Graham Rahal is in the best possible position for a true, and overdue, breakout IndyCar Series campaign in 2014.
He’s nearly a decade into his career, but he only just turned 25 in January.
It seems hard to believe, but Rahal first entered the national open-wheel sphere as a then-16-year-old winning the Formula Atlantic class at the SCCA National Championship Runoffs in 2005, the youngest driver to claim that honor at the Runoffs.
A year later, he engaged in a knife-fight with Simon Pagenaud for the Champ Car-backed Formula Atlantic title, but lost. Still, both leapt into Champ Car in 2007, and Rahal was on the podium in only his third race after missing his prom.
He won his first IndyCar-sanctioned start at St. Petersburg in 2008. In 2009, he frequently hassled the Penske and Ganassi squads with the Newman/Haas/Lanigan team as a regular podium visitor and occasional pole sitter.
And yet since that point, it’s been stop-start.
The 2010 season saw Rahal out of a full-time ride; instead he took up multiple opportunities when presented. A switch to Chip Ganassi Racing’s new second two-car team in 2011 didn’t bare the expected fruits of success.
Homecoming last year to his dad Bobby’s operation also didn’t go according to plan. Some highlights happened, but it was a trying season due to some organizational (engineering) changes during the year, and other bits of bad luck that frequently popped up.
The 2014 season is the big reset. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has National Guard backing, and Graham is the Guard’s new face.
Oriol Servia will join for at least four races in the team’s second car, which means the part-time pairing from 2009 at NHL gets reunited.
Add it all up and the ingredients all appear to be in place.
“For us, there’s quite a lot of pride involved in this,” Rahal said at IndyCar media day in Orlando. “I know Dave (Letterman) is certainly extremely excited, probably the most excited I’ve seen him in years to be involved in a program like this. So is, of course, Mike Lanigan.
“There is quite a lot of responsibility for us. On-track performance is key. We want to do a good job. But off-track performance is equally as important to the National Guard and we need to make sure the main goals of recruiting and retention are things we carry through each and every day and do the best we can to help them out, try to keep them in the sport as long as we can.”
Graham has learned well from his father, Bobby, in terms of the business side. He’s been a key activator and voice for some of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s new additions this year, notably the new road course race on May 10 (Rahal tested on the course to gauge potential configurations) and the new qualifying format for the Indianapolis 500.
The business on-track, of course, is delivering a package better than a 17.7 qualifying average in 2013, and a points result better than 18th. And Rahal, who’s scored four top-10 championship finishes since 2007 (with a best of fifth coming as an 18-year-old rookie in Champ Car that year), is under no illusions about the challenge it will take to get back to those heights.
“As a team, this elevates us to a whole new level, because it allows us to invest in the people, shock programs that we haven’t had, that the Ganassis, Penskes, Andrettis of the world have,” Rahal explained.
“I think it’s going to help elevate us to a different level we haven’t been in many years, probably since the team was a Ford factory team or funded by Miller or Shell in the old days. It kind of gets us back to that sort of level.”
The shock program, Rahal said, was night-and-day difference coming home versus being with Ganassi. At CGR, he said they could use four different pairs of shocks per weekend, while at RLL, the options were less.
Rahal though has already gelled with Pappas, and said the feel of the car is much improved.
“When I got out of what was my car last year, and then drove what was a Bill Pappas car for the first time, didn’t feel like the same chassis,” Rahal explained. “The car felt so different it was like driving a sports car versus an IndyCar. It was a completely different sensation.”
On that front, Rahal did get some sports car mileage in this winter too, racing in the BMW Team RLL BMW Z4 GTE car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. His car finished fourth in the GT Le Mans class, an impressive result given the car’s straight-line speed deficit.
Now though, he’ll want some fourths, then thirds, seconds and his elusive second win as he prepares for full year number two home at RLL. They’re family, but it’s business.
“This year I think dad trusts in me a lot to help him when he needs something, needs to get some inside scoop or anything like that,” Rahal explained. “I think we have a very close relationship that I think a lot of people, father-son relationship, whatever it may be, the business can tear that apart, but I think we’re pretty good at balancing that.”