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Midway through its second decade of competition, Rahal Letterman Lanigan, the Hilliard, Ohio based open-wheel racing team, has carved a niche as one of the leading open-wheel racing teams in North America. The growth of the team from its origins as a single-car entry to a multi-car team over a number of racing series has been a testament to the leadership and vision of its founder Bobby Rahal.
Following the 1991 season, open-wheel racing legend Bobby Rahal realized his dream of team ownership when he partnered with Carl Hogan to purchase the assets of Patrick Racing to establish Rahal/Hogan Racing. The single car operation (Chevy/Lola) sported sponsorship by Miller Genuine Draft, with Rahal serving in the dual role as driver and owner in 1992. Victory came quickly as the team won in just its second race (Phoenix). It was the first of four wins in 1992, which propelled Rahal/Hogan Racing to the 1992 CART Championship. By scoring the title, Rahal became the first driver/owner in Champ Car history to win a championship – a feat that remains unmatched to this day.
In 1993 and 1994, the team was involved in aggressive chassis (RH01) and engine (Honda 1994) development programs while growing into a two-car operation with driver Mike Groff. The team set in motion a partnership that would change the face of American open-wheel racing in1994 when it introduced Honda into Indy Car racing, although it was a move that would not pay off for neither Honda nor the team for another few seasons.
The team in its present form was founded following the 1995 season when racing enthusiast David Letterman joined Rahal as a co-owner in Team Rahal. The name would later change (2004) to reflect Letterman’s extensive involvement in the team. Raul Boesel joined Bobby in the two-car operation in ‘95 and ran a full season in a Duracell-sponsored entry as both cars carried Mercedes powerplants.
Bryan Herta joined the team for the 1996 season and sparked the revival of the team’s fortunes. Herta would score six poles and a pair of victories in his time with the team while Rahal continued to be a factor each and every weekend.
At the end of the 1997 season, Rahal announced his intention to retire from competitive driving after the 1998 season. Longtime team sponsor Miller Brewing launched a yearlong celebration of Bobby Rahal’s career, “Rahal’s Last Ride.” In his final campaign, Rahal continued to exhibit the traits that made him one of the legends of the sport, posting a tenth place finish in the season standings, marking the 16th time in his 17 seasons that he finished in the top-10 in the final standings. A two-time driver of the year, Rahal retired from Champ Car racing as the series’ all-time leading money winner and among the leaders in every statistical category.
Herta posted victories for Team Rahal in 1998 and 1999 at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, CA. Both times Herta won in a dominating fashion, capturing his victories from the pole. His triumphs came on a track where Rahal himself had won on four consecutive occasions earlier in his storied career.
Effervescent Italian Max Papis replaced team owner Rahal as a driver upon Rahal’s retirement in 1998. In his first season with Team Rahal, Papis posted a breakout campaign finishing fifth in the series championship and notching 11 top-five finishes. He captured his first Champ Car victory in the 2000 season opener at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Kenny Brack, the 1998 champion of the Indy Racing League and 1999 winner of the Indianapolis 500, joined the team in 2000 and led the Champ Car series in top-five results (9) en route to capturing Rookie of the Year honors.
The 2001 season was one of dominance for Team Rahal. The team amassed a series-high six wins and finished second on three other occasions. Brack and Papis combined to lead a series-best 843 laps and earned seven pole positions. The two cars were consistently atop the leader board and in the winner’s circle, and both cars finished among the top-six in the championship. Brack finished second overall, the highest finish for a Team Rahal driver since Bobby Rahal won the series title in 1992. Brack was a force in nearly every event that season, winning a series-best four races (Japan, Milwaukee, Chicago, Germany), six pole positions, and leading 621 laps.
The 2002 season brought new faces and new partners to Team Rahal. Champ Car veteran and 1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser joined the team, taking a leadership role helping the team end a six-year absence from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when it announced an entry in the Indianapolis 500, where Vasser served as the driver of the Miller Lite car. Teaming with Vasser on the Champ Car program was the Michel Jourdain Jr., who piloted an entry for Mexican retail chain Gigante and Office Depot of Mexico.
Vasser suffered through a frustrating first half of 2002 highlighted by capturing the pole and finishing second at the Grand Prix of Long Beach. Vasser showed his trademark cool and rebuilt his season, posting nine straight points-paying finishes highlighted by a win at California Speedway where his average speed of 197.995 mph set a record for an American open-wheel race, en route to a seventh place finish in the championship.
For Jourdain, the 2002 season was a breakout year and his chance to shine. The 26-year-old posted a remarkable 17 consecutive points-paying results, breaking the team record of ten straight set by Bobby Rahal himself. Jourdain established career highs in points, top-five and top-ten results and laps led.
