Rahal’s Young Driving Career Has Come Full Circle
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Indianapolis – From the time he learned to spell his given name, Graham Rahal figures his career-path was destined to unfold as a series of right- and-left-handed turns.
“I always wanted to be a road-racer,” Rahal said Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the mother of all oval racetracks. “That was always the way I, initially, wanted to go.”
The son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 champion Bobby Rahal, Graham was named after his dad’s favorite driver, 1960s Formula One icon Graham Hill. Despite his father’s career-defining moment at Indy 23 years ago, the notion of turning left at over 220 mph between concrete walls largely has remained an acquired taste.
“And a lot of that, to be quite honest, was for safety reasons,” said Rahal, 20, and engaging well beyond his years. “I mean, oval racing is obviously very dangerous and that was a lot of the reason I wanted to stick to the road-racing side of things. But at the end of the day, my heart is in open-wheel racing and my heart is in American open-wheel racing moreso than anything else. And when unification happened (in 2008), I mean, there was no better place for me to go or be. Obviously, I was pretty happy just being right here.”
The merger of the IndyCar Series and Champ Car World Series last year shoved Rahal to the forefront as a rising American open-wheel star, potentially right up there with Marco Andretti and maybe/someday with Danica Patrick. The initial results and reviews were absolutely boffo. Rahal made history by winning his first IndyCar start on a street course in St. Petersburg, Fla., becoming the youngest driver (at 19 years, 93 days) to win a major open-wheel racing event.
But then as an Indy 500 rookie, Rahal completed only 36 of the scheduled 200 laps around the 2.5-mile layout before making contact with the Turn 4 Safer Barrier attempting to pass Alex Lloyd. Rahal finished 33rd and last, and quietly went about the task of re-inventing himself for 2009.
“The ovals are fun,” said Rahal, who will start Sunday’s 93rd Indy 500 from the No. 4 position – the pole of Row 2. “I enjoy the ovals, but certainly it’s a different challenge. It’s a lot harder than anybody would expect it to be. I think that as far as the…it’s not that I’m not doing what I want. This is where I want to be. I’ve told everybody that. A unified open-wheel series in the U.S. is exactly what I want to do. No doubt about it.
“ I told my dad the other night, if there was an offer in Formula One I’d have to definitely think hard about staying here because I don’t think … I don’t know … you never want to count anything out and I always keep my eyes open to any opportunity to come, but I really enjoy what I’m doing here. I have a lot of fun. And I’m not sure I want to change that for anything.”
Rahal has logged the kind of under-the-radar Month of May here synonymous with terms like “darkhorse” and “contender.” Rahal, driver of the No. 02 McDonald’s Racing Team Dallara/Honda, did nothing to dispel that line of reasoning during the track’s annual Media Day.
“Oh yeah … I think without a doubt we are a contender,” said Rahal, lead driver at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. “I mean, we showed that through the first part of the season. There’s no reason to believe that we shouldn’t be one of the cars to beat. Our biggest key is we’ve got to be sure that the McDonald’s Boys have good pit stops, that I don’t make any mistakes, that they don’t make any mistakes, that we’re patient enough to get to the end. And if we do all those things, I think we’ll be right there.”
Rahal led a total of 19 laps as an IndyCar rookie, all during his street-course win at St. Pete. That means he was 0-for-9 on the league’s ovals in 2008, when his best roundy-round finish was a 10th at Iowa Speedway. Rahal served notice of his new-found comfort level on the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway last month, when he recorded his first oval pole and led his first oval laps (eight) en route to a career-best seventh-place oval finish.
“I think the biggest thing I learned from last season is patience, whether it be this race or all the races,” said Rahal, who dropped out of five events during 2008 via contact. “Patience is the key because it’s so easy to … it’s so easy to get into the mindset of it being a sprint race and you need to pass so many guys every chance you can. That was my biggest problem last year, whether it be here or all season long – it takes a while to kind of mentally get over that bridge of not having to go out and try to push every single lap. You need sometimes just to get into a rhythm.”
