Indy 500 build up: The 12-day search for 500 miles of perfection

This Sunday the green flag will drop on 105th Indianapolis 500. ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ has long been one of the world’s most famous sporting events.

In the past the Indy 500 build-up lasted almost a month (hence the famous ‘Month of May’) with days and days of fine-tuning. This year’s Superspeedway event has been condensed to run over just 12 days. Four days of practice, two intense days of qualifying, then two short sessions before the big race. That, if anything, has just added to the pressure as teams try to find a balance between flat-out qualifying and the ultimate balance to find a race pace over 500 miles that will take them to a life-changing Victory Lane, the garlands and the celebratory swig of milk.

For Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, not only is the race local, but this year they unloaded their three-car team in Gasoline Alley as defending champions, Takuma Sato having won last year’s Covid-affected race with season-long RLL teammate Graham Rahal coming home third. In fourth place last year was Santino Ferrucci, and for 2021 the young American has switched teams and is now behind the wheel of a third RLL entry.

#30: Takuma Sato, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda poses for photos after winning the 2020 Indianapolis 500

When the team’s cars left pitlane and headed onto the fearsome 2.5-mile, four-cornered circuit for first practice on Tuesday May 18, they were quick from the off. RLL founder and co-owner Bobby Rahal had already said that the team had spent much of the winter focusing on the 500, analysing data collected over the past two years through the team’s partnership with Acronis. From the off it seemed their work had paid off, Graham Rahal in the #15 car went straight to the top of the scoring list. However, Graham, like all of his rivals, knows that Indy can be a difficult partner. Positive start as it was, he was keeping his feet firmly on the ground. There was still work to do.

“Yes it’s good,” said Rahal. “We ran on our own, did one lap in traffic and went P1. The car has really good pace, and it’s a good sign that it’s got the speed to do that.

“But it’s also about fine-tuning and also mental clarity – and what I mean by that is not doing the wrong things. That might sound obvious, but a lot of times at Indianapolis you can chase your tail and do something you don’t necessarily need to do. Then you start to panic and throw the kitchen sink at it. It’s really important to have the clarity and not do that.”

It has long been said that at Indy balance you can work and build on, but finding straight line speed is not so easy, no matter how much the wings are trimmed to a minimum. Times beyond count teams start fast, and then lose their way. Again, that’s where studying accumulated Acronis data takes on more importance. And that’s before you throw in the unknowns such as wind direction and gusting, rising track and ambient temperatures and so on….

“Takuma and I did runs and looking at the data there was one lap where on the back straight alone there was a 15mph head wind difference between us,” explains Rahal. “I had more head wind, which obviously means a 15mph more tail wind difference on the front straight.

“Then the track really heats up during the day, the ambient temperature goes up, downforce levels go down, and all of a sudden the spiral begins. You do a run, go back, do another run, go back, let’s analyse everything. That’s why you’ve got team mates too, right? Let’s see what everyone’s doing, converge, go back out and try again.”

Ferrucci recovers from crash to lap quickly during practice

#45: Santino Ferrucci, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

Unfortunately for RLL, the one thing the team dreaded happened on Thursday afternoon. Ferrucci had a hard impact with the Turn 2 wall, causing extensive damage to his Dallara-Honda. Santino had to be helped to the medical car, limping, and was taken to hospital for further evaluation on his left leg. Despite the crash, Ferrucci’s time held good, and he ended the day third fastest.

As Ferrucci recovered overnight, the Rahal Letterman Lanigan garage in Gasoline Alley was a whirlwind of activity, as the three crews became one to repair his car for Fast Friday, when the teams can run qualifying boost (worth around 10mph per lap) in the hope their driver would be cleared fit.

In Ferrucci’s words, “Tylenol and a good sleep helped, and I woke up feeling ‘let’s go fast!’

