Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Not-So-Silent Partner Still Celebrating the ‘Big Enchilada’

IndyCar and IMSA owner Mike Lanigan is an important element in Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

The not-so-silent partner in Rahal Letterman Lanigan moved from Chicago to Indianapolis in 1973 to start a new division of the family company. For as long as he could remember, he listened to the Indianapolis 500 on the radio. Now that he lived in Indy, he went to the track to watch some practice sessions in person.

And that was it. All it took. “I was hooked. And I knew I had to be a part of this someday.”

He became a big part this year when RLL Racing driver, Takuma Sato, won the 2020 Indianapolis 500. It wasn’t the first time for the “R” in RLL, Bobby Rahal, who had won the race as a driver and as a team owner. And in 2004, the first “L” in RLL, former TV talk show host, Indianapolis native and inveterate racing fan David Letterman, won as an owner teamed with Rahal.

Then came Mike Lanigan, the second “L,” who joined up with Rahal and Letterman in 2010. And a decade later, “I was taking home a trophy from the Indianapolis 500. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Well, it would have been better had 350,000 fans been there instead of watching at home on TV because of the coronavirus pandemic, “but I’ll take it anyway I can get it.”

Lanigan had long been a part of motorsports, sponsoring cars in the IndyCar series through the company he is now president of, Mi-Jack, which makes those huge rubber-tired gantry cranes that straddle the tracks in freight train yards, plucking full containers off flatbeds, and replacing them with empty ones.

Lanigan became a part-owner when he teamed with Eric Bachelart and Conquest Racing in 2001, selling his interest in the team six years later to partner with Newman/Haas, which became Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. Following Paul Newman’s death in 2008, Lanigan soon moved his ownership stake to Rahal Letterman Racing, forming Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Besides having the No. 15 Honda in this weekend’s St. Petersburg Grand Prix with driver Graham Rahal, Bobby’s son, they’ll field the No. 30 for Sato in the finale of the IndyCar season.

And also this weekend, Team RLL will be competing at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for the penultimate round of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with the Nos. 24 and 25 factory-backed BMW M8 GTEs in the GT Le Mans class. In two weeks, the BMWs will compete in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, the finale for the WeatherTech series. The team won the 2020 Rolex 24 at Daytona for the second straight year, meaning Rahal Letterman Lanigan has both the Indy 500 and the Daytona 24 trophies on the mantle for 2020.

“The big enchilada,” Lanigan said. “Sometimes I sit back and I can’t believe it happened. I’ve been going to Indy for 46 years in a row, and 28 as a sponsor or team owner.”

Rahal said that while Lanigan, who lives three miles away from Rahal, is the least-known member of the ownership team, he’s far from a shrinking violet. “Mike’s an early riser, and I can almost always count on the first phone call I get in the morning coming from Mike,” he said. “Of course, I don’t necessarily answer it all the time…”

He said Lanigan, with his business acumen and his connections, has been a huge help in landing and keeping sponsors, as has Letterman, who also helps with charities that are important to the team. Lanigan controls about 17 other companies besides Mi-Jack, including one with interests in the Panama Canal Railway, as well as event management companies and industrial and entertainment interests.

Both Lanigan and Rahal praised Roger Penske, who bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar early this year, with the relative success of this shortened IndyCar season.

“I don’t think we can overstate the value Penske brings, no question about it,” Rahal said. “He made it happen. We’re down to the last race of the year and we have two guys vying for the championship, others looking for a top five—I give him full credit for convincing sponsors that they would be taken care of. But there are still opportunities out there. This has been a comparatively good year for everybody, and next year looks better, especially if we get a vaccine that takes the wind out of the sails of the virus.”

Lanigan agrees. “I think we’re all happy to have Roger at the helm. This business model is not for the faint of heart. I don’t do it to make any money—it’s hard to make a profit in any kind of racing. But Roger has kept the momentum going. I feel a lot of enthusiasm building for the type of racing we do, where literally every week there could be a different winner.”

There’s one thing left on Lanigan’s bucket list (besides having more grandchildren—“I only have 12,” he says): “I’d like to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. That’s really the big enchilada.” He likes the plan for the new IMSA Prototype LMDh car that could also run for the overall win at Le Mans, “and we’ve been in some talks with some companies,” he said.

“And, of course, I’d like to win a couple more Indy 500s. I could get used to that in a big way.”

The Indy 500 was Mike Lanigan’s dream come true. What’s your racing dream? Start the conversation in the comments section below.

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