More Turmoil At Rahal Letterman Lanigan

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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.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “More Turmoil At Rahal Letterman Lanigan”

  1. Phil Kaiser Says:

    George, why is it that year after year folks (especially bloggers and guys named “Miller”) keep insisting that IndyCar “needs” names like Andretti and Rahal to survive? I don’t get that point of view. I lived in Maine for 10 years and those people didn’t even know who AJ Foyt is, much less Mario Andretti! I was at a Firestone event with Mario in Ellsworth and there weren’t 25 people there! Mario Andretti! It was great for me because we had time to chat, and it was fantastic! However, I was at a Tony Stewart signing at another time in Bangor and the line was down the street and around the corner and they had to cut the line off at a certain point.

    Now, do commentators say this every year because Andretti and Rahal are young, and IndyCar can only keep going year after year with younger drivers coming in and if their names are Andretti and Rahal all the better? Possibly, but I don’t get that either because look at a guy like Aleshin, whoever heard of him (outside the true fanatics) before 2014’s IndyCar season? Or someone like Sage Karem? These guys were quick at Indy right off the bat (sorry it’s the world’s biggest stage and hogs all the attention ‘Dog, but it matters, lol) and were consistently good with the Media and the fans. Aleshin was great all season long and was certainly embraced by the fans if the outpouring of concern following his accident a few weeks ago is any indication.

    My point is IndyCar doesn’t need any “name” to survive, IndyCar (through the Indianapolis 500 primarily) MAKES the names! Just ask ol’ AJ himself! In my humble opinion what IndyCar truly needs to survive is great competition (it has), compelling personalities, whatever their name (it has) and a PR department who knows the difference between s#%t and shinola (it never has)!

    Thanks again George for doing your thing here and putting up with opinionated %$^#*&+$ like me!

    Phil Kaiser
    Indianapolis

    • I fear that the way this desire for “names” gets cited by bloggers – and writers named “Miller” – comes across too often as putting the cart before the horse. **Accomplishment** is what makes names, and while there’s tons of accomplishment in Indycar (Helio’s wins at Indianapolis, Dario’s, Dixon’s, and TK’s record, and gosh, just start naming drivers who’ve been around for a while…), it just doesn’t seem to get noticed. Which bugs people, those bloggers, Mr. Miller, and myself included.

      So given that current names don’t get the recognition they’ve frankly earned, people hope that future accomplishments will be noticed in the same manner that past ones did. And it’s in THAT context that I see Rahal’s and Andretti’s name cited: As potential for the future that harkens towards the past. The presumption appears to be that accomplishment plus recognition equals a higher profile.

      It’s not that logical a presumption, unfortunately, but it’s an understandable one.

      I don’t see name “pimping” as being a solution to Indycar’s relative lack of popularity – especially since I fully believe in what I said above about accomplishment being first – but many, MANY others do. Which is why this gets discussed.

      • When you chide “bloggers” for lauding the names of Andretti and Rahal, I’m hoping you don’t put me in that category. I’ve done nothing but bring both of the young namesakes to task over the years, for doing very little to earn the stripes to live upto their names. In the meantime, I’ve devoted much ink (bandwidth?) to the accomplishments of Helio, Kanaan, Dixon, Franchitti, Wheldon, etc; while also giving credit to the newcomers like Newgarden, Hinchcliffe and Pagenaud that have made their way into the series on their own.

  2. Ah yes. The year Bobby Rahal missed the Indy 500. That year will always stick out in my mind. Going up the day before the race, dozens of people had somehow acquired the Budweiser (I believe) cardboard Bobby Rahal full size body ad used in the store to advertise the beer. They all added a sign in Bobby’s hand saying “Need Tickets”. They were all over the place. Outside peoples campers. By their chairs along the street as the fans approached the speedway. Still one of the funniest things I’ve seen up there.

    Classic!

    • billytheskink Says:

      My father was at Indy in 93 and likes to tell the story about walking into a convenience store the day before the race and seeing a cardboard Rahal next to a Miller display with a paper sack placed over its head.

      Very funny indeed, and I was a Bobby Rahal fan.

    • My uncle who lived in Broad Ripple had one on his front porch the day of the race. Those things were everywhere.

  3. John Henninger Says:

    Yes, Bobby has made a few bizarre moves over the years, but I think hiring Graham was a mistake as well. I was a big supporter of Graham when he started racing in Champ Car. He seemed to have a handle on his race craft and his future looked bright. But over the years, he seems to care more about his lifestyle than racing a car. Bobby would be better off hiring a driver that is hungry to race and not tweeting the world that he is late for his girlfriends race or event.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Consider these numbers from the 4 driver seasons (Sato 12, Rahal and Jakes 13, Rahal 14) that RLL has contested since returning to Indycar full-time. I use starting position percentile because qualifying results are a decent indicator of the sheer pace capable of a driver and team and the number of cars competing must be accounted for.