Both car and driver were at the track ship-shape and ready for action after a frantic night for the three RLL crews who pitched in to help rebuild the car. Ferrucci repaid their efforts by setting a time with 90 minutes left in the session to go second fastest. On his return to pitlane, he high fived as many of the crew members he could find from his and Graham’s teams. Sato’s crew was already back in Gasoline Alley. Their high-fives would have to wait. Mask or not, Ferrucci’s smile was clear to see.

“These guys have been here since last night,” said Ferrucci. “Some of the others came back at 5:30 this morning. They’ve been non-stop working on this car since I put it in the wall, and it shows. This is a TEAM, and to see this car and be able to go out and set second best four-lap average, and to be top 10 on the single lap board is… Wow! These guys never gave up, and I’m never giving up on them. We will take it back, sit down have a breather, and I hope at the end of the day they can have a beer!”

Qualifying itself for the 500 is a complicated affair. It starts with drawing a number which determines the order the cars qualify. Generally, the lower the number, the more likely track conditions will be in your favour for your first run, before the ‘bun fight’ that is happy hour at the end of the day when the track cools – but everyone wants to run at the same time, causing a traffic jam in pitlane. If you are too far back in line, that’s your day done.

Sato drew 12, Ferrucci 13, and Rahal 25.

Three-time Indy 500 champ Sato in decent position for 500 defence

#30: Takuma Sato, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

Defending winner Sato, who started from the front row in 2020, set a four-lap average of 230.708mph, which would eventually yield the 15th grid position. The Japanese driver tried a second run in the warmer afternoon conditions, and was unable to get a third run at the end of the day. “Our performance was not fast enough, unfortunately,” said Sato. “Fifteenth is not a bad place, but not excellent. I think we have a strong car for the race, and we will spend the next days putting our focus on that.”

Rahal, in the warmer temperatures recorded four laps at an average of 230.521mph which places him 18th, directly behind teammate Sato in the starting line-up, like Sato, he was frustrated not to get another run in the better conditions towards the end of the day. “I have a feeling we could have made the Fast Nine if we’d been able to get out,” said Rahal after. “But that’s easy to say now. Eighteenth is not where we thought we would start by any means, but we have a good car and we’ll be able to race from there and do a great job.”

Ferrucci’s four-lap average was 229.949mph, placing him 23rd, and like his new teammates, he was disappointed. “Qualifying wasn’t what we hoped. We’re going to start 23rd, in the middle of the eighth row. I started there in 2019 and came hope with a seventh-place finish and that was my first ever oval race. We lined up again at the end but so many people were trying to get a run, we never got our shot.”

Following qualifying there was a final practice session for all qualifiers, a chance to run in race trim. Rahal declared that he was “cautiously optimistic” having set seventh best time, one place behind Sato.

There will be only one more session on Friday, known as Carb Day, before the Indy 500 two days later – a lot of time for data analysis on the days between now and then.

“We checked quite a few items and I think it was productive,” said Sato, the two-time Indy 500-winner. “I need to see the data again and then we will put everything together that was positive to check again on Carb Day.”

Ferrucci in particular knows he still has plenty to do having been 17th quickest in practice.

“We’re getting closer,” he said. “We went back to the pad to make another adjustment. It’s all about taking baby steps. We have a little bit more engineering to do before Friday’s Carb Day and we’ll be good to go on Sunday.”

Rahal happy with car in race trim  before biggest event of the season

Rahal himself was happy with his car in race trim. “It was not a bad day; I think we’re extremely racy. It’s just tough out there when you get buried in the back. You’re going to have to drive this race extremely smart. There are a lot of evenly matched guys, and we’re going to have to race smart and hopefully get ourselves there in the end. We’re cautiously optimistic at this point.”

Those 500 miles of racing Indianapolis on Sunday will be a breeze compared to the intense previous 12 days of practice, qualifying, data-studying and fine-tuning for all at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

After all that the Indy 500 boils down to what all 33 starters have focused on…. The race.

#15: Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Andy Hallbery

Andy Hallbery