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Rahal steadied by changes

Bobby Rahal's driver lineup looks nothing like last year's, but he isn't looking back.

By BRANT JAMES
Published March 30, 2007


Streets of St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG

No Indy Racing League team owner endured more flux the past year than Bobby Rahal. Most of it left him groping for answers. But the part where he lost driver Danica Patrick to Andretti Green Racing seemingly left him more content.

The lineup with which Rahal Letterman Racing entered 2006 has completely changed. The team has one fewer car. And the two remaining cars switched chassis from Panoz to Dallara midway through last season.

Jeff Simmons replaced Paul Dana, who was killed in a prerace warmup crash last year at Homestead.

Scott Sharp, co-champion of the league's first season in 1996, replaced former Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice, who left for Dreyer & Reinbold.

Patrick simply went away, seemingly a major loss considering the 25-year-old 2005 rookie of the year is arguably the most marketable driver in the league.

But Rahal seems glad the whole era is over.

"I'm disappointed Danica went elsewhere, but to be honest, I don't think we're going to miss the dynamics that followed her," he said. "Just trying to keep everything on an even keel was pretty difficult with a lot of demands on her time, our time."

Rahal Letterman has three wins in 141 IRL races, all by Rice in 2003.

Patrick became a national media tornado in the month before her first Indianapolis 500 in 2005. She qualified fourth (the highest for a female) and finished in the same position, becoming the first woman to lead a lap.

Rahal said he met every criterion in trying to re-sign her last summer, but the process was made more difficult, he said, when Patrick's father and business manager, T.J., became conspicuous in the garages of NASCAR races. That said, Rahal felt his offer was more than fair for a driver with two top-five finishes in 27 starts. She finished fourth at Nashville as the Rahal deadline passed July 15, in the same spot the next weekend at Milwaukee and was announced as AGR's new driver for 2007 four days later.

Team owner Michael Andretti said he became interested after watching Patrick qualify at Indy in 2005.

"I thought, 'Geez, I would love to have her on my team,' " said Andretti, whose team won championships in 2004 and 2005. "I thought she did a hell of a job. I think she's capable of winning. She's a beautiful girl. She's very marketable. She has a personality. She has it all.

"If we can put her in victory lane, it'll be huge, not only for our team, but for the whole league, for open-wheel racing."

Patrick said she may explore NASCAR. For now, she said, she's in the best equipment of her career.

"I took this opportunity because I needed a team that was doing everything it could to win. It had a good record," said Patrick, who finished 14th after a pit road crash Saturday at Homestead. "(AGR) knew how to win, and I knew they could get it done. And they have had more success than anyone else, so how could I really argue with that?"