Rahal: An IndyCar Championship Feels Possible

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 22 2015
With two races left in the season, it appears Graham Rahal could be closing in on the IndyCar Series championship.

With two races left in the season, it appears Graham Rahal could be closing in on the IndyCar Series championship.

All-American boy Graham Rahal proudly says he is about to enter “two of the biggest races of my career” within nine points of his first Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

Rahal’s breakthrough campaign could take a massive swing Sunday during the ABC Supply bugqa500 at Pocono Raceway, the season’s penultimate event and final oval-track race of 2015. Qualifying is scheduled for Saturday afternoon around Pocono’s 2.5-mile “Tricky Triangle” in Long Pond, Pa., where season-long point-leader Juan Pablo Montoya won from pole-position last summer.

NBC Sports Network will televise qualifying at 2 p.m. Saturday, with the network’s race coverage also beginning at 2 p.m. Sunday.

“It’s right there, and we’re close, and we feel like we’re close,” said Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda. “We feel like we’re capable. I think everybody on the Rahal Letterman Lanigan (Racing) team is ready to capitalize on it. Certainly we’re riding a bit of a wave here lately. Things have definitely gone right. I think the guys are doing a tremendous job for us, and we’re excited by that.

“Pocono hasn’t been the best for us in the past. But with that being said, I think really that we’re in a great spot looking forward. I think we’re definitely capable of having a great race this weekend and I definitely feel confident going into Sonoma. I’m looking forward to the next couple.”

Montoya’s nine-point lead (465-456) is the result of a sizeable 42-point hit the Colombian took on Aug. 2, when Rahal scored a popular hometown victory on the 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, while Juan Pablo finished 11th.

After exiting Eastern Pennsylvania, series teams will trek cross-country for the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Calif.) on Aug. 30, where double-points could produce another twist in the championship around the 2.385-mile/12-turn layout.

Montoya, of Team Penske, has held the point-lead since winning the season-opener on the Streets of St. Petersburg (Fla.) on March 29. His largest margin over second place was 54 points following Race No. 12, the ABC Supply Co. Inc. Wisconsin 250 at The Milwaukee Mile on July 12.

The current nine-point edge Montoya holds over Rahal is the narrowest since JPM led reigning series champion Will Power of Team Penske by five points following the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, fifth race of the season, on May 9. The nine-point margin also is the fourth-closest with two races to go since 2007. In addition, the 34 points separating Montoya and third-place Scott Dixon, a three-time series champion with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, is the closest margin between first and third since 2009.

Fifty-nine points separate the top five drivers _ JPM, Rahal, Dixon, Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and Power _ with 158 points up for grabs in the final two races. The championship will be decided in the last race of the season for the 10th consecutive year.

Rahal’s best previous point-finish was seventh during his rookie IndyCar Series season in 2007. A 26-year-old resident of New Albany, Ohio, the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 champion and team co-owner Bobby Rahal is seeking to become the first American series champ since Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport in 2012.

An edited transcript of Rahal’s portion of a wide-ranging teleconference follows:

Question: Being nine points back with two races left or really three when you total them up, is this a strange dynamic for you because you want to be aggressive but you also want to protect what you’ve got? Or is it just, hey, go after it?

GRAHAM RAHAL:  For me, I think it’s go after it. People are going to probably be surprised by that response, but you know, I was kind of listening to Helio earlier and his comment of whether you finish fourth, fifth, third, second _ whatever _ it’s just a number. Ultimately the most important thing is to be the champion.

I’m pretty close to that, so in my position, I’m not going to change our mindset that we had at Iowa, Mid-Ohio or anything else. As I’ve told my guys all along, just keep doing the job you’re doing and we’re going to be fine. It’s going to take care of itself. You know, they’ve done that so far. I’m looking forward to the challenges ahead of us this weekend.

Question: If you look at the television ratings, they have been going up, especially with NBCSN. Do you think that is attributable in any way to the fact that you’re a young American who’s making this surge?

