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Graham Rahal Is Thinking America First At Indy

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 23 2015
Graham Rahal, who drives a car co-owned by David Letterman, says IndyCar Racing needs American faces.

Graham Rahal, who drives a car co-owned by David Letterman, says IndyCar Racing needs American faces.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

INDIANAPOLIS – Auditions for the USA’s next star Indy car driver will continue Sunday during the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500, and all-American boy Graham Rahal figures…why not me?

bugindy500One year after Ryan Hunter-Reay emotionally wrapped himself in the flag as winner of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the Verizon IndyCar Series is struggling to capture mainstream America’s scattered attention span beyond the Month of May at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Hunter-Reay’s victory for Andretti Autosport last May was the first for an American driver since Sam Hornish Jr. edged Marco Andretti by 0.0635-seconds in 2006, the second-closest finish in race history. But IndyCar’s 2014 driver’s championship was won by Team Penske’s Will Power, a native of Australia.

The first five races of 2015 have been won by a lineup worthy of the United Nations General Assembly:  Juan Pablo Montoya (Colombia), James Hinchcliffe (Canada), Scott Dixon (New Zealand), Josef Newgarden (USA) and Power.

Newgarden’s victory on the Barber Motorsports Park road-course in Birmingham, Ala., last month was the first in the series for the native of Hendersonville, Tenn. Newgarden, 24, drives for Indianapolis-based owner/driver Ed Carpenter, former driver Sarah Fisher – who preceded

Graham Rahal's season is showing positive signs. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

Graham Rahal’s season is showing positive signs. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

Danica Patrick as IndyCar’s first female personality – and businessman Wink Hartman. Newgarden has the good looks and social skills to become a household name…but still needs to be “discovered” outside of Gasoline Alley.

Enter Rahal, son of 1986 Indy 500 champion Bobby Rahal and a driver whose recent on-track results and engaging personality stamp him as open-wheel racing’s Next Big Thing.

“I think there needs to be an American star,” said Rahal, a 26-year-old native of New Albany, Ohio. “But I think the point of this whole thing is that the two Americans that can probably take this series to the next level are Marco and myself. And I think whether that’s fair or not – I’m not saying it is because I think there’s plenty of other guys sitting right here that deserve it as well.

“But the truth of the matter is that beyond racing…(Thursday) morning I did a satellite media tour, right? I did 26 interviews in two hours or three hours. And most of those people probably don’t follow IndyCar but they know the name because they’ve heard it outside of racing. That’s what you need. You need something to connect back to the mainstream.”

Hunter-Reay, a 34-year-old native of Dallas living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., currently is America’s most successful open-wheel driver based on his 2012 IndyCar Series title and 14 wins, highlighted by the 2014 Indy 500 victory.

“Well, I definitely experienced it and it’s quite amazing _ winning on home turf like that does

Ryan Hunter-Reay put another American face on the Borg Warner Trophy last year. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Ryan Hunter-Reay put another American face on the Borg Warner Trophy last year. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

have an impact,” said Hunter-Reay, driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda. “I saw it with the “USA!” chants (after last year’s 500) and just the amount of support that came after it was phenomenal. But I think we have a great group of American drivers. We are, as a country, well-represented.  Open-wheel racing is a very international sport and I think the U.S. has a great shot at winning this thing.”

Rahal declined to get into a hissing match with Hunter-Reay, whose wife, Beccy, is the sister of Robby Gordon…who, fittingly enough, was billed as the “next guy” in Indy car while driving for four-time Indy 500 champion A.J. Foyt Jr. 20 years ago.

“Ryan Hunter-Reay, to me, is one of the best drivers out here, you know?” Rahal said. “But unfortunately, it (his 500 victory) really hasn’t moved the needle, has it? And that’s the problem _ what do we have to do? Marco winning it or myself _ obviously, I have bias, I’d like to not see him win _ but it would move the needle.”

Rahal has been down Indy car’s Yellow Brick Marketing Road before. His victory in the 2008 season-opener at St. Petersburg, Fla., put him into the record book as the youngest Indy car race-winner at 19 years, 93 days. But Graham is winless in his last 119 consecutive races. His best career point-finish was fifth while competing in the defunct Champ Car World Series in 2007.

Like Rahal, Andretti’s name-recognition is sky-high as the son of former CART champion-turned-team-owner Michael Andretti and grandson of 1969 Indy 500 champion Mario Andretti. Mario’s impeccable resume includes 52 Indy car victories and four championships;

Marco Andretti has familial name recognition.

Marco Andretti has familial name recognition.

Mikey won 42 races and one title.

