NHLR happy to be returning to Long Beach
McDonald’s driver Graham Rahal, 20, made history in his previous race in St. Petersburg by becoming the youngest pole winner in IndyCar Series history on April 4. His teammate Robert Doornbos, 27, also ran well in his previous race but it was the A1GP event in Portugal last weekend (April 12), where he won the sprint race from a second place start. Both will be hoping to carry the momentum to the streets of Long Beach for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing’s (NHLR) 26th consecutive event here.
In their 25 previous races here, NHLR has won six races, earned 11 poles and finished on the podium a total of 14 times with Mario and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Bruno Junqueira and Sebastien Bourdais, who won three of the past four races here. In contrast, eight of the 17 races on this year’s IndyCar Series schedule will mark only the second time for the team to compete at those venues. Although experience on a specific track is always an asset, both drivers are cautiously optimistic that the team’s 25 years of experience will come in handy on the 1.968-mile, 11-turn Long Beach course.
“The fact that the team has had so much success in Long Beach will really help us but at the same time a lot of these other guys have some experience at Long Beach and the teams know the track whether they raced here last year or haven’t in a few years so its not a huge, huge advantage,” said Rahal, who will make his third major open-wheel start at this track and fourth overall after competing here in the Atlantic Series. “I expect it to be more competitive than ever this year. It’s going to be a tough fought battle this weekend for sure.”
“The fact that the team has had good results in Long Beach is a great confidence boost and that, in combination with a truly motivated Bobby D, and we should be up there again then!” added Doornbos, who hoped to follow-up his win in the A1GP sprint race in Portugal with a win from pole in the feature race but an electrical fire on the grid forced his retirement. “I found out that the Indy car is a different animal than the Panoz so the set-up we ran in Long Beach in the Champ Car won’t be close. Your driving style has to adjust to the car so the set-up does as well. We should be strong and I think it's going to be competitive again but for sure we will work to get an NHLR car at the front...preferably both of us.”
In the 2008 Champ Car finale here last year, Justin Wilson brought the team its 11th pole here but engine failure on Lap 13 ended his bid to win a seventh race for the team at this track. Although Rahal qualified ninth he charged to the front with a competitive race car and pulled ahead of third place runner Franck Montagny in Turn 10 but Montagny’s right front tire hit Rahal’s left rear and sent him into a spin. A last-lap move after he battled back to seventh resulted in a 13th place finish. Despite the result Rahal knows the team can produce a competitive race car and he is confident he can start closer to the front after improving his performance in qualifying sessions.
“We had a pretty good race in Long Beach last year despite starting pretty far back,’ said Graham, who would like to be the first Rahal to win in Long Beach after numerous second place finishes by his father at this track. “We made up a lot of positions and I got past Montagny for third and then he hit me in the left rear and spun me out so it was kind of like this year’s St. Pete season-opener where it was a catch up game for us. Then I made a mistake on the last lap so I didn’t finish which was very disappointing after the progress we made. Overall it was a pretty good race for us – competition wise. Historically Long Beach has been one of my favorites. I’ve always had some success there during my weekends and I think that this year will be no different. In fact, I think this year should be our best year yet based on how competitive we were in St. Pete.”
Doornbos is looking forward to his return to this track after competing here in his lone Champ Car World Series season in 2007. Five of his first six Champ Car races resulted in podium finishes including Round 6 in Mont Tremblant where he won. Of those first six events, the only venue where he failed to finish on the podium was on the streets of Long Beach. He’s looking forward to his return here and expects the event to be even bigger now that a unified open-wheel series will race here for the first time since the split.
“In the 2007 Long Beach event, we had a strong race where I was aiming for my second consecutive podium after Las Vegas but the gearbox broke in the new Panoz,” said Doornbos of the race he started sixth and finished 13th. “It was a big shame. It's a mechanical sport so things like that unfortunately still happen. It was a great event in 2007 and I'm sure it will be even better with a unified IndyCar Series! It's a big event and with F1 having raced there in the past, even a lot of people in Europe follow and know about this race.”
As the most famous street race in the United States, there are many events surrounding race weekend. Rahal is looking forward to kicking off a busy race week with an overnight stay on a Navy aircraft carrier as part of Operation Home Front, a non-profit organization which “provides emergency assistance and morale to our troops, to the families they leave behind and to wounded warriors when they return home.”
“It’s going to be a busy week,” said Rahal. “I’m going on a Navy ship on Tuesday and Wednesday then on to Long Beach for appearances at the gala and an Izod event. Then I have a dinner for a road racing driver association and one for my personal sponsor Gehl. I’m certainly looking forward to getting out there and getting the weekend started. It’s a great event and I think it will only get stronger from what I can see. It will be better than ever.”
Since holding its first event 35 years ago, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach has established itself as one of the most famous street races in the world. Equally historic and famous is the street race held in Monte Carlo, Monaco where Doornbos resides. He enjoys racing on both layouts although the commute home is considerably different.
“On comparison of Monte Carlo and Long Beach -- They are both fast and tight street courses so there is everything that makes a driver happy!!! The only difference for me will be that I can't walk home at night as I would in Monaco. I really look forward to the race and to be strong there,” added Doornbos.
The 2009 IndyCar Series season continues with Round 2 of 17 -- the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 19 on the streets of Long Beach, Calif. The 2009 schedule, one of the most diverse in all of motorsports, features races on ovals, permanent road courses and temporary street circuits, all broadcast worldwide through a comprehensive, long-term agreement with Versus and ESPN. All races in 2009 will be telecast in High Definition. Coverage of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach will begin with a qualifying and pre-race show on Saturday (check your local listing for times) while coverage of the 85-lap race will begin at 3:30 p.m. EDT on Sunday. Both broadcasts will air on the VERSUS network.