ICS: Rahal Beginning to Live Up to His Name

He needs a victory in the worst way. Graham Rahal knows how to drive. He knows how to interview. He knows how to raise money and give it away to the needy. He knows how to win, too. He just needs to actually do it.

Without question, if Rahal’s ride was powered by a Chevrolet engine and the accompanying aero kit, he would be a contender for the Verizon IndyCar Series Championship. How could he not be?

Instead, midway through the season, it’s fairly obvious his arsenal is the weaker Honda package. That’s simply the way it is when you move away from a spec series. One manufacturer builds an advantage that, for all intents and purposes, proves the fact. And in the racing game, tenths of seconds is all the advantage one needs.

Yet Rahal, driving solo for owners Bobby Rahal (a former driver and his championship winning father), retired late night icon David Letterman and businessman Mike Lanigan, has performed remarkable feats. Without the benefit of a teammate and the tech advantages it brings to qualifying and race day—think what Oriol Servia or Justin Wilson could bring to the team—Rahal has pushed forward to fifth in the standings. He trails leader Juan Pablo Montoya by 69 points. That’s two good days at the office from first place with eight races remaining.

“Last year wasn’t a very good environment in our team and it wasn’t very conducive to improvement,” Rahal said of a 2014 season in which he had only three top 10 finishes and one top 5, a second-place at the first race in Detroit. This year is different: “When you feel more confident in your team and feel more at ease, you can be more successful. Dad always says as a driver your only concern should be driving. In that past, I haven’t had that ability because I’ve always been so worried about other things. Now I feel like I’m in a position where I don’t have to worry so much. As long as I do my job to the be the best, we’re going to be competitive. We’re not going to get it every week—as a single-car team it’s hard—but we’re going to be competitive.”

The past weekend’s Dual in Detroit saw Rahal cover nearly both ends of the spectrum. In rain-soaked Race 1, Rahal got caught up in the crash of James Jakes and Tony Kanaan after only five laps in the wet. The next day, he finished third behind the more seasoned Sebastien Bourdais and Takuma Sato, a pair of Formula One refugees.

In a sport that would dearly love for a next-generation driver to rise to elite status—and we’re primarily talking about Rahal and Marco Andretti—it seems Rahal may be hitting his stride toward the major players.

He already has four top five finishes in eight races. He had five in 2009 (17 races) and four in 2012 (15 races).

Being the son of a driver comes with plenty of extra baggage, no doubt to lug the extra pressure and stress around.

“There’s always going to be pressure, it’s always going to be tough,” Rahal said, adding that he felt most of it the last couple of years. “People have been hard on me, media’s been pretty hard, the fans have been pretty hard. Some of it’s deserved, some of it’s not deserved. We’ve had a lot stacked up against us, but adversity builds strength. My team, my guys and myself are working hard to makes sure we put ourselves in the best position to succeed.

“Being a Rahal has its ups and downs. I’m not going to lie to you, life is pretty good. I don’t have any complaints. But with that comes a lot of stress, a lot of challenges. I make it hard on myself because I want to win. I probably put the most pressure on myself to succeed—more than fans or anybody else. But some of the heat you take, if heat’s the right word, is created more by others than myself.”

Rahal became the second youngest driver to start an IndyCar race at 18 and the youngest to win when he took the checkers at age 19 years 93 days in the second race of the unified series in 2008. The victory at St. Petersburg, driving for Newman/Haas Racing, was also his only victory, so it’s easy to understand if there’s an urgency to his attitude. It’s an urgency that’s easy to see in his outgoing attitude, but an urgency that doesn’t seem to exist with his contemporary, Andretti, who is a third-generation driver in the shadow of father Michael and grandfather Mario.

Yet the young Andretti seems to get a pass that Rahal doesn’t. At least from Rahal’s perspective.

“If you read media stories, people aren’t hard on Marco for whatever reason,  whereas on me they always are,” Rahal said. “I don’t know why that is. People are very tough on me.

“Marco should almost feel it more because he’s on a team that has won a lot of races the last handful of years and he hasn’t. He should almost be in a position where he is winning races. I’m sure he feels the pressure to win and the pressure to improve, but Marco’s a different personality than me and maybe he shows that different from the way I do. He’s a pretty quiet guy. I don’t think he worries or feels the pressure to succeed for his family.”

Ah, family. That’s where Rahal’s life is about to change. He is engaged to Courtney Force, who drives an NHRA Funny Car for her father, 16-time champion John Force. Courtney has seven victories.

“I want to succeed for our family as a whole,” Rahal said. “Drag racing and us are very different. … Being around her last year and seeing her win races pushes you to do as good as you can. I’ve enjoyed Victory Lane with her, I want her to enjoy it with me.

“I’m getting married. There’s a lot going on. I stand for more than myself anymore.”

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