A 28-year-old resident of Nazareth, Pa., Marco was voted IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year in 2006 after finishing seventh in the championship for Andretti Green Racing. His near-victory at Indy was trumped when he won on the road-course at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway later that season, becoming the youngest winner of a major open-wheel event at the time at 19 years, 5 months, 14 days.

But Marco has not visited Victory Lane since posting his second series win at the Iowa Speedway oval in June 2011, 66 starts ago. He is 13th in the overall standings but first in TWITTER numbers with 79,000 followers. Rahal boasts 66,100 followers and RHR has 53,700 fans hanging on his every word.

Rahal, fifth in the current point standings and the highest Honda-powered driver, will start the Indy 500 with considerable momentum based upon a pair of runnerup finishes at Barber Motorsports Park and on the IMS road-course earlier this month.

“This is a different animal than the (Indy) Grand Prix,” said Rahal, who qualified the Steak n’

Graham Rahal helping to put America back into American open-wheel racing.

Graham Rahal helping to put America back into American open-wheel racing.

Shake Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing 17th at 224.290 mph. “I think we can win this race but we’re not going to win this race on speed alone. We’re going to win this race by having a good, safe day, smart race-day strategy, good pit stops. Hopefully I can make some good moves on the track, stay out of trouble and we can win.

“We’re not going to go drive around a Penske. We’re not going to drive around a Ganassi. I could have said that, too, at the Grand Prix and we have been able to do that. So all those things being considered, I feel the momentum and the confidence this entire team has is what’s going to get us there, for sure. And I think it is very high right now.”

In addition to his on-track success, Rahal is living a charmed life in his spare time. He is engaged to NHRA Funny Car driver Courtney Force, blonde daughter of 16-time world champion John Force. The energetic /photogenic young couple appeared on a front cover of “AutoWeek” late last year, a huge hit for a pair of motorsports series perennially playing in the shadow cast by almighty NASCAR.

Rahal also is benefitting here from his association with team co-owner David Letterman, who ended his 33-year run as host of the “Late Show With David Letterman” on Wednesday night. Letterman grew up in the nearby Broad Ripple neighborhood of Indy, and the buzz around his annual 500 appearance has been building since he was serenaded into retirement by Bob Dylan and the Foo Fighters.

Letterman was rumored to be in town on Friday for the annual Carb Day practice, ramping-up the media frenzy.  “I’ve invented a new drink,” said Kathi Lauterbach, public relations rep for RLLR. “For every request I get for an interview with David Letterman, I’m going to take a shot. I’m up to 64. I’ve told him, ‘Dave, you’re making my life very complicated.’^”

“Everyone wants to know about Dave or Courtney,” Rahal said. “They see that there’s so many other connections _ Dave in particular at this time with that whole story would just take off. And that’s why everybody looks at me as, ‘OK, he’s gotta be the guy.’ Look, I don’t put any more pressure on myself but I grew up and Indy car fan. This is my life before I even drove here. I mean, all I ever wanted to do was be an Indy car driver, so if I can have any part in helping this sport get back I would feel like pretty honored to do.”

Rahal finished 19th in last year’s point standings, his second-worst performance since joining the series fulltime in 2008 with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. A key offseason switch was removing his father, a three-time CART champion, as his race-day radio strategist and replacing him with Ricardo Nault.

“It was done because we felt we just needed to be more calm,” Graham said. “Sometimes it’s not the easiest thing to be told, ‘We really need you to go past that guy’ when you’re always giving it 110 percent. And you’re going, ‘Jeez, it’s not like I’m out here for a Sunday cruise or anything.’ And sometimes the emotions got a little high so we thought it’d be best to kind of separate in that capacity.

“I think it’s worked well. But I think the success the team is starting to have isn’t necessarily because of that. I think other factors have had a bigger role than dad not being there, if that makes sense. I think the cohesiveness of the engineering staff (led by Eddie Jones) to mechanics (Donny Stewart) to general manager to myself is far better, and that’s the biggest key versus taking dad off the timing stand. Although I saw him in St. Pete, Turn 1, enjoying a beer in the grandstands during the race, so he can’t be hating it too much.

“Look, I’ve admitted immaturity. I don’t say this lightly _ that if things go wrong, it’s always my fault. That’s the way the fans view it often. If things go right, it’s always me. Well, that’s not the case. Things have gone right this year because of the team. I don’t feel like I’ve driven a whole lot different, honestly. Have I maximized the potential of the car more, maybe. Have I been better on race days, for sure. Have I qualified better on average this year, yes. But again, the team has made a lot of that a heck of a lot easier.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 23 2015
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