By David Morgan, Associate Editor
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Last season was a struggle for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing as both Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal will admit, but after sweeping the front row for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park, the team served notice that they are well into the midst of a comeback.
Sato, driver of the No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda for the team, blitzed the Fast Six with a lap of one minute, 8.5934 seconds (120.711 mph) to score his first pole at the 2.3-mile, 17-turn road course, with teammate Rahal locking down the front row for the team in his No. 15 One Cure Honda.
“I’m extremely happy,” said Sato. “I’ve done it a few times in street course, but this is first time in road course. Such a nice feeling.
“As a driver, as a team, top of the time sheet, whatever is special. First time in road course qualification, the pole. Front row locked in the team, this is a dream result.
“Like everybody said, incredibly tight field. Today I think the team got everything together, so I feel really good. Obviously tomorrow is a completely different scenario. A lot of big teams coming, chasing. It’s going to be challenging.
“We feel very happy today, and hopefully tomorrow we can stay competitiveness.”
The pole was the first for the team since 2017, but it takes a much deeper dive into the record book to find the last time two Rahal cars started on the front row. As both Graham and Bobby Rahal noted, it was the 1998 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach when the elder Rahal and Bryan Herta scored a 1-2 start.
(Editor’s note: Later in the evening, it was discovered that the original date for a Rahal front row sweep was in fact 2005, not 1998, when Danica Patrick and Buddy Rice started first and second in Rahal owned entries at Chicagoland.)
“I think the last time our team had a front low lockout from what I was told was Long Beach when my dad was driving,” Graham Rahal said. “You’re talking a long time ago, 20 something years ago.
“Trust me, I think our owners have invested heavily into making this happen. Our sponsors. I mean, Obviously One Cure is on the car this weekend. But United, Total, everybody is a big part of making this happen. We got kicked around last year, no doubt about that. It adds fuel to the fire. Everybody wants to be competitive and be up front.
“This is the first step, but it’s a great reflection I think on the effort that’s gone in. I’m just really proud of the team. Go down there right now, you see a lot of smiles. You didn’t see those smiles last year. I think everybody feels a little bit rewarded finally for all the effort that’s gone in.”
Both Sato and Rahal have yet to score a win at Barber in the nine previous races at the track, with Sato’s best results coming in the last two seasons courtesy of finishes of ninth and eighth, respectively. Meanwhile, Rahal has had better luck, finishing in the top-five on three separate occasions, including two runner-up finishes.
RLL Racing team-co owner Bobby Rahal echoed the sentiment of his drivers on the success the team showed in qualifying, but was quick to point out anything can happen when the green flag flies for Sunday’s race.
“We work hard,” Bobby Rahal said. “This team works very hard to compete against the level of teams that we do, like Penske, Ganassi, Andretti obviously. Today is a fulfillment of that effort. Tomorrow is the day that counts. Now we have to finish the job.
“Historically we’ve had good races here. We have yet to start where we are. I think by all rights we should be competitive and in the hunt for the win tomorrow. Certainly, that’s my expectation. We have a lot of work yet to do. It’s not going to be easy.”