Graham Rahal Carries the Torch
“It doesn’t get any sweeter than this - to win in our first race,” said Rahal after taking the checkered flag on the street circuit at St. Petersburg, Fla., in April. “We had the pace and pulled away from them, so it was not like we lucked into it. This is just awesome.”
Rahal, of course, comes from racing royalty, just like fellow IndyCar youngsters Marco Andretti, now 21, and A.J. Foyt IV, 24. All have famous champion fathers and/or grandfathers. In Rahal’s case, father Bobby was a three-time Champ Car titlist (1986, 1987 and 1992) and winner of the 1986 Indy 500. Graham, who has two sisters and an older brother, always felt he was destined to follow in his father’s tire tracks.
“I have always felt this was my path in life,” he said recently. “To be where I am today is pretty exciting and I feel lucky to have the opportunity to build on what we started in the past season.”
What he started in 2007 was a partnership with the fabled Newman/Haas/Lanigan (NHL) Racing team, winner of five of the past six Champ Car titles. Coming off a strong showing in the 2006 Atlantic series, Rahal found himself as teammate to Sébastien Bourdais, the Frenchman who was pursuing (successfully) a record fourth straight championship. The teenaged newcomer ended up fifth in points, with four podium finishes.
Not a bad result, especially as Rahal had certain distractions early in the season - like homework. He was still attending New Albany High School in suburban Columbus, Ohio, at least when racing commitments allowed. He graduated in June, 2007, despite missing more than 50 days of his senior year. For a class project, he documented his complete restoration of a 1964 Mini Cooper.
Going into 2008, Rahal and his new teammate Justin Wilson (replacing F1-bound Bourdais) expected to compete again in Champ Car. They and the whole (NHL) team were taken by surprise when Champ Car was folded into the IRL at the end of February - with less than a month to prepare for the season-opener.
“I think we all recognize that it [unification] really needed to happen to the sport. It should help us in the long run,” said Rahal. But with limited preparation time, he added, “We knew it was
going to be challenging.”
When Rahal, inexperienced on ovals, crashed in practice for the Homestead opener, the team did not have enough spare parts to repair his car. He had to sit that one out, delaying his IRL debut to St. Petersburg two weeks later. There he qualified ninth, but soon climbed to third in the tricky wet, but drying conditions, only to be spun out by Will Power shortly after his first pit stop. He fell to 23rd, last car on the lead lap.
“After being hit by Will in the rain and everything, I thought it was going to be a tough day,” he said. But with little to lose, he pitted earlier than the frontrunners for his final fuel stop and a switch to slick tires. As the others pitted, he found himself elevated to second, behind only Ryan Hunter-Reay, who ironically drives for Rahal-Letterman Racing, the team
co-owned by his father.
Rahal passed his father’s car on a late restart to take the lead. After another caution, he found himself with the vastly experienced Helio Castroneves right behind him coming to the final restart with just three laps to go. But he kept his composure and even pulled away from the Brazilian to win by 3.519 seconds.
“Obviously, Helio is very successful and has won a lot of races,” said the young winner. “At the same time, I knew we had the pace and
I knew if I could just keep calm, we could pull away, so I was not too worried.”
One of the first to congratulate him afterwards was a teary-eyed Bobby Rahal, whose own car had run out of fuel on the final lap. It may well have been the first time that the owner of one team had rushed to Victory Lane to hug the winning driver from a rival squad. But it was quite the historic moment.
At 19 years, three months and two days, Rahal had just become the youngest driver to win in any form of IndyCar or Champ Car competition. The youngest previous winner in the IRL was Marco Andretti, at Sears Point in 2006, when he was 19 years, five months and 14 days. The youngest in Champ Car was Nelson Philippe, who was an old man of 20 when he won in Australia in 2006.
Rahal also became only the fourth driver to win on his IRL debut, joining Buzz Calkins (winner of the very first lRL race in 1996), Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Dixon. He was the first of the so-called «transition» drivers (those coming from Champ Car) to win. And he became the 10th winning Indy/Champ Car driver for NHL, a list that begins with Marco’s grandfather, Mario Andretti,
in the team’s inaugural season in 1983.
