Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing took a chance on putting a teenager in one of their entries at Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course during the summer of 2021.
The driver, Christian Lundgaard, went on to become the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year.
Lundgaard, of Denmark, made the most of that opportunity in August 2021 by qualifying fourth and finishing ninth in the Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix at the Brickyard. Team owners Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Michael Lanigan liked what they saw and added Lundgaard to a full-time ride in the No. 30 Honda.
Lundgaard delivered with a solid rookie season, including a 14th-place finish in the standings.
His highlight was once again on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in July with a sixth-place start and a second-place finish in the Gallagher Grand Prix at the Brickyard. The following week, Lundgaard started third and finished eighth in the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix on the streets of Nashville.
Lundgaard saved his best for last, starting 16th and driving to a fifth-place finish in the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
“We did the job today and I’m just happy that the team gave me the opportunity to be here and achieve this,” Lundgaard said. “I’m grateful for Bobby Rahal. Thank you for giving me this opportunity and keeping me. I’m happy about that. Now I’ve got another championship to win.
“You only get one shot at the rookie championship, so getting it was a big achievement for me.”
It also displayed Rahal’s eye for talent and his faith in the young driver from Hedensted, Denmark.
“I’’m just so pleased for Christian,” Rahal said. “Rookie of the year, every track outside of Indy GP was a new circuit. You go to Texas, that’s an intimidating place. You go to Toronto; you go to Iowa. This young man had to learn as best he could these circuits in a very short period of time. I’d like to think we as a team helped him, but still, when you get out there and you start going, it’s kind of like holy smokes, this is a different place.
“I’m really pleased not just for Christian, but I’m really pleased for his team, his group. Ben Siegel, his engineer who was new to us this year and new to Christian. This is a beginning process, and they really, over the course of the year, grew together, and the results we see today reflect that.”
Rahal was convinced that Lundgaard had the potential to become a solid driver in one of his Indy cars, even if he was unknown in North America. Rahal relied on his connections.
“I have compatriots in Europe that I’ve trusted over the years, and everybody said, ‘You’ve got to give this guy Christian Lundgaard a shot. He’s the real deal,’” Rahal recalled. “So we agreed, and we asked Christian to drive at the Harvest Grand Prix a year ago. He put it fourth on the grid.
“Even more importantly, I think helped develop a car in that short period of time, helped develop the car, gave us some direction on the car. That paid off for us the remainder of the year. Graham (Rahal) was fourth at Monterey last year. He was leading Portland. Much of the setup on that came from the bindings that we got through Christian at Indy.
“We just felt that the results at Indy weren’t great because he, Graham, a couple others had food poisoning, so they weren’t in their best condition. But you don’t perform like that — it’s not a fluke when you perform like that. There’s substance to that. We felt that Christian could be very good. He’s very young and we’re also looking at the future, and we thought, ‘Yeah, this is a guy that we want to have in this team for now and for the future.’”
So here was a driver from Denmark who was part of the European ladder system and apparently had his focus on Formula 1.
But he took a different path and may have found himself a home in IndyCar.
“I’ve watched IndyCar before,” Lundgaard said. “Actually, I would say I’ve watched many road courses and street circuits because I still follow F-1. I still follow some junior categories. I even still follow some go-kart races. I would say I did before coming over here. When I got the opportunity to test at Barber Motorsports Park, I wouldn’t say no anyway, because I like the challenge of a new car just to drive the car and get to know America.
“But I fell in love with it, and I’m here, and I love it. I won’t leave.”
Lundgaard was rewarded with a long-term contract extension with Team Rahal on Aug. 16. He already feels as if he is part of the extended Rahal family that also includes co-owners David Letterman, the famed comedian and former late night talk show host, and South Side Chicago Industrialist Michael Lanigan.
“Absolutely,” Lundgaard said. “Everyone in the team works well together. I like Bobby. I like Mike and David. I’ve actually spent more time with them than I thought I would than I did in the beginning of the season. Mike called me just to congratulate me on the contract. What I like a lot about Mike is he tells you what he thinks. He doesn’t filter it. I think that is a good thing to have. And as a team, I think we also need to move more in that direction and just get things done, have some more conclusions on things and get on with it.
“This has basically been the longtime goal to get it done and have a multiple year agreement because it settles everything down. You’ve got a work path, and I think that’s just a benefit overall. But it’s been work from 2007, when I started racing, and now we’re here. It’s happening. I wouldn’t say we never expected it to happen, but it’s always been questionable if it was possible.
“I don’t think necessarily my chances would have been as big in Europe as they would have been here. So that’s obviously a good choice to come here then.”
So here was a driver from Denmark, who rose to F2 and appeared to have F-1 in his sights.
After a full season in IndyCar, however, Lundgaard likes it better over here.
“I don’t think there’s been much I haven’t really liked about IndyCar so far,” he said. “There’s always going to be decisions you would have hoped you would have made different from several people, if it’s the stewards or the race director, et cetera, changes to the tracks and stuff like this.
“But I think overall, like I’ve said many times now when I moved over here and I’ve had the question what’s the difference about Europe and America, for me it’s about racing — it’s more about racing than it is about politics etc. What I like about IndyCar is the feeling I have here is the feeling I got when I fell in love with go-karts. You put the car on the ground, and you race, and you have fun. But you compete, and once the helmet’s off, everyone is best buddies.
“You don’t see that in Europe. For me, the life is good in America. I prefer it here. Obviously, I miss family and friends et cetera, but I’m sure a time will come for them to visit me.
“Everything about the sport over here is preferred for me.”