Rising open-wheel star Danica Patrick joined Team Rahal in 2002, signing a multi-year driving contract with the team in June. Patrick’s signing was announced in conjunction with the introduction of Team Rahal’s Toyota Atlantic program for the 2003 season. Patrick ran five Barber Dodge Pro Series events in 2002, bringing home three top-seven finishes including a season best fourth at Vancouver.
As the 2003 season approached, Team Rahal announced the formation of a full-time IRL IndyCar Series program. Kenny Brack returned to the team after a one-year hiatus. That year, Team Rahal ran full season single car efforts in the Champ Car World Series (Jourdain), the Toyota Atlantic Championship (Patrick) and the Indy Racing League’s IndyCar Series (Brack). Team Rahal was the only team in racing to compete in all three series.
In the Champ Car World Series, Michel Jourdain Jr. emerged as a championship contender and the most consistent driver in the series. Jourdain won twice (Milwaukee and Montreal) and was in position to win several other races in earning a third-place finish in the championship. For the second consecutive season, Jourdain led the series in laps completed and miles logged.
Kenny Brack’s return to the Indy Racing League was marked by series of ups and downs as the first year program came to grips with the new-look IndyCar Series, which was now populated with former Champ Car teams. Team Rahal fielded two cars for the Indianapolis 500 in May with Brack and Vasser. Brack collected five top-five results, including a second-place result at Twin Ring Motegi in April, on his way to finishing ninth in the season championship. In the season finale Brack appeared to be headed for victory when he was involved in a horrific accident at the Texas Motor Speedway. Brack suffered numerous serious injuries and endured a lengthy rehabilitation, but made a complete recovery.
Danica Patrick collected a podium result in her first race in Toyota Atlantics (3rd) at Monterrey, Mexico. The rising open-wheel star endured a steep learning curve in the competitive Atlantic series, piloting the Argent Mortgage Company car to sixth in the season championship highlighted by a second-place finish in the season finale at Miami.
As Team Rahal approached the 2004 season, the team moved to take a more focused approach to fielding cars in multiple series. In March, Team Rahal announced it was ceasing operation of its long running Champ Car program to focus on an expanded effort in the Indy Racing League.
Unaffected by the change was the team’s second year Toyota Atlantic Championship program which featured Patrick in her second full season with the team and 18-year-old rookie Chris Festa of Atlanta, Georgia.
Several notable changes marked the start of the 2004 season for the team. Primarily, the name of the team changed to Rahal Letterman Racing. It marked the first change in the team’s name since 1996 when Rahal and David Letterman had forged their partnership. Rahal himself initiated the name change indicating that the moniker Team Rahal didn’t properly reflect Letterman’s extensive involvement in the team.
IndyCar veteran and former Atlantic champion Buddy Rice of Phoenix, Ariz., accepted the role of Brack’s replacement as the 2004 season began. Rice, who had previously signed a driver development contract with the team in 2001, rewarded the team’s faith in him with an exceptional season that included five poles and three victories en route to a third place finish in the IndyCar championship.
Rahal Letterman Racing’s crowning accomplishment in 2004 came in the form of a dominating month of May in Indianapolis. Rice won the pole position, the Rahal Letterman Racing pit crew won the pit stop competition and Rice won the Indianapolis 500. The victory was the first Indy 500 triumph for the team and it made Bobby Rahal one of only three men to win the Indianapolis 500 as a driver and as a car owner (A.J. Foyt and Parnelli Jones).
The team’s expansion to a second IndyCar entry came when Vitor Meira of Brazil joined the team at Motegi. Meira and Rice would comprise one of the most prolific driver combinations in the paddock. Meira finished eighth in the championship despite running two fewer events than every other driver in the top-ten. Meira pocketed a pair of second-place results including a tight race in Kansas when he finished .0051 seconds behind Rice. It was the second closest finish in IndyCar Series history and it was the second 1-2 finish for Rahal Letterman Racing. In six of the 14 races he ran, Meira posted the fastest race lap.
The team gained valuable experience in the operation of a three-car program by running a third entry at Indianapolis with 23 year-old Roger Yasukawa. In two races (Motegi and Indianapolis) with Rahal Letterman Racing, Yasukawa posted a pair of solid runs topped by a tenth place finish at Indy.