GRAHAM RAHAL:  Well, I’m sure it helps. There’s no doubt about that. I feel a heavy responsibility as an individual to help grow Indy car racing. I recognize that I was blessed to be born with a name that gives me a leg-up when it comes to fan recognition. I feel like it’s my job to help it grow into the future.

With that being said, I’m trying my best. If we can win races and Steak ‘n Shake being involved, that’s a huge part of it. That’s recognition and fan response that we don’t typically get, (for) Verizon, everything else. There’s a lot of ways that this can grow, but hopefully we can be a small part of that.

And the other thing I’m sure is American drivers doing well doesn’t hurt. Do I think that that’s the end-all, be-all? No, I don’t. Frankly, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves (both of Brazil) are more famous than any American out there currently, or Juan Montoya, for example. But can it help if Americans are doing well? Yes, it can.

Question: This is your first time going for an IndyCar Series championship, but it’s not the first time you’ve been in contention for an open-wheel championship. If you look back to the Atlantic battle you had way back with Simon Pagenaud a number of years ago, is there anything you can take from that to use for this couple-race stretch or does that not have any impact on how you approach the next two races?

GRAHAM RAHAL:  I don’t know. In that case, in the Atlantic thing, really we lost it for ourselves. In that season we were the dominant team and dominant car all season, got taken out of a couple races and just didn’t finish the job. And certainly in the last race, we were bound to be champion and then a stuck throttle switch, which is like a $1 part, decided to fail on us, so Lady Luck was kind of against us. But hopefully in this case we get a little bit of role-reversal. Like anything, it’s always hard to say at this point how it’s going to play-out. But in my position and the way that I’m looking at this right now, I just want to attack. I want to do what I’ve done all year and hope that it plays-out. That’s just kind of the way I’m looking at it.

Question: I read your comments from your recent conference call about your dad not being at the races lately, and I have spoken with him just to get a refresher. He said you were trying to avoid the father-son relationship, but it was very difficult to do. It sounds like it’s working great, and you’ve said whenever you need him, he’s not that far away. I take it you’re pleased with the change, that he’s not on the box during the races?

GRAHAM RAHAL:  I mean, it’s good and bad. I think my dad is a guy who has _ I mean, so many years of experience in this and everything else _ he’s a valuable guy to have on our side, for sure, and that’s one of the reasons I drive for him.

At the same time, you know, dad can get pretty fired-up pretty easily and that’s the competitiveness coming out in him. And sometimes things just, I think, got a little too fired-up on the timing stand. When you put a lot of personalities on there _ of which we still have a handful _ you’ve just got to try to find a way to limit things a little bit, and it’s worked well. I think the communication with (race strategist) Ricardo Nault and (engineer) Eddie Jones and everybody to me this year has been good. I will say, though, the other side of it is just myself, and I’ve taken a lot of responsibility to try to have a calmer demeanor in the car and hope that that plays-out. I think it’s helped a little bit this year, as well.

Question: You’re going into these last two races against a group of contenders who are older, have more of these championship battles at the end behind them, and some of them who have won titles. What advantages do you think they might have over you going into a stretch like this, and conversely, do you think there’s any advantage psychologically whatever that you might have going over them?

GRAHAM RAHAL:  Well, I will say that I think psychologically right now I feel like we’ve been on a bit of a tear lately, and that’s helped us. But I haven’t frankly spent any time really thinking about the points much at all. People might be surprised by that, but I haven’t. I feel very fortunate to be in the position that we’re in and I just feel like we have nothing to lose.

When I look at it and look at who we’re competing against, it would be pretty easy to get frazzled. If you look at Dixon, who I have always felt is one of the best _ I still think on an all-around basis he’s the best driver in INDYCAR. But then I look at like Montoya. I mean, Montoya is a guy that when I was a kid, I looked up to him. When he went to Formula One and stuff, I sat there and watched on Sundays just to watch him. You know, if I look as a competitor, I don’t think on a worldwide basis there’s a competitor that’s any better than Juan Montoya. He’s won in everything he’s done. It’s cool for me in many respects to be competing against him for a championship, and it’s special to be in this position.