    Driver A – avg. start behind 56.9% of the field
    Driver B – avg. start behind 62.5% of the field
    Driver C – avg. start behind 66.2% of the field
    Driver D – avg. start behind 70.8% of the field

    The first thing worth noting is that none of these numbers are very good. RLL has all of 7 top 6 starts over the past 3 years.
    Driver C is 2012 500 near-winner Takuma Sato.
    Driver A? The 2013 edition of James Jakes.
    Drivers B and D are the 2014 and 2013 Graham Rahal respectively.

    Graham Rahal’s average start percentile over the years:
    2007 – 44.1% (Newman-Haas, Champcar)
    2008 – 46.1% (Newman-Haas, Indycar transition)
    2009 – 25.7% (Newman-Haas, 2 poles)
    2010 – 61.9% (part-time, largely for Sarah Fisher)
    2011 – 41.8% (Ganassi)
    2012 – 47.7% (Ganassi)

    Not to absolve Graham of all of the blame for his lack of pace over the past two years, but he was significantly faster at every other full-time team he has driven for. That suggests problems outside the cockpit. Kudos, George, for not laying into Graham, Indycar’s most popular punching bag, at the expense of discussing what ails Bobby Rahal’s team as a whole. I might quibble with the argument that Rahal made poor choices when switching to Mercedes and Ford, as his team was consistently one of CART’s 4-5 best from 1995-2003, but you may well be right that the problems with RLL stem from the top.

    • Outstanding analysis, ‘skinky. That stuff is my jam.

      Like you, I hesitate to lay much of the blame at Graham’s feet. Basically nobody has looked all that capable of showing more than a flash or two of brilliance in a Rahal/RL/RLL car since, well, probably 2004, when they had a pretty significant advantage in the engine department. In fact, I remember back just after the 24 Hours of Daytona this last year, some in depth analysis of all of the RLL BMW drivers showed that Graham was among the fastest over a single lap. No mean feat, given Graham’s limited time in the car and the company he was being compared to (BMW factory drivers, all: Bill Auberlen, Andy Priaulx, Joey Hand, Jorg Muller, etc., and all of whom have months or years of experience in BMW GT cars). In my opinion, the speed is in there, it’s a matter of putting a consistently quick machine under him. Here’s hoping we get to see that happen someday…

  5. Savage Henry Says:

    RLL did give us my favorite moment of the season – at Mid-Ohio when Graham said “will you please let me drive the car, Dad?” over the radio. Not quite Kimi, but pretty good. I wonder if that provides some insight into the team dynamics

  6. They left Columbus. Move back to Ohio and results will follow!

  7. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Long-term success starts at the top. No team will succeed from the talent end for very long without good management providing a stable platform to succeed. Between some bad luck and some bad decisions, RLL has had some tough times in recent years, but with the relatively smaller size of the organizations (teams), I’d lay heaviest responsibility for success with management.

  8. Team Rahal and Rahal/Letterman Racing have been good teams owned by Bobby Rahal. He knows how to be successful as a team owner. I like his team. It was great to see them get close to winning the Indy 500 again in the not-so-distant past with one-off driver Bertrand Baguette and full-season driver Takuma Sato upon their full-time comeback. Yet, to this day, Buddy Rice’s 2004 victory remains the team’s only Indy 500 crown. For some time now, they have Mike Lanigan on board as the 3rd co-owner. He formerly co-owned Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing and Newman/Haas/Lanigan. Both of those teams are gone now. I have no idea on the extent of Lanigan’s involvement in the former team but he wasn’t involved much in the day-to-day operations of the latter, which I guess is the case with Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan, too. That’s why the problem of the team probably does not involve him, in spite of the track record of what happened with the teams he previously co-owned, and that Rahal/Letterman was a race-winning outfit before.

    When Graham Rahal was in the lead in the Sonoma race this year and he was slowly running out of fuel, the TV broadcast played a soundbite of radio communication between his crew chief, his dad Bobby, and him, and Bobby said “It’s all for naught” because they needed fuel. This irritated Graham so much that he clipped the chicane immediately afterwards (!)

    So my suggestion would be that Graham’s dad should not be his crew chief. Having your dad call your races is maybe not the best thing to do. I was hoping Bobby would let one of the engineers do this next season. But now, they are out of the picture. Here’s hoping somebody tells Bobby, and he hires a different crew chief for next season – if Graham is the driver and he does not need to rely on a pay driver. Then, of course, he could be the crew chief himself again. Does Luca Filippi have a sponsorship package together for next year maybe?

    I hope this team will compete full-time again in 2015 and become a regular winner again, like they have been in the 90s and 00s.

  9. shutterspeeder Says:

    Mike Lanigan is the cancer here. Everything that guy touches in racing, self destructs. He is an underhanded and dirty business operator, and nothing but a complete failure. All of his races have died. His was a loser team forever, so he bought into one of the all time greats and they are now buried. And now the same with Rahal. Whenever someone gets into a deal with this guy, the team goes down the tubes. One of his top guys, Chuck Kosich…same thing. He surrounds himself with people just like him and eventually, they just self destruct from their arrogance and the way they treat people. Personally, knowing what I know about the guy…I am glad to see him failing so miserably. Couldn’t happen to a better guy.

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