The ingredients are set for Graham Rahal’s big, breakout year

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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.

The engineering strength has been bolstered with Bill Pappas joining as Rahal’s full-time engineer, with strength in depth of Eddie Jones and new hire John Dick.

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.”

MRTI: Barber Motorsports Park Preview

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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After a month break, the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires is back in action this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, with two of its series tacking the 2.38-mile road course in Birmingham, Alabama.

Both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires have double-headers this weekend, with Pro Mazda returning to Barber after not running there last year.

The season-opening weekend in St. Petersburg was a tale of two completely different stories, with two different winners – Pato O’Ward and Santi Urrutia – and more than a fair bit of chaos for Indy Lights, while Pro Mazda saw Rinus Veekay sweep the weekend.

Talking points for both series heading into Barber are below.

Indy Lights

Santi Urrutia heads to Barber leading the Indy Lights championship on the strength of finishes of second and first in St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Santi Urrutia displayed great patience at St. Petersburg, finishing second in Race 1 and winning Race 2 after rivals like O’Ward and Colton Herta faltered. However, Barber has not been one of his better tracks, with finishes of 11th, 15th, and 13th in three of his four Indy Lights starts. Yet, he did win Race 2 at Barber 2016, so he has had success there before, and he will be one of the favorites heading into the weekend.
  • Pato O’Ward looks poised to be a title contender in 2018 and will look to avenge a somewhat disappointing outing at St. Petersburg. O’Ward had the speed to sweep the weekend, winning Race 1 handily and dominating Race 2, but a mistake late in the race saw him overshoot Turn 4 and briefly stall before he could rejoin, relegating him to seventh. If O’Ward can show the pace he showed at St. Pete, he might end up being the man to beat.
  • Colton Herta will look to rebound from a St. Pete weekend in which he flashed the speed that caught everyone’s attention last year, but also committed the same mistakes that ultimately prevented him from taking a championship. After finishing third in Race 1, Herta crashed while chasing then leader O’Ward in Race 2. Herta won Race 2 at Barber last year, and getting another win this weekend, along with staying mistake free, would go a long way to erasing his problems from St. Pete.
  • Aaron Telitz is also looking to rebound after a down weekend, as his St. Petersburg weekend lasted all of two corners across both races – he won the Pole for Race 1, but crashed in Race 2 qualifying, and the Belardi Auto Racing team could not repair the car to allow him to race. After the team borrowed a chassis from Carlin for Race 2, Telitz get collected with Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni right off the start, and he crashed again, this time in Turn 2. Telitz finished on the podium at Barber in 2016, the year he won the Pro Mazda championship, and he’ll look for more of the same this weekend.

Pro Mazda

Rinus VeeKay swept the Pro Mazda weekend in St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Rinus Veekay had a perfect weekend to open the Pro Mazda season. The Juncos Racing driver outdueled Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson for the Race 1 victory, and then ran away with Race 2 to complete the weekend sweep. Veekay was expected to be a title contender after moving up to Pro Mazda in 2018, and if he can repeat his St. Pete performance, then he may leave Barber as the heavy favorite in the championship.
  • Not to be forgotten, Parker Thompson sits second in the Pro Mazda title chase, and looks to avenge losing out to Veekay in St. Pete Race 1, and then fading somewhat to finish fifth in Race 2. Thompson was the only driver to regularly challenge Veekay and Oliver Askew in the 2017 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda season, and he and Exclusive Autosport have adapted nicely to the new Tatuus PM-18. If they can show the same form at Barber, and then finish the job with at least one trip to Victory Lane, then it could set the stage for another titanic Pro Mazda championship fight.
  • Last year’s USF2000 champion Oliver Askew had a quiet weekend in St. Pete, finishing fifth and sixth in the two races. He swept the Barber races in USF2000 last year, and will need a similar performance to vault himself forward from his current place of sixth in the standings.
  • Carlos Cunha and David Malukas head to Barber third and fourth in the championship after solid St. Pete weekends – Cunha had finishes of fourth and third, while Malukas had finishes of seventh and second. Neither was necessarily looked at as a title combatant entering 2018, but repeat performances in Barber could vault them into title contention.

A full weekend schedule, including the Mazda Road to Indy sessions, can be viewed here.

**Note: NBCSN will broadcast Sunday’s Indy Lights race (Race 2 from the weekend) on Monday, April 23.**

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