Pedley: Rahal A Driver And A Symptom

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 20 2010

Graham Rahal heads out onto the track at Iowa Speedway. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

Graham Rahal sounded whipped when we talked on the telephone last Thursday. He’d been up since dawn and dawn comes early in the farm country of central Iowa.

Rahal was not up with the sun to pick corn or feed the hogs, however. He was up to work his sales job. And in this case, the product Rahal was selling was Rahal.

For reasons that defy logic, Rahal, one of the top young racers in this country, is living a gig-to-gig existence in the IZOD IndyCar Series. When the green flag drops at Iowa Speedway this afternoon, he will be racing for his third different owner this season.

And the way it looks, if Rahal is to get back into a car for races after the one at Iowa, it will have to be for a fourth owner. And then, perhaps a fifth.

So, Rahal was up and seeing Iowa one small radio station and one local television studio at a time last week, partially in hopes that it will pay off at some point with full-time IndyCar ride.

That is not the way drivers prefer to work. They like stability. But for Rahal, forced to be philosophical beyond his 21 years, it beats the alternative of having no ride – which has been the case three times for races already this season.

“I think you get ready and you go do it,” Rahal said of being a part-timer who clearly has the talent to be a series champion. “It’s your job. It’s intense. It’s tough, there’s no secret about that, but you’ve got to do it. There isn’t any choice whatsoever. So…”

Rahal says the fact that he has been in three different cars this year – he’s raced three times

Graham Rahal suits up.

for Sarah Fisher Racing, once for Rahal-Letterman Racing and this week, for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing – isn’t a problem.

“The cars are all fairly similar,” he said.

It’s is the changing human element that can present problems.

He met his current crew – which became his current crew because the regular driver of the No. 24 Dad’s Root Beer car, Mike Conway, was injured in a late wreck at Indy last month – in the team race shop and there is no way he knows all their names, much less their personalities.

“To get used to the new people you are working with,” he said, “new engineers, new crew chief, remembering everybody, that’s tough, that’s tough.”

What’s also tough is  to figure why Rahal is in the position he is in.

He won the very first race he started in the series – at St. Petersburg in 2008. After that, he was a steady top-10 driver when the equipment the once top-tier but now fading Newman/Haas/Lanigan team held up.

Last month, driving a car which had been sitting under a tarp in the corner of his father’s race shop for a year, Rahal had a legitimate shot to win the 500. He qualified in the Fast Nine and was running hot in the race when he was slapped with an interesting penalty by race officials.

Still, he finished 12th and probably would have been better than that had the race not ended early because of a caution.

In addition, Rahal is young, good looking, articulate and intelligent. Seemingly, he is the type of prize every owner and sponsor in the sport would love to land.

Then again, it is not tough understand why Rahal does not have a full-time gig this year – IndyCar has, more and more, become a series where rides go up for sale.

Rahal was let go by Newman/Haas/Lanigan when that team hired Japanese driver Hideki Mutoh, who brought his own sponsor, Panasonic, with him to the team.

The way that he was told he was out at the team which was founded by the late Paul Newman and long-time open-wheel owner Carl Haas, represented the initial blow for Rahal.

It came late and it came unexpectedly.

“I’m not shocked” that it happened, Rahal said, pausing to chose the right words. “I am shocked they dropped me the way that they did because they had agreed to a new contract. They had pulled me off the market.

“They kept promising that everything was going to show up and the contract was in the mail. They completely let me down, so that shocked me, yes. But that’s the way that team has changed.”

And yes, he said, the series has changed that way as well.

“It’s interesting,” Rahal said of ride buying. “Bad interesting.”

And the worst thing about that, he said, is that the series right now is as competitive as it has ever been. There are high car counts and half of the cars in the series are capable of top-five finishes every time out.

One of those cars is the one he will be sitting in at Iowa.

Dreyer & Reinbold has been fielding cars in the Indy Racing League since 2000. And while it has been second-tier for most of that time, this year, with Conway and Justin Wilson in its cars, the team has been contending for victories.

While he may not know who the people surrounding his car this weekend are, Rahal knows what they are.

“They’re racers,” he said. “This team is run by a group of racers. By that, I mean they are guys that are racing with a passion. Sure, racing is a business but it is something they do because the want to win.

“I think that everybody has taken notice that they have really stepped up their program. Unfortunately, it comes at Mike’s expense but it’s a great opportunity for me and one that I really, really want to make the most of.”

When the race at Iowa ends, so too, it appears, will Rahal’s job with the team.

He said it will then be back to doing something tens of millions of Americans are doing these days – looking for employment.

“I’m working on next year. I’m working on 2012. I’m working on everything,” Rahal said. “I want to be in IndyCar racing but I don’t have anything that’s set, you know”

Yes, I know. But I don’t understand.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 20 2010