Bobby Rahal, who had a total of 24 Champ Car wins between 1982 and 1992, was 29 years old when he triumphed for the first time at Cleveland.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Graham of his famous surname. “You get the bonuses, but at the same time there’s a lot of pressure to do well. It’s the same for anybody who carries a famous name, whether it’s Marco, myself or A.J. Foyt IV. For anybody that’s had a successful father or grandfather, or both in some cases, there’s always pressure to do well and get your first win and see if you can really do it.”
Castroneves, the runner-up that day, observed: «We’re talking about Bobby Rahal’s son. Bobby Rahal is a legend. Now, all of a sudden, his son followed in his steps. That’s a big deal. It’s a lot of pressure for him, for Marco and for A.J. to repeat what their grandfathers and fathers did in the past.»
Clearly, American open-wheel racing has suffered in the past decade, mostly because of the IRL/Champ Car war and the corresponding growth of NASCAR, but also due to the lack of homegrown talent to please the U.S. fans. Many of the best American open-wheelers of recent years, such as triple IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. and former Champ Car standout A.J. Allmendinger, have already defected to NASCAR.
At present, 26-year-old Danica Patrick is open-wheel racing’s one true American superstar. But Rahal and Marco Andretti seem ready to step up and fill the void. In a sense, they represent the future of IndyCar, as it seems they will both be around for a while. Neither has expressed any interest in NASCAR, although they have both said that their ultimate goal is Formula 1 if an opportunity presents itself.
“I think naturally American fans want to see American drivers do well. It is an American-based oval series. It is important for there to be a lot of American drivers,” said Rahal during
a recent teleconference. “It’s great for the series to have a lot of young names. It’s important that there are names that people recognize.”
Rahal thinks that more young Americans will look to open-wheel racing, now that the IRL and Champ Car have united.
“I remember when I was in go-karts, it seemed like everyone wanted to go open-wheel, but because of the split at the time, NASCAR was kind of an easier route,” he said. “But if we can get some big sponsors into the series, I think a lot more kids will want to come this way.”
Rahal began racing karts at age 11 and soon moved up from regional to national competition and from 80cc to the 125cc shifter class. In 2003, at age 14, he finished third in the Stars of Karting national championship race in California, competing against drivers in their 20s and 30s.
The next year, at 15, he switched to full-size race cars and was seventh overall in the Formula BMW USA series. In 2005, at 16, he became the youngest-ever winner in the Star Mazda series when he triumphed at Portland. He was fourth overall in the championship. He capped his season by going to the SCCA national runoffs and winning the Formula Atlantic title, as his father had done 30 years earlier.
In 2006, now 17, he competed in the pro Mazda Atlantic championship and he once again became the youngest-ever winner. Indeed, he won five of 12 races for Conquest Racing, although he narrowly lost the title to the more consistent Simon Pagenaud. His victories included a «home» win at Cleveland, Ohio.
At year’s end, Champ Car team-owner Carl Haas reportedly told his partners Paul Newman and Mike Lanigan that they had better sign this kid as soon as possible before someone else grabbed him. Rahal had previously indicated that he wanted to move to Europe and race in the GP2 series in hopes of getting to F1. But an offer from the best team in the Champ Car business was too good to turn down.
In just his third Champ Car start, at Houston, he finished second to set another historic mark, this time as the youngest driver ever to mount the podium in that series. He went on to score three more podiums, all third-place finishes, at Edmonton, Road America and Zolder, Belgium. Although he was fifth in points, he lost the rookie title to Dutchman Robert Doornbos, a newcomer to the series who had F1 experience.
Away from the track, Rahal describes himself as «just another kid who likes hanging out with my friends» when he goes home to New Albany. He cycles, runs and lifts weights to keep fit. A self-confessed «pack rat,» he has kept all his trophies and helmets and other racing memorabilia. But most of all, he likes to work on his cars. Besides his restored Mini Cooper, he also has a Corvette and an Audi RS4.
“I love working on cars. A lot of drivers love driving, but don’t care about the mechanical side. I am the opposite. I have a lot of interest in the mechanical side. My real passion is just cars,” he said. He knows how to build them and clearly, he knows how to drive them with success.