Anatomy Of A Winner

At the state-of-the-art RLL headquarters in Zionsville, it takes an entire race team and dozens of small design and mechanical decisions to propel a driver to victory.
Photography by Tony Valainis/Indianapolis Monthly

For Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, preparations for the 2024 Indy 500 race car began just after 5 p.m. on May 21, 2023, seven days before the green flag even fell on last year’s race. As the final minutes ran out on Bump Day, the last chance to qualify for the most important event of the year, Graham Rahal and the team part-owned by and partly named after his father (racing legend Bobby Rahal) stood helpless on the sidelines as RLL teammate Jack Harvey topped Rahal’s time by .007 seconds. Rahal, heir to one of the sport’s legendary racing bloodlines, was bumped from the field of 33. His No. 15 Dallara would not be part of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing in 2023.

RLL had just won the race three years prior, with Takuma Sato bringing home the victory. Rahal’s car finished third. “As soon as we missed the race, we knew we had a lot of work to do,” says Derek Davidson, Rahal’s crew chief. “It wasn’t a lack of work ethic. We just fell behind on research and development in every area. If you look at the qualifying times [Rahal’s average speed of 229.159 mph was nearly 4.8 mph slower than that of pole-sitter Felix Rosenqvist], one little change wasn’t going to improve things. It was going to be a combination of factors—aerodynamics, setup, mechanical drag—that gets you out of the hole. We’re not just trying to move up to qualify. We’re trying to race for the win.”

Crew members don’t recall a decree from ownership or any locker room blowups or pep talks in the infield trailer. There was no big, all-hands-on-deck address back at RLL headquarters in Zionsville. Rather, the key players describe a quieter, simultaneous realization that something had to change. And something did.

Photography by Tony Valainis/Indianapolis Monthly

At that moment, the team started to mentally and physically strip down every part of the car and each step of their organizational process, scouring for ways to squeeze out even just a hundredth of a second at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. From May 21 on, they decided to devote the lion’s share of the company’s vast financial, material, and human resources to using state-of-the-art technology and methodology to not just qualify for the 2024 race, but to win it—even as the drivers and crews continued with the 2023 season, touring the country every other weekend and trying to win an NTT IndyCar Series Championship. “The season is still important,” says Donny Stewart, chief mechanic at RLL. “But if you win Indy, it makes your year. It’s the Super Bowl.”

In other words, RLL took a step back and reconsidered a problem that has bedeviled every team—designers, owners, mechanics, and drivers—since the day Ray Harroun rolled his yellow Marmon Wasp onto the original bricks in 1911: How do you build an Indy 500 winner?

Photography by Tony Valainis/Indianapolis Monthly

The global headquarters of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, the centerpiece of Zionsville’s Creekside Corporate Park, is ahead of the pack. The 128,000-square-foot temple of glass, steel, and concrete, set on 10.4 acres, is a marvel, hosting spacious sun-soaked workshops and offices for RLL’s IndyCar and IMSA Weather Tech SportsCar Championship teams. The $20 million base also features amenities you don’t find in every racing shop: a graphics room where liveries (a car’s paint scheme and stickers) are printed on demand; a cavernous loading dock with full-size pit stalls where the crews record themselves simulating stops and analyze every movement for maximum efficiency; a Human Performance Center consisting of a full gym, sauna, cold-plunge tank, and even lamplit stations where team members suffering from mild seasonal affective disorder can soak up rays and chase away off-season winter doldrums. Then there’s the jumbotron, a wall of 30 individual monitors that can be tiled into a command center through which engineers, mechanics, and coaches can tap into multiple live video and audio feeds and real-time driving data via satellite from pretty much any track in the world.

Photography by Tony Valainis/Indianapolis Monthly

This is the future, the envy of and model for many racing teams. But when employees and guests enter through the front door, they are greeted immediately by a relic from the team’s past, the iconic red Budweiser March 86C No. 3 car that co-owner Bobby Rahal drove to his Borg-Warner trophy in 1986. It’s a reminder to all of what the goal is.

Construction on the facility was completed in late 2022, and the company and teams relocated their IndyCar operations from Brownsburg in November 2023, just as most IndyCar teams were starting to build their 2023 500 cars in earnest.

Photography by Tony Valainis/Indianapolis Monthly

For all the cutting-edge material and institutional resources RLL brings to bear on its 500 car design and fabrication, the first step they took in the wake of that fateful Bump Day was decidedly old-school: They assembled a team of human brains to analyze and develop a plan to address the problem.

While the drivers and crews focused on finishing the 2023 season, RLL siphoned off a small committee of stakeholders with expert knowledge of every section of the car and brought in a few subcontractors to meet on a weekly basis to discuss the approach they would take to the 2024 Indy 500, then share monthly updates with the rest of the organization. A key member of this group was Stefano Sordo, RLL’s technical director, who was brought on around the time of the move from Brownsburg to Zionsville and came with more than 20 years of engineering experience in Formula One, the world’s premier racing series. Sordo’s perspective was key in first figuring out what might have gone wrong in 2023. “We were mainly driven by the previous years’ experience,” he says. “We were basing the setup on the year before, which was based on the year before that and the year before that. Inevitably, even if you stand still, you’re going backwards.”