Patrick showcased her skills in the Atlantic championship finishing third overall and crafting a consistent and championship caliber run. She posted three podium results and collected a pole position (Portland) en route to finishing third in the series. She posted ten top-five results in twelve races and she became the first female in open-wheel racing history to lead a championship. Festa finished eighth in the championship in his first full-season of the Atlantic championship. In December of 2004, the announcement of the full-time three-car effort was made with Patrick officially moving to the IRL IndyCar Series to join Rice and Meira.
The 2005 season saw Rice suffer through his most difficult IndyCar campaign, finishing 15th overall. Rice scored podium results by placing third at Motegi and second at Infineon, but he missed a chance to defend his Indy 500 crown when he was sidelined with partially torn neck ligaments after an accident at practice at Indianapolis. The accident created room for Kenny Brack to join RLR for a third stint and the Swede capped a remarkable comeback by posting the fastest qualifying time of anyone for the 89th Indianapolis 500. Brack finished twenty-sixth, in the climax of a remarkable return to the sport after his debilitating Texas crash.
Vitor Meira showed his breakout season of 2004 was no fluke with a stellar run in 2005. The Brazilian posted seven top-five results and four podium finishes in carding a seventh-place finish in the championship. Meira finished second in three events including the Indianapolis 500 and posted the team’s highest finish in 12 of the 16 events.
The headlines belonged to Danica Patrick in 2005. The 23-year-old became the face of the IndyCar Series as she parlayed her on track success into international fame. Patrick won three pole positions and claimed six top-ten results in 16 races en route to the IRL Rookie of the Year. She made her mark in the month of May by dominating the headlines of Indianapolis and nearly winning the pole. Patrick became the first woman to ever lead the Indy 500, leading 19 laps, and finished a strong fourth. So great was the attention focused on the RLR rookie, that the media frenzy spawned its own name and became known as Danica-Mania.
The start of the 2006 season was darkened for all when rookie Paul Dana was tragically killed in a practice accident on March 26th at Homestead. Dana had joined the Rahal Letterman Racing in the off-season bringing the sponsorship of Ethanol group to RLR for the team’s third entry. The team sat out the Homestead event out of respect to Dana, and was never able to regain its footing Indy Pro Series standout Jeff Simmons was named as a replacement and made his debut at Twin Ring Motegi in late-April. Simmons teamed with Buddy Rice and Danica Patrick to form RLR’s three-car program, which went without a podium finish for the first time in its 15-year history
The team rebounded in 2007, as Simmons was joined by veteran Scott Sharp. Sharp finished eighth in the series standings and brought the team its first pole position in two years by leading qualifying in Texas. The team scored a pair of podium finishes and brought some new blood into the operation in July when it replaced Simmons with highly-respected American driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, who immediately scored a top-10 finish in his first start en route to winning the series’ Rookie-of-the-Year award.
Hunter-Reay turned in a solid 2008 campaign for the team, finishing eighth in the Indy Car standings on the strength of nine top-10 finishes. He made a great late-race pass of Darren Manning to carry the #17 car to Victory Lane at Watkins Glen and his stellar sixth-place run at Indy earned him the Indianapolis 500 Rookie-of-the-Year Award. He was joined at Indy by British rookie Alex Lloyd.
The team downsized its Indy Car program in 2009 and 2010, but fielded strong entries at the Indy 500 for Oriol Servia (2009) and Graham Rahal (2010). Graham qualified a strong seventh in 2010 and finished on the lead lap at Indy for the first time in his young career. But as the Indy program lessened, a new program in the American Le Mans Series flourished. Teaming with BMW North America, the team fielded a pair of BMW M3s in the ALMS GT Class.
The team scored its first win for BMW in 2009 at Road America, then backed that up by defending their title in 2010. The 2010 season was a banner one for the ALMS program as the two-car squad of Joey Hand, Bill Auberlen, Tom Milner Jr. and Dirk Mueller put at least one car on the podium in eight of the year’s nine races and won the coveted Team and Manufacturers Championships.
The team did not let up in 2011 as the newly-built M3s dominated the Mobil 12 Hours of Sebring. Hand, Muller and Andy Priaulx won the American endurance classic, while Auberlen, Dirk Werner and Agusto Farfus finished second. The win was the team’s first at Sebring and the first under its new moniker of Rahal Letterman Lanigan, as construction equipment kingpin Mike Lanigan joined the team as a co-owner.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has amassed one series championship (1992), one Indy 500 victory (2004), 22 wins and 31 pole positions in 19 seasons of racing.
The 65-member, Hilliard, Ohio-based team operates from the Team Rahal headquarters, a nearly 60,000 square foot racing campus in suburban-Columbus, Ohio. It is from this state of the art facility that RLLR continues to function as one of the leading entities in open-wheel racing.