Last Thursday, we got word that there is yet another shakeup at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Three of the top-rate engineers that had joined the team recently are leaving. Bill Pappas and John Dick were recruited away from Dale Coyne Racing after last season, while Mitch Davis is leaving after joining the team amidst much fanfare mid-season of 2013 after parting ways with Chip Ganassi Racing.
Who is taking their place? Eddie Jones – the part-time engineer on the occasional second car at Rahal will now be the sole engineer on Graham Rahal’s car. This is just the latest strange twist with a team that has a long documented history of curious moves.
Ever since Bobby Rahal formed his own team with the late Carl Hogan in 1992, there has been a rash of bad decisions and knee-jerk reactions. After winning the 1992 CART title in their first year of existence, Rahal-Hogan Racing decided to resurrect the failed Truesports chassis that was built in the US, and re-name it the RH-01. The result was that the defending CART champion failed to qualify for the 1993 Indianapolis 500. Sitting in the Miller Brewing suite on Race Day convinced Rahal that perhaps it was time to order a Lola and scrap the incredibly slow RH-01.
Did Rahal learn his lesson following that disastrous season? No. For 1994, he stayed with Lola but went with the brand-new Honda engine as the Japanese manufacturer made its debut in American open-wheel racing. Although they had tremendous success in Formula One, Honda’s debut season was anything but successful. Its underwhelming performance on the track was only exceeded by the indescribably strange sound it produced.
I attended Opening Day at IMS in 1994. After parking in the infield, it was easy to tell where the two Rahal cars were on the track as we walked toward the garage area – it was that distinctive. Rahal and teammate Mike Groff could never get their Honda-powered Lolas up to speed and had to abandon their power-plants in favor of the Ilmor-D, in order to avoid missing the race for the second year in a row.
Although Rahal returned to the Honda engine for the next week in Milwaukee, tensions were growing between Rahal and Honda. Before the season was done, Rahal announced he would be leaving Honda after only one season, and would run the Mercedes engine for 1995. This was a double mistake on Rahal’s part. First, Honda learned from their mistakes of the previous year and they came out with a vastly improved Honda engine for 1995 – one that would have won the Indianapolis 500 that year, had Scott Goodyear not passed the pace car, but did win the race at New Hampshire that season with André Ribeiro. The second mistake of Rahal’s engine choice was choosing Mercedes, the least powerful of the three engine choices that ran that season.
By the time he retired in 1998, it seemed that whenever Rahal was faced with a decision, he went the wrong way. When the top teams were going with the up and coming Reynard, Rahal stayed with Lola. As Firestone was coming on strong, Rahal opted for Goodyear. By the time Rahal finally left Mercedes and switched to Ford, the Honda that he had abandoned was the engine of choice.
In 2000, Rahal spent a short managerial stint at Jaguar’s Formula One team. That year also saw him serve as CART Commissioner in an interim capacity. When he and partner David Letterman made the permanent move to the IRL in 2004, he was ironically back with Honda – which was one of the few correct choices Rahal has made. Buddy Rice was his full-time driver and together, they won the Indianapolis 500 that year. But while most of the field was running the favored Dallara chassis, Rahal had chosen the Panoz. Midway through the 2006 season, his team moved to the Dallara but found themselves in catch-up mode for the remainder of the season.
By 2008, Rahal Letterman was down to a one-car team. One year later, they were off the grid. After a few years of one-off efforts in the Indianapolis 500, they returned as Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing with Takuma Sato as driver. They came close to winning the 2012 Indianapolis 500, before Sato spun in Turn One on the last lap. Later that season, they suffered a true blow when longtime team leader Scott Roembke lost his battle with a longtime illness. He was the one figure of stability that kept the team on course.
The past two years, Bobby’s son Graham has been in the cockpit. It did not go well in 2013. There always seemed to be an excuse. But 2014 was to be their year. They signed the National Guard in a lucrative sponsorship deal worth more than $12 million. With that money in hand, they signed a star-studded engineering staff which was to complete the puzzle. With the National Guard partnership, Bobby’s leadership, Graham’s innate driving ability and the prowess of the engineering staff – it was only a question of how many races they would win in 2014.
But a funny thing happened on the way to their championship. They never gelled. How many engineers can you have on one car? No one seemed to be on the same page, as the season went from bad to worse. There were a few bright spots, but they were interspersed among long periods of mediocre and bad results. By season’s end, there were two rookies that each missed an entire start – Mikhail Aleshin and Jack Hawksworth. Even with a DNS to their detriment, both of those rookies finished the season higher in points than Graham Rahal’s finish of nineteenth.
No one doubts that Graham Rahal can drive a race car. He proved that in his very first race in the series, when he held off Helio Castroneves to win his series debut at St. Petersburg in 2008. That may have been the worst thing to ever happen to him. He hasn’t won a race since. In fact, I’d say he has regressed as a driver every year he has been in the series – all seven of them. It can’t be the teams he’s driven for. Newman/Haas and Chip Ganassi Racing have proven they know how to win. So what’s the problem?
That may be the most intriguing question in the paddock. I think this year’s debacle may be easy to pinpoint – too many cooks in the kitchen. Mitch Davis, Bill Pappas and John Dick all have excellent reputations, but working as individuals setting up a car – not in a collaborative setting. That much talent on one car is overkill. I’ve not heard anything to support this. I’m merely speculating, but I can imagine that there were some strong disagreements among those three as to what was the best approach for their car on any given track.
It’s easy to blame Graham. He’s an easy target. He drives for his Daddy’s team, which does nothing but add to the perception that he has not earned his stripes. He constantly flaunts his playboy lifestyle on Twitter; with his various model-like girlfriends, his lavish vacations and his car collection. He can come across as arrogant at times, and he rarely ever takes the blame for his poor results.
But for this season’s dismal results, I’m blaming the team and those that run it. When news spread Thursday about the departures from RLLR; Nick Yeoman of the IMS Radio Network tweeted “…There’s just something not right with that organization.” Why would anyone think that three engineers are better than one? How many times do we see Co-Offensive Coordinators work in the NFL? Not many. They have done their driver a massive disservice. Graham was probably caught in the middle of a three-way power-play. It’s a wonder he got some of the results that he did.
Had Congress not stepped in and forced their hand, I have an idea that the National Guard would have left Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing after one season anyway. It had to have been a cluster-you-know-what behind the scenes, throughout the season.
They have their work cut out for them in 2015. They have lost their primary sponsor, and they are down to one engineer – one who was working on a part-time basis this past season. Bobby Rahal has guaranteed that they will answer the bell with one full-time car next season. Let’s hope so. The series cannot afford to lose any more cars or teams. As quirky as some of his decision making has been over the years, the sport needs the name Rahal involved. It’s good for business.