Photography by Tony Valainis/Indianapolis Monthly

Sordo says the team would rely on finding speed once the car was at the track, which had become more difficult over time as Month of May events were shortened to essentially two weeks, taking away valuable track time. The answer was to do what they do in F1: lean into simulation technology, learning how to make the most of it and spending more time in the simulator long before the team gets to the Brickyard. “We needed a more science-based approach, as opposed to old trial and error and previous experience,” says Sordo. “Experience is important. But it needs to corroborate with science.”

Of course, a lot of the research and development that RLL did for the 2024 race was hypothetical. This is a spec series, after all, meaning that all cars are more or less identical in terms of the chassis (Dallara), engine manufacturer (Honda or Chevrolet), and gearbox (Xtrac). And while the teams are all able to approximate the weight, height, and width of the following year’s car, IndyCar typically doesn’t release the official specifications—which have only gotten less flexible through the years in the interest of safety—until well into the calendar year as the series’ season opener in March approaches.

Preparing in advance for the 2024 season was made even more complicated because of the introduction of a new gearbox and, more significantly, a new hybrid engine package.

In December, about the same time teams received their new gearboxes from Xtrac, the series announced that the new hybrid tech would be delayed until the second half of the season—after the 500. By then, RLL had already been collecting and poring over data and working on theories for more than six months. The Indy 500 team was still working separately from the rest—the four races leading up to the 500 were all either street or road courses, necessitating a completely different car build and offering minimal insight into what the teams would face on an oval, let alone the quirky 2.5-mile Brickyard. By February, they were far enough along with subassembly to start the body-fit on the first of three Indy 500 hopefuls (with the possibility of a fourth down the line if sponsorship came through).

Photography by Tony Valainis/Indianapolis Monthly

Body-fit involves carefully assembling the separate pieces of the whole IndyCar. But the piece-by-piece build is not done on a line as with consumer cars. Rather, separate departments that have been working simultaneously in their individual areas of expertise converge to put the car together. These departments work in their own first-floor corners of RLL’s headquarters, where they each make the slight adjustments, modifications, and customizations that (hopefully) shave off tenths of seconds in the race. Before qualifiers and race day, this is essentially how race teams compete with each other to find speed. From RLL’s point of view, the five fields of play in subassembly are:

THE GEARBOX — The gearbox is the transmission of the car. While IndyCar gearboxes are spec and everyone receives an assisted 6-speed, paddle shift box from Xtrac, teams are allowed to “rub on it” to make it their own by tinkering and using different oils to reduce friction and increase efficiency.

UPRIGHTS — An upright, sort of the knuckle of the wheel, connects each wheel and tire to the suspension. It keeps the wheel stable as it rotates and houses the brake calipers. These are also spec, but there are some small things engineers can do, such as use different greases, to reduce mechanical drag and make sure everything is spinning around freely.

AERODYNAMICS — A far more recognizable component of the IndyCar, the aero kit is comprised of the front and rear wings and the aerofoil on the sides. The aero kit does more than give the series its distinctive look: It also provides the necessary downforce and reduces drag to keep the car stable and streamlined at speed, on corners, and in traffic. Teams can find “a million little things” to do, according to chief mechanic Tom Vigne, to smooth the kit, minimize wind resistance, and adjust downforce.

SETUP — This is the overall alignment of the car and includes the development and application of dampers, a key part of the suspension. Tracks aren’t smooth, and whenever the car hits a bump, the suspension compresses, creating energy. The dampers absorb this energy, limiting the jostling of the car and keeping it stable and balanced. Dampers are one of the few areas that are pretty much left up to each team, so it’s a key opportunity for RLL to separate itself.

POWERTRAIN — The engine, from Honda in RLL’s case, is spec. But teams still look for small places to increase efficiency and try out different gear ratios in search of every extra bit of speed.

Photography by Tony Valainis/Indianapolis Monthly

By early February, all five subassemblies for RLL driver Christian Lundgaard’s No. 45 car were complete and ready for the body-fit. The chassis was mounted on a lift that allowed the body to be rotated as each piece was added, with engineers scrutinizing every bolt, joint, and seam to make sure there would be minimal drag as the car gradually took shape.

This is a time of year when anticipation is palpable in race shops all over the country, and even RLL’s colossal headquarters could barely contain the commotion. The IndyCar side was busily preparing for the season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix in St. Petersburg, Florida, barely a month away. And yet, there was no doubt that everyone from the C-suite to the shop floor had at least one eye on May. “It’s absolutely just as important as the series championship,” says Davidson. “To be honest, we would rather win the Indy 500 than the championship.”

Photography by Tony Valainis/Indianapolis Monthly

At this point, they felt they’d done all they could to make that a reality— but of course, more work lay ahead. They continued to run computer simulations, dialing in their cars as the specifications became clearer. Next came wind tunnel testing for the aero kit, as well as tests for the gearbox and uprights. But the true test will come after this magazine goes to print in April, when they arrive for the first Indy Open Test at IMS. That’s when the rubber literally meets the road and RLL can really get a sense of whether the team’s reimagined approach and extra effort have translated to higher placement on the track’s iconic pole.

And then, of course, will come May 14, the first day of Indy 500 practice leading into qualifiers and Bump Day, which RLL hopes they’ll be able to skip this year. “We’ve made a pretty big push to work on every aspect of the car. We’ve looked at everything that we could. But other teams are doing that, as well,” says Davidson.

“You don’t know how much progress you made until the test or the practice at Indy. Are other teams making bigger gains? We feel comfortable. I don’t believe we’ll be in the same situation [as last year]. I don’t know that we’ll be where we deserve to be, at the front of the grid. But we’re trying different things.”