Rahal expects to focus on smaller team in '07
JOLIET, Ill. -- The IndyCar Series 2006 season ended Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in varying ways for the circuit's big-name teams.
Team Penske, of course, celebrated a championship with Sam Hornish Jr., who delivered Roger Penske his first Indy Racing League title. Ganassi Racing, though a bridesmaid to Penske in points, had a win to enjoy with Dan Wheldon and the overall satisfaction of a tremendous bounce-back season.
Andretti Green Racing could pack up its haulers for the year with the satisfaction of a late-season surge that included a rookie of the year award and a race victory for 19-year-old phenom Marco Andretti.
Then there was Rahal Letterman Racing, a team that might have been happiest of all to see the season conclude. Yet there was very little to celebrate.
From the death of Paul Dana at Homestead-Miami on the first weekend of the season through a disappointing month of May and the circus surrounding Danica Patrick's defection to AGR -- plus nothing better than fourth-place finishes on race days -- it was a trying time in every way possible.
"It was obviously a very hard year for us," co-owner Bobby Rahal said.
"There was stuff you couldn't foresee," driver Buddy Rice added.
Sunday's Peak Antifreeze Indy 300 was typical for this year, with rookie Jeff Simmons finishing eighth, while Patrick and Rice placed outside the top 10 in 12th and 13th. It was a day devoid of any buzz whatsoever for a team that used to generate plenty of headlines.
After years of success in CART, Rahal Letterman entered the IRL in 2003, won the Indianapolis 500 in 2004 with Rice, and one year later helped move open-wheel racing from the sports pages to the front page with Danica Patrick's breakthrough performance.
This year's 500 was marked by frustration as the team struggled through May with the Panoz chassis, which -- combined with a new Firestone tire compound -- had trouble finding grip on ovals. There would be no second-row qualifying effort like Patrick's in 2005, and it was a minor miracle she steered her Panoz to an eighth-place finish.
The team ditched the Panoz two races later for the Dallara chassis every other team was already using, but theirs were essentially straight out of the box and lacking many tweaks that Penske, Ganassi and others had made in previous months. The results showed.
"We were lost for a little bit. We were all just throwing our hands in the air saying 'I don't get it,'" Patrick said.
The situation improved slightly as the season continued, as Patrick was able to post fourth-place finishes at Nashville and Milwaukee and rookie Simmons continued his development with a number of top-10s late in the season. But these were footnote stories compared to Penske's and Ganassi's.
Rahal Letterman's biggest news was of the silly-season variety, with Patrick's departure for Andretti Green Racing. Rumors of a possible move to NASCAR first were the talk of the sport, then Patrick put them to rest by signing with AGR. All the while, it was tough for the team to focus on the business at hand.
Her talent might be missed in the RLR garage, but some of the distractions likely won't be.
"There's certain challenges that come with that," Rahal said. "For us, yeah, I'm disappointed that she made the choice that she made, but you know, OK, life goes on. Who knows what the final chapter will be in that whole situation?"
And who knows who will fill her seat in the No. 16, or if it will be filled at all. Patrick and Rice both drove under the Argent Mortgage sponsorship, and though Rahal said Argent is a strong possibility to return, its two cars probably will not. He sees fielding the ethanol car (Simmons is negotiating to drive it again) and one other.
"Being a three-car team has got its pluses, but there's a lot of challenges to that. I think a two-car team is a lot easier," Rahal said. "I think we'll just stay [with] two cars, maybe think about doing a third car for Indy, but only if that was properly funded and we got the right person and staff, then there's no point in just doing it. My sense is that we'll be a two-car team unless those criteria are met."
Rahal also vows that his focus as a car owner will continue to be with the Indy Racing League. His 17-year-old son, Graham, has been sensational in the Champ Car Atlantic series with five wins as a rookie, and not surprisingly Bobby spent time in person watching, even as his Indy cars were on the track elsewhere.
Graham might land a Champ Car ride for next season and continue to use that circuit as a steppingstone for his goal of racing Formula One.
"His career is a totally separate issue for the racing team. I didn't have this racing team just to give my son a job, so my view is he wants to try to get to Formula One one day, I think Champ Car might be the best way of doing that. But it's really his choice. There's interest, and for him it's a great opportunity," Rahal said. "Maybe we'll think about Indy, but if he goes to drive for a team over there, that's his priority and his responsibility.
"Our commitment is to win races here. We have ethanol [sponsorship] for a number of years more, and we're working on some new sponsors. Those obligations and responsibilities are important to me. That's the priority."
Rahal also said Rice is a possibility to return to the cockpit. He is certain that RLR can do what Andretti Green did in 2004-05 and Penske and Ganassi did this year, figuring out their cars and contending for wins each time.
"We brought some new people in, we're bringing some more people in, we just have to be smart in what we do," Rahal said. "It's not rocket science; it's close, maybe, but we've had the resources. We'll just make sure we direct them in the right way.
"I think we're making progress."
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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