But they’ve all won championships. They’ve won (Indy) 500s. They’ve won a lot of stuff. So maybe they’ve got a little less pressure on them just because they understand how it goes. But frankly I’m just excited to be in this position to be competing with them.

Question: You guys have obviously been on a run lately, but momentum seems like such a tough thing to maintain in racing because you mentioned the $1 part that could break. How tough of a concept is it to grasp and hold onto and maintain momentum?

GRAHAM RAHAL:  It’s a hard thing, but you know, when momentum is on your side, it’s on your side. Lately it’s worked well for us, and we’ve been on a tear here.

You know, Pocono could be a different animal. Yeah, I feel like we have to do our best each and every day, each and every lap, to make sure we’re maximizing the opportunity ahead of us, and if we do that, we should be just fine. But you never know when it can turn on you. Look at Juan in Mid-Ohio (finished 11th while Rahal won). Sure, we put ourselves in the best spot and I felt like we were getting held up too much by (Carlos) Muñoz and everybody else and I decided to pit early. But if he had decided to pit on the same lap, he probably would have won that race.

When it’s your day, it’s your day, and when it’s not, it’s not. Sometimes that’s a hard thing to grasp. But we definitely have momentum, and trust me, I kind of wish we didn’t have three weeks off here because I like the rhythm that we were in. But we’ll see how it goes this weekend.

Question: Graham, you’ve had success, you’ve had great finishes on all the different types of tracks this season. Breaking down the last two races, one on a big oval at Pocono and another on a road-course, how do you see that shaping-up as far as you’re concerned?

GRAHAM RAHAL:  Well, Sonoma fits right into our wheelhouse, I’d say. We almost won the thing last year and we didn’t have a very good car. I think we led 27 laps or something, or 20-some laps, and I would have told you that ovals are our weakness. But I don’t know, the last big oval we won (Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.), and Milwaukee (third) went well and Iowa (fourth) went well, and obviously those are completely different than Pocono, but we were terrible on all ovals last year and the last couple years. We seemed to have figured out the setups to get them a bit more comfortable for me, so with that, I’m looking forward to it.

Like I said, I’m looking forward to the challenges ahead of us here. I think we have a great opportunity to keep up the work that we’ve been putting in to get a great result. Honda has been doing an excellent job, and I feel like we’re going to be just fine this weekend. Obviously, Juan won there last year and Penske has kind of been pretty stout there the last couple years, but we’ve just got to take care of business. If we have a good day, good, smart day on Sunday, we’ll be just fine.

Question: And looking ahead to the final race at Sonoma, like you said, you did very well there last year, led a lot of laps. You didn’t win but that’s going to be a double-points race. How much will that change the dynamic of wrapping up the championship?

GRAHAM RAHAL:  It changes it a lot. Quite frankly, with the way I’ve been thinking about things lately, I feel like my job is to stay close to Juan in Pocono, and if we can do that, I feel like we’ll be in a pretty good spot come Sonoma. You never know how these things can go. The double-points thing, it can be good or bad. I saw a column the other day about the way things could go forward or back. I could very easily win this thing, I could very easily finish fifth.

The double-points really throws a huge curveball into the mix. We’re going to have to be on top of our game, and it’s going to be exciting for fans. I hope the fans are going to be tracking those points every single lap because it could change a lot over this race or over Sonoma, and it should be pretty cool.

Question: Graham, it’s obviously been a great, great year for you, great stretch of races for you. How would you assess the overall health of the series, though? People come into Pocono, they may not be following along. Many are, but they probably see the Indy 500 and so forth, a lot of people coming into the race this weekend. Your thoughts on where we stand with the series as it enters these last two exciting races? Has it been a big-time boom for the sport this year?

GRAHAM RAHAL:  Well, I think the sport is on the rise, I really do. You look at ratings, good sponsorship interest. I’ll tell you, when we look at 2016 for sponsorship, doors are starting to open. People say, ‘Well, your results helped out.’ Well, that’s part of it. But the other part is people are starting to pay attention to Indy car racing again and that’s pretty special. I think we still need to do a better job promoting the sport. I’ve been doing as much as I can on Twitter to promote Pocono. I don’t see a lot of other drivers doing that. But we’ve got to do a better job of promoting the sport and getting people out there and getting people interested in it, and I think we can grow the thing. I do.