Aside from qualifying on Row 2, Rahal’s personal highlight was logged on Sunday, May 10, during the waning hours of Day 2 qualifying. Rahal was out testing race-day settings when veteran John Andretti spun entering Turn 1. Andretti’s car hugged the outside wall before beginning to slide down into the groove. Rahal, notified by his spotter that Andretti had crashed, still needed a last-second inside dive to avoid the disabled car.
“I try to look at it being pretty even-keeled,” Rahal said. “But honestly, if I would have hit him I would have T-boned him. And if I would have T-boned him … you saw what happened to (Alex) Zanardi. And Zanardi wasn’t hit at 220 at Indy.” Rahal was referring to the horrific accident during a Championship Auto Racing Teams event in Lausitz, Germany, in September 2001 that cost popular two-time series champion Zanardi both of his legs above the knee.
“It would have been ugly, that’s for sure,” Rahal said. “And me being a taller guy and my feet being down there … both of us would have been lucky to be alive and I doubt either of us would be racing.”
Andretti, who ultimately qualified NASCAR legend Richard Petty’s No. 43 Window World entry in dramatic, last-minute fashion on Sunday’s Bump Day, said he purposely has avoided thinking about what might-have-been.
“That’s because you can drive yourself crazy,” Andretti said. “You look at it and you feel blessed that something that bad didn’t get worse. I’m very appreciative that God gave Graham Rahal a lot of talent and that it wasn’t worse. In reality, I sat next to Graham on the airplane (to New York City for a group photo shoot on Monday) and I said, ‘It was more a case of self-preservation than it was you liking me, isn’t it?’ Because what was bad for me was bad for him, too. He did a great job, no doubt about it.”
Pole-sitter Helio Castroneves said Rahal and his NHLR organization are emerging as players good enough to challenge series juggernauts Team Penske, Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Green Racing.
Rahal : “Yeah, or at least I think we’re certainly giving AGR a run for their money on being part of that Big Three. We’ve outperformed them everywhere this year and the race results haven’t shown in our favor so far. But I think Newman/Haas/Lanigan and the McDonald’s Boys … I think we’re right there.”
Castroneves said Rahal and NHLR qualify as quick-learners. “This year they seem to be very strong,” said Castroneves, the Indy 500 champion in 2001 and 2002. “I mean, come on. Graham … you could see he was very strong last race and he’s starting fourth position here. He’ll be a tough guy, no question. Sometimes (lack of) experience might be trouble, but he learned the hardest way last year. He’ll definitely be one of the tough guys.”
Dario Franchitti, the 2007 Indy 500 and series champion while with AGR, agreed that NHLR is the class of the so-called “transition” teams. “The transition teams are really understanding these cars and it’s going to make it more difficult,” said Franchitti, who qualified third in his new ride with Ganassi. “He’s (Rahal) had a year to figure things out. He’s impressed me since I first watched him in Champ Car. I think he goes about things in a really good way, got a really good attitude and got a really good gift.”
Rahal also is aware he’s got a legacy, as the son of an Indy 500 champion … on the mother of all ovals.
“There’s a bit of pressure on the side of you really want to win it,” Rahal said. “As I’ve said, the reasons I want to win this race are more for myself than anything else. And for my team. And obviously, this year if we were to win it would be for Paul (Newman). With him no longer with us, I know there was one thing he wanted and that was to win this race. But you know, as far as being ‘the son,’ it’s the same everywhere. I think my dad has won pretty much every single track you can possibly imagine. So everywhere you go there’s that pressure to kind of live up to not only the fans’ expectations but what most people perceive…the fact you should be successful right away.”
For those who put stock in such things, Graham’s starting position _ fourth – is the same as when his father won the rain-delayed 70th edition of the Indy 500 on Saturday, May 31, 1986.
“Yeah, and he brought up … he always believes the No. 3 is like a lucky number,” Rahal said. “Wednesday we were playing in a golf tournament and we got chosen to start on the third hole and played really well. And he was No. 3 when he won here. So he kind of feels … I think everybody feels that the signs kind of point to the fact that we’ve been pretty lucky this month and maybe it’s our year. If you look from the standpoint of Paul passing away, you look at the way we qualified, you look at the John Andretti miss … all of those things are pretty lucky.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org