INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Graham Rahal hears what people are saying about him.
He heard it when people anointed him open-wheel racing’s great American hope, or when the critics said he got a ride in IndyCar only because of his name. He heard the murmurs the last couple years that he’d lost his drive, that he was no longer interested in being the best.
“I’ve been through a couple tough years,” he says, “and you know, you always grow up. You always go through things that test your willpower, test your patience and all these other things.
“I think I’ve learned to appreciate the opportunity I have in the sport more,” Rahal adds. “I think this year, I’ve basically come to the mindset that I have to make the most of the situation, and we’ve been fortunate to be able to do that recently.”
More mature these days, and with a revamped team and some changes atop his pit box, Rahal has indeed made the most of his opportunities lately. The 26-year-old comes into Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 off back-to-back second-place finishes, tied for fourth in the series standings.
He has also become the standard-bearer for struggling Honda, which has been slower than rival Chevrolet all season.
“I don’t say this lightly, but if things go wrong, it’s always my fault. That’s the way the fans view it. And if things go right, it’s because of me. That’s not the fact,” Rahal said. “The team has really made everything a heck of a lot easier.”
That’s a good place to figuring out why Rahal has so much speed.
Martin Pare and Mike Talbott, who worked with Rahal during his days at Newman-Haas, have given him a sense of familiarity at Rahal Letterman Lanigan. New race engineer Eddie Jones hit it off with him immediately.
“Look at all the successful guys,” said his father, 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal. “All those guys have had engineers for five, 10 years. There’s this relationship that gets built. That’s a very powerful relationship. Graham hasn’t had that. He hasn’t quite had a different engineer every year but it’s pretty close. He has a good support network now.”
One constant had always been Bobby’s voice on the radio, and that wasn’t always such a good thing. Father and son would often get into heated conversations when things went awry.
So this year, Bobby stepped back from the pit box. The result? A sense of calm.
“Sometimes it’s not the easiest to be told, ‘Oh, we need you to go past that guy when you’re already giving 110 percent,'” Graham said. “We thought it would be best to kind of separate, and you know, it’s worked out well. But I don’t think our success is because of that.”
Not all of it, anyway. But perhaps some of it.
“The cohesiveness of engineering to mechanics to myself is better. That’s the biggest thing, as opposed to kicking dad off the timing stand,” Rahal said. “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.”
The fact that the younger Rahal can joke about things in the days leading up to the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is a testament to just how comfortable he is these days.
He is happily engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Funny Car star Courtney Force. He is having fun hob-knobbing with sponsors — that was him passing orders through a drive-thru window at a local Steak ‘n Shake not long ago. And Rahal is confident in his single-car team, which added Oriol Servia in a second entry for this weekend’s marquee race.
“The truth is he’s been doing great in a one-car team,” Servia said. “It’s hard to argue, two seconds the last two races they could have easily won. They’re figuring it out.”
Rahal knows a win Sunday would be a big boost for IndyCar, which has been slowly trying to recapture the public’s imagination after its infamous 1990s split.
Not only would a Rahal be back in victory lane at long last, the victory would come just days after part owner David Letterman retired from his long tenure as the host of “The Late Show.”
“I think there needs to be an American star, but the point of this whole thing is, the two Americans that can probably take this series to the next level are Marco (Andretti) and myself,” Rahal said. “I’m biased — I’d like to see him not win — but it would move the needle. And a lot of people look to me, because people see Dave or whatever, and I think it would just take off.”