering and internal culture.

“We felt we had the basis of a good car, but we just got lost for a while — a year and a half, really,” said Nault, the former IndyCar mechanic who ascended upwards to a leadership role many years ago. “And it just got worse. Then had a little bit of restructuring and started by trying to get some buy-in from everybody to help contribute to the process. We had a bunch of people come up with ideas on what to do and we just started pushing together a little bit more than we have in the past.”

Going through RLL’s darkest days helped the group to rediscover its fighting spirit and improve its chemistry as the men and women who comprise the entries for the Rahal’s No. 15 car, the No. 30 for Jack Harvey, and Lundgaard’s No. 45 banded together in the same quest for success.

“We were all down, and everybody had to come together to help each other,” Nault continued. “And Graham, Christian and Jack, they all work really well together to try to make the cars better; nobody holds back. Nobody’s got any secrets. If one guy learns something, he brings it to everyone and it goes around in circles so that way, it helps to elevate the whole organization.”

With Graham’s strong form at Mid-Ohio and now Lundgaard’s practically dominating performance in Toronto, RLL’s spirits are…undampened, and for good reason. Perry Nelson/Lumen

Another area under development for RLL has been with its damper program. Gains made through exhaustive efforts at Indy helped the beleaguered team to acquire more pace through its damper builds, and whether it was Rahal qualifying second on the rolling Mid-Ohio road course or Lundgaard earning pole and dominating on the wickedly bumpy Toronto street circuit, the team has erased a sizable shortcoming in a short amount of time.

“The whole team has been working our damper program for some time and we are really starting to see it pay off,” Nault said before applauding the work done by former Andretti damper specialist Mike Cicciarelli who joined RLL during the offseason.

“Mike brought a lot of new understandings and new ways to look at our damper program, which helps. He’s been a big help, and with a few tweaks, we’re going from nowhere to sitting on poles and winning races.”

Nault closed by sharing his appreciation for the mercurial Dane who, thankfully, will finally shave the awful mustache he committed to wearing until he clinched his first win. Like his driver, Lundgaard’s race engineer Ben Siegel also delivered on the immense talent and promise he’s shown since joining the team in 2022.

“Obviously, Christian is a great talent, and so is Ben — a first-time race engineer with Christian last year who is really coming into strides now,” he said. “Ben does a great job of understanding what it takes and working well with Christian to give him a car that he really likes. And to be fair, I don’t think we had the fastest car out there all weekend, but the whole team played the strategy right in qualifying, and then in the race as well. Everything just fell our way, and you need that sometimes. But this result comes from all the preparation that everyone did along the way.”

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