- photo by Dan R. Boyd/LAT
Hello again. I’m writing this on Saturday night and we’ve just qualified the No. 02 McDonald’s car fourth for the world’s biggest race!
The run up to qualifying was not easy, but throughout, I knew that Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing had given me a quick car. We just didn’t get a chance to show it all the time, but the signs were there if you looked hard enough. For example, on the Thursday before Pole Day, no one outside the team seemed to notice this, but my quickest speed, a 222.996mph which eventually put us ninth quickest, was my first flying lap after coming out of the pits! Unfortunately the No. 02 McDonald’s car then broke a gearbox, otherwise we’d have been much higher up. I reckon we’d have done a 224, maybe even a 225, which would have put us in the top three, but we just never really got to do a run. We only did 40 laps all day but kept having problems.
Then on Friday we were 11th, so again we looked okay but nothing threatening the front row; it felt like we needed to do some more trimming out. I couldn’t put my finger on the problem exactly, but the No. 02 car just felt like it had a little too much drag for the straights. I was also running slightly conservatively, because in the back of my mind I knew that my teammate Robert Doornbos had crashed and he was going to be using the back-up car.
But on Saturday the car felt good – and although Doornbos crashed the back-up car as well, we knew we just had to put that out of our minds for four laps. We did and took sixth with our first run. Now, bearing in mind we had no back up car, people were surprised to see us heading out for another go but what they didn’t know was that we had to. The people in tech were being a bit iffy about a part that we’ve been running everywhere, so that was slightly weird. They hadn’t failed us but it was an issue that needed smoothing out.
Then right before that second run, at about 4.50p.m., the gearbox quit. I don’t know if something got too hot, or what the hell happened, but the damn thing broke! The McDonald’s crew did an amazing job to fit a new one in pitlane, and off we went and got fourth. I’m not just happy for me but for the crew. I mean, how many other teams could have changed the ’box not just in the time available, but so that it worked straight away? Awesome effort all 'round.
- Rahal heads for fourth on the grid for only his second Indy 500 start. (Photo by Walt Kuhn/LAT)
Now compare how the Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing team performed at this track last year, and you start to appreciate the huge progress that we made over the winter. To make that kind of progress, to make that kind of gain on teams like Penske and Ganassi really shows the strength and depth of this outfit. The car feels really secure under me, and of course I feel more comfortable with a year’s experience under my belt.
The signs were there, though, if you look at our performance in Kansas. I know everyone was saying that Kansas has no bearing on Indy because the tracks are so different, but I never agreed. I always thought Kansas was a good indication of things to come at Indy. I mean, just to point out the obvious, last year Scott Dixon was on pole in Kansas and on pole at Indy. If you’re fast on an oval, you’re fast on an oval – plain and simple. People can say what they want, but truthfully the ovals are all going to be the same. If you’re good on any oval, you’re going to be good at Indy. And we’ve just proven that.
I guess I better recap a bit, because my last RACER column was written just before Long Beach race, and obviously that was a frustrating event for us. I wasn’t happy with just seventh on the grid after getting pole at St. Pete, but then what happened in the race with that bad pit stop and then the penalty is doubly frustrating, because we’d gotten ourselves into the top three. It was only a little mistake, but it had big consequences. I feel we have a good shot at this championship, and in order to do that, we can’t make mistakes.
I reckon we had saved as much fuel as anyone else, so without the problem I’d say a top three finish was definitely in the cards for us. I don’t know if we had the pace of Dario, and the way the cards fell with the full-course yellows, he was also pretty lucky that day. But I think we’d have been close. Without doubt, we can be winners on road and street courses this year; we’re at the stage where just a little fine-tuning to improve our race pace will put us right there, every time.
- The No. 02's pole position at Kansas was Rahal's first on an oval. Photo by Paul Webb/LAT
Kansas had different emotions for me, and in fact they varied over the weekend. In practice, we didn’t get many laps completed which was disappointing so we went into qualifying not really knowing where we were. But when the team told me what my teammate Robert had done on his qualifying run, I was thinking to myself, “Well, if he’s done that, we can go quicker.” That was my mindset. Then the team told me my warm-up lap needed to be faster, so, sure enough, it was hugely fast compared to everybody else’s and then we put four smoking laps on the board: it was great. In a way, that pole meant more to me than St. Pete, because for us to achieve that on an oval was tremendous. The amount of effort it takes for the team to get up to speed on an oval is huge.
In the race, I was struggling with understeer pretty badly, and at first my theory – which seemed pretty logical at the time – was that if I tried the high line, all that would happen would be that I had less room to understeer to. So I didn’t try it… But then when I did, I found the car didn’t understeer at all! So I guess that’s a lesson learned and next time I’ll be more proactive in trying that, for sure. As a result of that, we really picked people off. I had a killer restart going after the final yellow – so good that I thought I could pass three or four cars, but I got chopped on the low line, and ended up losing momentum and a place. But our car’s pace and discovering the high line got us back up to seventh. By then, Marco and Danica were too far ahead to catch before the checker.
- Leading teammate Robert Doornbos at Long Beach. (Photo by Dan R. Boyd/LAT)
Still I still feel pretty good about our performance in Kansas: we were right up front and we had the pace to be in the Top Three all day. We slipped back, but we made some spots up at the end. There are things we definitely need to improve on, but the pace is there. We just need to smooth some of the rough edges, and I remain as confident as ever that we can.
You want to know if I can win Indy, I’m sure. Well, Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing is a remarkable team, I always knew that, but even so, the last few months have been a reminder of its sheer depth of talent and the commitment from the very top bosses. That’s why there’s no rest for the McDonald’s crew now: I’m going to be out there testing race setups on Sunday, to try and get a jump on the others.
Is it a good omen that I’ll be starting fourth, considering that’s the same place that my dad started in 1986 when he won the race? Well, I’m not big on omens – but I’d happily be converted on May 24th.