- John Schwarb
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SPARTA, Ky. -- As if there had not been enough learning experiences already in a long maiden IndyCar Series season, Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing was in class again Saturday at Kentucky Speedway.
Except this was a lesson the team could have lived without: how to change a gearbox in the middle of a race.
Teammates Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson suffered the same problem at the Meijer Indy 300, ending their days early on the 1.5-mile oval. Rahal, despite making progress early in the race by moving up a half-dozen spots from a starting 19th, dropped out on Lap 24. He reported a loss of fifth gear, and the team was forced to change the gearbox behind the wall. Rahal returned to the track but could turn only four more laps before retiring and finishing 25th in the 26-car field.
Not long after the No. 06 called it a day, Wilson followed with the same problem. The No. 02 team also changed the gearbox, but Wilson couldn't return and finished 24th.
"We felt like we had such a good car, we moved up so quickly, we surprised ourselves," Rahal said. "I felt very racy, but it's unfortunate. It's all part of the learning process, but this type of thing hasn't gotten us all year, so to have it now is pretty surprising."
Yet it's been that kind of year for the marquee transition team from the defunct Champ Car World Series. There were no illusions of instant success in the IndyCar Series, but this much trouble?
At Kentucky, the carnage started days before race day. Last week Wilson crashed the team's only backup car in a test session.
"It was quite an interesting test, all 10 laps of it," Wilson said wistfully, noting that the team found 2 mph more speed than expected but those gains were lost with the car.
In the midst of this busy unified season, including a brutal six-week stretch of consecutive races from late June through July, transition teams like NHLR haven't had the luxury of easing into their new situation. There's been little time and less equipment to go around, with chassis and parts in short supply with the influx of new teams and the carnage of a season.
"I'm not going to say we're caught up, we don't have a spare car," Rahal said. "Finally, we get a third car, now we're back down to two. We won't have a spare car for the rest of the year. That puts a little pressure on you."
The adventure of a season on unfamiliar tracks has added to the pressure, especially with the oval tracks. Wilson and Rahal, 16th and 17th respectively in series points, have only one top-10 between them on ovals (Rahal's 10th at Iowa), and there have been plenty of incidents along the way.
Wilson crashed out at Texas, Rahal crashed at Milwaukee and Richmond and couldn't start the season opener at Homestead-Miami after a practice crash. Both wrecked at the Indianapolis 500, though both showed strength at the 2.5-mile oval by qualifying in the top half of the field.
Predictably, at other ovals they just haven't been that fast.
"The one-and-a-half miles have all been tough to figure," Rahal said. "What is the speed secret? What do you have to do to go quick on these? It seems so simple, yet it's so hard. It's been quite a challenge for us to try to figure out what is quick and what does work. Some things that we thought would work don't. It's just a matter of finding out how to make it all work together."
"We thought we would be better," Wilson added, "but you can't take anything from the guys who have been doing this for a number of years. Penske, Ganassi, AGR, Panther, they know what they're doing. They're not dummies. You can't just come in here and show them how to do what they specialize in. Without that car situation, we could be right in the middle. I feel like we've achieved a lot this year."
Rahal made national headlines in his first IndyCar start (the season's second) at St. Petersburg, as he became the youngest driver to win a major open-wheel race at just 19 years, 3 months of age. Wilson stood on the podium for the first time two weeks ago at Edmonton.
But not every road course has been kind to both of them. Take Edmonton for Rahal, as he was hit twice by fellow series rookies -- on the opening lap by Mario Moraes and later by E.J. Viso -- and had to end his day early in a car with new sponsors.
"That was a frustrating one. We ran OK that weekend, we qualified eighth, we felt we were pretty competitive," Rahal said. "It's one of those things. You run around with some of these guys and you're asking for trouble, and unfortunately we need to be even further up to be with the guys that you're not going to get into that -- the TKs [Tony Kanaan], the [Scott] Dixons, the [Dan] Wheldons of the world. Those are the guys that you want to be racing with. Unfortunately we're not quite to that level."
That won't change over the season's final three races, on the road course at Sonoma, Calif., the streets of Belle Isle in Detroit and another 1.5-mile oval at Chicagoland. In a way, they can't come and go fast enough.
"Everybody's glad there's only a few races left, that's for sure," Rahal said. "I'm looking forward to racing at a lot of these new tracks, but I'm also looking forward to it being over. We need time to get back to the shop, just there and not even testing -- just figuring out all the little tricks, all the little details on these things to make them go fast.
"When you're racing every weekend, you don't have the time or the freedom to do those things. We need some time."
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.