CHICAGO — When Takuma Sato won the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Aug. 23, it marked the realization of a dream for NTT IndyCar Series mainstay Mike Lanigan.
Lanigan, who has co-owned Rahal Letteman Lanigan Racing alongside Bobby Rahal and David Letterman since December of 2010, has been involved in Indy car racing for nearly three decades.
However, an Indianapolis 500 victory proved elusive.
Lanigan’s roots in American open-wheel racing go back to 1992, when his company — Mi-Jack Construction Equipment — sponsored Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 driven by Eric Bachelart.
That year may have been the formal spark that ignited a deep-rooted career in motorsports for Lanigan, but his love for racing began many moons earlier at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
“For me, it genuinely started 46 years ago, when I went to my first 500,” Lanigan told SPEED SPORT of his love for the open-wheeled machines. “I moved down to Indianapolis in the early ’70s, and went to my first 500 in ’75, I believe. And I’ve been to every one of them since. Finally, in ‘92, I thought I’d try sponsoring a car for Dale Coyne at the 500 with Eric … and that evolved into having our own team (Conquest Racing) with Eric as a co-owner later on down the road.”
The 2000 and ’01 seasons with Conquest Racing were the start of Lanigan’s tenure in team ownership with Indy car racing, and the deeper the Illinois businessman became entrenched in the sport, the more he wanted to crest its pinnacle and be part of a victory at its biggest event.
“Once we really got involved with it, (winning the 500) was a goal that we wanted to do as a family,” Lanigan noted. “We wanted to win the 500 in the worst way; we knew all too well how elusive it is and how difficult it is to win. And finally, after all these years, everything … all the pieces of the puzzle fell in the right place to get the Borg-Warner (Trophy).”
Those pieces included the race-winning No. 30 Honda driven by Takuma Sato, as well as third-place finisher Graham Rahal’s No. 15 and Spencer Pigot’s No. 45.
Ironically, it was a crash on the frontstretch by Pigot that forced the final caution flag of the race, leading to Sato winning the race under the yellow flag, ahead of five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, who dominated the race.
“We had three great race cars; Takuma (Sato), Graham (Rahal) and Spencer (Pigot) were all in the mix all day long, and of course we had that bad accident with Pigot, but they were all competitive all day,” he said. “To get a win and a third, it was more than we could have expected, really.
“It exceeded my own dreams, quite frankly, to finally be a part of that celebration for the first time.”
Lanigan nearly had the chance to revel in an Indy victory once before with Sato, but the veteran driver from Japan crashed entering turn one while attempting a last-lap pass for the victory in 2012, scuttling the team’s hopes and forcing Lanigan’s celebration to be delayed for nearly a decade.
“As everyone knows, we almost won the (Indianapolis) 500 with Takuma eight years ago, when he crashed on the last lap. It’s been a long eight years since then,” Lanigan noted. “But it certainly was exciting, how we got there. We never gave up. I’ve been involved with the competitive side (of Indy car racing) for 28 years, either as a sponsor or a team owner, and to finally reach the top of the mountain in the biggest race in the world … words can’t describe it.
“It was well worth the wait, that’s for sure.”
After using the word “relieved” several times during his interview with SPEED SPORT, Lanigan admitted there were times when he’d lay awake at night wondering if an Indianapolis 500 win would ever come his way.
“You always wonder until it happens, right? We came close a couple of times over the years, and if there’s ever a race where you need perseverance, it’s the Indy 500,” Lanigan said. “There are always some doubts in the back of your mind, but it’s like anything else, whether it’s in business or family life, you never want to give up on what your goals are.
“After so many years, it finally came to fruition for us and now I’m looking forward to next year’s race all the more. Hopefully, we can get another one.”
As he reflected on the moment, Lanigan drew a thread back to his fellow co-owners — Bobby Rahal and David Letterman — making it a point to stress that his success likely wouldn’t have come without their added support and leadership.
“David and Bob and I are all Midwesterners. Bobby was born in Ohio and raised in Chicago, I grew up near Chicago and then David was raised in Indianapolis, and our number one goal going into the partnership we have together was to win. We’re all dedicated to winning,” Lanigan said. “It took a number of years to get all the pieces where they needed to be, but that’s not as simple as people perceive it to be. If you have one piece of the puzzle that isn’t working exactly the right way, you’ll never win. It takes all of us, the three of us, our drivers, all our crew members … it’s a group effort.
“Everything went well for us at the 500 and we’ve been adding pieces over the last two or three years with people and technology and drivers. And we’ve reached the point where we can run with the big boys, I feel like, quite frankly. And that’s what you want to do. You want to compete against the best,” Lanigan added. “I believe we’ve reached that level but we’re not going to lay down. We’re going to continue to try to improve the team and improve what we’re doing over there.
“Once you win the big one, you get a little greedy and we want to win more.”
But even in that pursuit of continued greatness, Lanigan still took pause in appreciating the victory that he worked so hard for through the years.
“It’s been very rewarding, I’ll say,” he said. “To win the 500 is something you never forget, no matter what part you play in the victory. Whether you’re a driver like Takuma or an owner like myself, this race sticks with you.
“I’ll always remember what this feels like.”