Patrick's out, Sharp's in and Rahal's excited again

If a racing team's success is measured in column inches or TV time, then Rahal Letterman Racing led the Indy Racing League for the last two years -- mainly thanks to the presence of media darling Danica Patrick.

"I think the drivers can really motivate and lead a team. I think I always did it as a driver, and I think the drivers really play a role that goes way beyond just driving the car."
-- Bobby Rahal

But using the traditional yardstick of race wins, the three-car team co-owned by Bobby Rahal and David Letterman has struggled in that time period. In fact, RLR's last race win came in 2004, when Buddy Rice was victorious three times, including at the Indianapolis 500.

Rahal Letterman wasn't the only team that struggled in 2006 after Penske Racing and Ganassi Racing gained access to the Honda engines that helped RLR and Andretti Green Racing dominate the IndyCar Series in 2004 and '05. But the cold hard fact is that RLR failed to even make the podium in 2006, and to make matters worse, The Franchise (Patrick) jumped ship to Andretti Green for '07 and beyond.

So Rahal and his management team, led by Scott Roembke, are regrouping and downsizing to a two-car effort. Patrick and Rice are out, but Jeff Simmons returns in the Ethanol-sponsored entry. He'll be joined by Scott Sharp, late of Fernandez Racing, with a new sponsor -- Patron tequila.

"It's a little bit of a change for us going back to two cars, but we think it's the right move for us," said team boss Rahal. "We've made a lot of changes internally at Rahal Letterman to ensure our success for this coming year. Scott and Jeff are leading the charge for us, and while it's never easy, I think we're going to have a much more successful year in 2007 than we have the last several."

Sharp drove one of Rahal Letterman's Dallara/Hondas at the recent IRL test at Iowa Speedway and the team came away impressed with the 38-year-old's attitude and aggression.

"I think we've already seen the kind of leadership that Scott can bring to our team in the test that was done in Iowa, and we're very excited," Rahal said. "The buzz in the race shop was great after that.

"I think the drivers can really motivate and lead a team," added the three-time CART Champ Car series champion. "I think I always did it as a driver, and I think the drivers really play a role that goes way beyond just driving the car. With Scott and Jeff, we've got two guys now that can provide that leadership."

Sharp is the IndyCar Series' most experienced driver with 129 IRL starts and nine wins. He was also the co-champion of the oft-forgotten inaugural three-race IRL championship back in 1996.

After a successful road-racing career, the Connecticut native broke into open-wheelers with PacWest Racing in 1994 in the CART series.

He's been with the IRL from the very start, driving for A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Kelly Racing before spending the last two years with Fernandez Racing. Sharp's last race win came at Kentucky Speedway in 2005.

"I almost started my open-wheel career with Bobby's team about 10 years ago when he had the factory Honda deal, and we've kept up the good relationship over the years," Sharp said. "He's always been one of the guys that I aspired to [be like] growing up. Obviously his record speaks for itself what he did in the car, but you always knew that he was just a different kind of driver beyond that. He had a very successful team, and at the same time, simultaneously built a tremendous business."

The key to Sharp's move to RLR was the Patron Spirits sponsorship package he brought. It's a somewhat surprising combination, given that Sharp is known as one of the more straight-laced drivers in the paddock.

"I enjoy the product, so that's always good," Sharp said. "Don't worry, Bobby, that will be away from the racetrack!

"I think we're going to have a lot of fun both on and off the track together. This is a team that's used to running at the front. They've won races with six or seven different drivers, they've won it with different chassis, different engines and even different series."

Simmons had the unenviable task of replacing Paul Dana after the Ethanol sponsorship architect was killed practicing for the 2006 IRL season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Simmons, 30, responded with a series of improving performances in the second half of the season.

"Jeff really came on very well towards the end of the year," Rahal said. "Obviously, he had a rough start with us, but he had some difficult shoes to fill -- and he came in and with each race just gained more and more confidence.

"Obviously he's young and doesn't have quite as much experience as Scott, but I think the two of them are really going to work well together as a team and really produce the kind of results that we're working hard to create."

Simmons not only had to deal with the usual on-track worries that come with being a rookie, but he became the public face of the Ethanol promotional campaign. He's hoping that the continuity of entering a new season with the same supporting cast will result in a move into the top five.

"Obviously, it's great to be back," Simmons said. "Everybody around has been extremely supportive, both on the team and sponsor side. Ethanol is something that I've become very passionate about and excited to learn about.

"It's great to have Scott on board -- it can only help," he added. "A guy with his experience and his ability to win races is going to be a great thing for me and for the whole team, and we're all very excited."

And ready to make headlines by winning races again.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.