- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Rahal Letterman Racing found life in the IndyCar Series tougher than it expected when it arrived on a full-time basis in 2003. But the team took two steps forward in 2004, becoming a regular contender for race wins, and now the pressure is there to take on front-runners Andretti Green Racing, Penske Racing and Ganassi Racing in the fight for the series championship.
For 2005, that means ramping up to three cars on a full-time basis, with female phenom Danica Patrick joining Vitor Meira and Indianapolis 500 champion Buddy Rice. Chief operating officer Scott Roembke is the man charged with making it all work.
"Certainly it's a big undertaking to run three cars," Roembke said. "We did it at Indianapolis and Motegi last year, but doing it for the full year is a whole different commitment on all levels -- personnel, resources, financial, equipment. But it has been a lot calmer over the winter putting it together because we had our plan early.
"A year ago, we still had one car in Atlantics and one car in CART and one car in the IRL, and we were trying to figure out where we were going to go three different ways," he said. "We've known since October exactly what our plan is for this year; everyone has been on the same piece of rope; and it's really been a very good offseason getting prepared."
The first quarter of calendar year 2004 was definitely turbulent for the RLR organization -- and that was just on the IndyCar side. The team's sole 2003 driver, Kenny Brack, was out of commission while recovering from severe injuries suffered in the '03 season finale at Texas Motor Speedway.
Rice was brought in as a temporary replacement, but within two races he had shown enough speed and flair to cement a long-term contract. With Brack's recovery schedule uncertain -- he's still sidelined indefinitely -- Meira was signed as the second shoe for the short term. But much like Rice, the Brazilian proved he merited a full-time shot.
"We were really disappointed with our performance in the IRL in 2003 because we had Michel Jourdain over in Champ Car at that point knocking it out of the park, having a great year and making his run," Roembke recalled. "We felt half the team was operating at a high level and the other half wasn't. Going into 2004, whether we stayed in CART or not, we made a lot of changes to the IRL program because we weren't satisfied with '03, and a lot of those panned out.
"We changed chassis and personnel and moved some things around. Yes, we were better last year, though I don't know which of those things caused it. But we expected to be and we needed to be because we stunk the place up in '03. We were a single car team and we tried very hard, but we maybe underestimated the depth of the pool in the IRL at that point and didn't have a good year at all."
Aided by Honda's superior powerplant, Rice served notice by claiming the pole in the 2004 season opener at Homestead before quietly dominating the month of May at Indianapolis. He added victories at Michigan International Speedway and Kansas Speedway, the latter in a thrilling 1-2 photo finish with teammate Meira.
But Rice's championship challenge faded down the stretch, and the American ace had a lucky escape when his Panoz/Honda got airborne at Chicagoland Speedway in an incident eerily reminiscent of Brack's crash from a year before.
"I'm sure we surprised some people in '04," Roembke said. "Now we've got to keep the momentum going. If you want to play in the big leagues, with the good teams like the Penskes and the Ganassis and the Andretti Greens, they're competitive every year. At Rahal Letterman, we've won a race or two for the last seven years, but what we want to do is win more than a race or two. We want to be competitive for the championship.
"We're gearing up this year to win the championship, and it'll be disappointing if we don't have an opportunity to do that. We need to carry the momentum. Some people see adding a car as an excuse for us to take a step back, but we're looking at it as something that will make the other two cars better."
Meira did everything but win a race in 2004, and with the security of a full-time ride for the first time in his IndyCar Series career, he is likely to score his breakthrough triumph this year. But most of the hype surrounds Patrick, who ran very well in the Homestead road course and oval tests before being shuffled to the back of the pack on the tougher Phoenix oval. Roembke sees good things ahead for both in '05.
"We didn't have any glaring weaknesses; we just want to be a little more consistent and to get all three cars a little closer together and running at the sharp end of the grid," he said. "I don't know that we gave Vitor consistent enough pit stops. We dropped the ball a couple of times for him, and he had to come from the back. We want to clean those up, and our target is to complete every lap.
"As for Danica, we want to control expectations, but she is here because she is a young, American race driver -- not because she's a young American race driver girl," he said.
"A few years ago, Bobby Rahal decided he was going to pick a driver to mentor, and she had credentials. OK, being a girl is helpful in some areas, but it's going to bring her a lot of pressure and other things. Sarah Fisher had some success in this league, and Danica is going to be compared to that. Sarah led races, she sat on a pole. She never won, but she made the podium and that's what Danica is going to be compared to.
"But I think Danica is prepared for it. Our job as a team is to give her the platform to run up front and to succeed, and to try to control and protect her from what I call the circus element. In the end, the only thing that's going to make all this work is for her to be competitive, and that's our goal. We want her to run up front."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
After Buddy Rice's breakout year in 2004, the sky appears to be the limit for this growing operation.