Graham Rahal, who captured his second straight road course pole position at Portland Saturday, says his race setup is even stronger than his qualifying setup.
The IndyCar veteran edged last year’s pole-winner Scott McLaughlin by 0.033s, just two races after outpacing the field on the Indianapolis road course. He’s now confident that his People Ready-backed Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda has the inherent pace to keep him at the front all day Sunday.
“I think our race car is going to be better than our qualifying car,” he said after using fresh primary Firestones to beat the opposition who all ran the softer alternates. “I said that at Indy GP, I think we showed that, and I think here we’re in pretty good position.
“Obviously it was nice to run the blacks [primaries]. I think Firestone has done a good job here. The tire is very, very tricky though, the red and the black, frankly. There’s big deg. The peak is very, very early. I think reds after lap two are pretty well gone.
“This morning [second practice] we decided not to run as many sets as most guys. I think everybody in the field except for the RLL cars used two sets of tires this morning or some used two yesterday [first practice], one this morning. We just used one per session, and we wanted to try to keep a set, and everything worked out today. Thank God for that.
“We’re excited for tomorrow and hopefully we can get People Ready a win, and man, it would just feel good after all these years and close calls to win again.”
Rahal, who is seeking his first race victory since capturing both rounds in the Detroit double-header in 2017, is hopeful that full course cautions do not come into play and that he’ll do the majority of the leading.
“I feel the level of the driver, the talent level has increased so much,” he said. “We don’t get as many yellows anymore, so hopefully tomorrow we can have a really clean start. We can control this race and make it pretty straightforward [on] strategy.
“I think the reds are going to throw a lot of people for a twist tomorrow. Obviously the track temp and everything should be cooler tomorrow, but this afternoon [final practice] will be very interesting to see how the degradation is. This race has always been a red race…and I think we might see some different stuff this year, which is why we were keeping all those blacks, frankly, to be able to go into the race with…
“The hotter the temp, I think it’s going to kill the reds. They saturate very quickly. I think they get very hot, and it creates further problems. But tomorrow is a cooler day, too, and if you’re up front, God bless we have a good start and we can do that. When you’re in that position, I think you can try to take care of them and maintain the reds a little bit better.
“To do this [110-lap race] in two [pit stops], you’ve got to go, what, 35, 36 laps on your reds? That’s a lot to ask. I’ve already done it this weekend on blacks, so I know the blacks can do it and do it competitively, but it’s a lot to ask of the reds, I think. Most people won’t do it, too, to be clear, but if you tried…”
Rahal, who said he “really struggled with the reds – a lot of what we had to do today was just to get the car to rotate for those specifically” was asked by RACER to explain where and why he felt the primaries were superior.
“To be honest, it’s everywhere. I don’t think the tires are that different. The reason I went to blacks was because, on the very first outing, I was P1 in group one on the blacks, and I did like a 58.30s or something, so my red pace wasn’t much quicker at all. That’s why at the end I just felt, ‘Hey, I don’t think I’m going to be able to do that again on reds,’ and so I went for the blacks.
“I think that the front tire gets really heat-saturated and it gives up. It’s like [Turns] 10, 11 – 10 you’re flying, 11, and then you get to 12 and the tire is just hot and it gives up and is pretty lazy.
“To get it to rotate, you’re doing a lot of stuff that’s not very good for the race. Like I said, I think we’ve just got to go back on that a little bit.”
Asked if there was anything particularly responsible for his new-found pace in qualifying – this was only his fifth pole in 250-plus IndyCar races – Rahal explained: “Christian [Lundgaard, teammate] came up to me and said, ‘Oh, you’re the best coach I’ve ever been around,’ and that’s what hit me, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to close this…book and we’re going to move on!’
“Christian has done an exceptional job of bringing in speed, and you saw last year he struggled with race craft. He could be fast, but on race day I was always confident that we could get him. He’s come back this year, and not only has he had the speed, but his race craft has been amazing. Typically he’s been able to replicate what we’ve been able to do in the past, which is to go forward on Sundays and put himself in a good spot. A lot of this comes down to just being pushed hard.
“But again, you can be pushed hard. It doesn’t mean that the result is going to happen. You can feel the pressure. You can feel that you want to go faster, you want to get a pole, but ultimately all the pieces of the puzzle have to be together, and that’s what’s kind of nice right now is it just feels like the whole organization has come together and the engineering staff has done an amazing job, the mechanics who have had their backs up against the wall and dealt with a lot the last few years have stuck with it, so they deserve it.
“A culmination of all those things is equaling some results.”