The power of social media, it’s pretty simple to promote these days. And I hope if you look at Pocono, you look at Milwaukee, some of these other events or venues, we’ve got to keep on the promoter side. I think we’ve got to keep enhancing it, but the sport is definitely on the rise. You look at the response in the crowd at Mid-Ohio; I’d never seen it like that and I’ve been going there for my entire life. All signs point to a healthy future.

Question: As you remember last year, Brandon Igdalsky, the track president, was concerned before this race _ it was Fourth of July weekend last year _ and concerned about the future of the race there. Talking to him about two weeks ago, he seemed to be encouraged by improved sales. How important is it to keep Pocono on this INDYCAR race schedule?

GRAHAM RAHAL:  Well, I think it’s hugely important. Pocono is a track that has a lot of Indy car history, and as Dixon pointed out, we’re a little thin on ovals these days on the schedule. Pocono would be a great one to keep and I’d challenge all the fans _ there’s a lot of fans that are within driving distance that could be there on Sunday and help this thing grow and continue the future of that event, and I hope that they do.

I’m going to keep pushing as much as I can to get it out there to make sure that we can help Brandon and everybody at Pocono. Hopefully we’re going to have a good crowd on Sunday.

Question: Graham, comparing your experience and past performances, what has this season taught you?

GRAHAM RAHAL:  Well, it’s taught me racing is fun again. The last couple years have been pretty brutal for sure on many, many fronts, and I’ve really enjoyed myself this year. But I think it’s started to give me the confidence again that I feel like I can compete with these guys and that I belong here.

Frankly, I think all season I’ve taken a much more relaxed approach to the way things have gone, and the other thing that’s really taught me _ the most important thing it’s taught me _ is the importance of a team, and the group of people that I have around me are incredible. Every single person in that shop is the reason for the success we’ve had; that’s the most important, most valuable lesson that I’ve learned.

And you know, the thing is people relate no matter what it is, whether it’s in our auto dealerships or whether it’s on a race team. People are what make the world go-round and we’ve got a great group, and it’s been a lot of fun.

Question: Quick question about things that have changed mentally for you this year _ and do you think that your relationship with (NHRA Funny Car driver) Courtney Force and also your relationship with her dad (16-time world champion John), what have you learned from them that has helped you this year?

GRAHAM RAHAL:  First things first, drag racing is a very different world than Indy car racing, so there’s not too many ways that relate. One is 4-seconds, the other is two-and-a-half hours. One is 1,000-feet, the other is 500 miles. I mean, there’s not a whole lot of similarities there.

But I will say this:  I don’t want to ever let Courtney down. That’s a big part of this and I feel like I need to perform for our family now going forward. You know, that’s definitely been part of it. I think I’m definitely more at-ease in life these days than before. Being around the Forces and all the success that they’ve had, I certainly don’t want to be the loser of the family, that’s for sure. You know, trying our best to get up there and get some wins, and it’s been a pretty good year for us.

Question: Graham, Scott Dixon mentioned what a technical track Pocono is, and if I’ve got this right that the aero package will be similar to the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. How does that equate to Pocono? What are you expecting during first practice, and will this be a constant change-on-the-fly thing?

GRAHAM RAHAL: It’s going to be a bit of a change-on-the-fly. Pocono is very difficult. It’s hard to get the car right in (Turn) 1 and then figure out how to keep it manageable in Turn 3. It’s very, very tricky and something we’ve struggled with in the past.

On the aero side of things, you look at our team’s result in Texas, we made a huge mistake. That’s one of the races that could bite us in this championship is finishing 15th there, by not putting enough downforce on the thing really, really hurt us.

We’re kind of learning on the fly here still. We’re going to try to figure out what’s best for our team, for the entire program, and go out there and do the best that we can. But one thing that the aero kit definitely has done this year is it’s thrown some curveballs at us, and I think there’s going to be plenty of different combinations of things to keep the fans occupied, and it should be great racing.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 22 2015
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