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Head Games: the friendly rivalry of Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud

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FORT WORTH – Rivalries that have lasted for 10 years aren’t supposed to sound like this, right?

“He’s a hell of a driver, a great competitor,” Graham Rahal said of Simon Pagenaud Tuesday during a test at Texas Motor Speedway. “And a great guy. It’s not like I dislike him. I like Simon a lot.”

Pagenaud, the current Verizon IndyCar Series points leader after four races, had even more flattering words for Rahal.

“Graham is a very aggressive driver, he’s exciting to watch. Maybe a lot more exciting than me,” Pagenaud said. “He’s a very good driver. I have a lot of respect for him because he can sometimes outdrive the car, make it better than it actually is. He’s doing a great job.”

This is what it sounded like two weeks after the top drivers for rival manufacturers dueled in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, exchanging the lead four times while combining to lead all 90 of the race’s laps.

After making contact with Rahal on with nine laps left, Pagenaud went off-track, gave up the lead and only took it back three laps later after Rahal suffered wing damage from hitting the lapped car of Jack Hawksworth.

“I know after the race Simon said he thought after we touched he was going to get me back, there was not a chance he would have gotten there,” Rahal said. “I can guarantee that. Cause I was way quicker on old tires than those guys were and if I had gotten clear, I was gone. And I knew that too, which is the frustrating part.”

Pagenaud won his second race in a row. For the second straight year, Rahal placed second at Barber Motorsports Park.

With that, a quiet rivalry that started a decade ago in the Champ Car Atlantic Series was given center stage.

Rahal and Pagenaud first crossed paths in 2006.

“I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of it than it is. For sure, it’s in my head, ‘I don’t lose to Simon,'” said Rahal, who earned six wins that year in the Atlantic series.

But it was Pagenaud who won the title as both transitioned into the Champ Car World Series in 2007. Rahal went to IndyCar in 2008 while Pagenaud drove in the American Le Mans Series for three years, making his debut in IndyCar in 2011.

“That’s the way it’s always been and when I see him particularly as the rabbit in front of me I’m going to get him,” said Rahal, who has yet to finish ahead of Pagenaud through four races. “It’s just my mentality. Obviously, he’s in a pretty good place right now.”

In his second year with Team Penske, Pagenaud has finished in the top two in all four races a season after not finishing better than third. Rahal is the flag bearer for Honda with two top-five finishes a season after winning two races – his first victories in seven seasons.

How does Pagenaud, the points leader, compare himself to his friendly rival?

“I’m more like a (Scott) Dixon, you never see me coming, all of a sudden I’m there and everybody’s like ‘what the hell? How the hell did he do that?'” Pagenaud said.

“Rahal is more like a Paul Tracy, which is really cool to watch. To race, it can be stressful, like it was in Barber.”

With the Month of May underway and the 100th Indianapolis 500 looming on May 29, the stress will start to mount for Rahal, who is looking to win the race 30 years after his father, Bobby Rahal, did it.

He goes into May knowing Honda will likely be at a disadvantage to Chevrolet.

“If we’re not on par, we’re not on par,” Rahal said. “Our job is to finish fifth or whatever. I hate saying that because it’s the 100th running, I want to win this race more than anything else, any race, any where, anytime. It’s 30 years after my dad Bobby won the Indy 500, so it’s a big year for me on many fronts.”

But Pagenaud?

“I’m relaxed and confident I can do things I usually wouldn’t do,” said the Frenchman.

The Penske driver heads to the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis looking to recapture the magic of his win in the inaugural running of the race in 2014. But he had few worries about that or anything else during the test day in Texas.

“Because we’ve started so strong, I don’t have to prove anything,” Pagenaud said. “I can work on what I have to work on. I think that’s what makes for a bit of an advantage in my opinion, in my head.”

Meanwhile, Rahal will hope to better his finish in the GP of Indy by one position from last year, when he was the runner-up to Will Power.

And Pagenaud, the rabbit Rahal has chased quietly for a decade, will likely be there to challenge him.

“He’s a guy I like to beat,” Rahal said. “Barber was frustrating, not because I lost to him, but because I defeated myself to lose to him.”

Now that sounds like a rivalry.

Supercross points leader Eli Tomac finds silver linings in interruption

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Though his Monster Energy AMA Supercross championship charge was put on hold, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had a silver lining for Eli Tomac.

Off the road while the season was postponed for nearly three months, the points leader was able to be present as his girlfriend, Jessica, gave birth to their daughter, Lev, on April 26

“A huge blessing for us there,” Tomac told host Mike Tirico during a “Lunch Talk Live” interview (click on the video above) in which he also joked about becoming a pro at busting off diaper changes. “That was one good blessing for us as we had our daughter on a Sunday, that would have been on a travel day coming back from the race in Las Vegas.

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“That was probably the only positive out of all this mess was being able to be there for the birth.”

But there also could be more good fortune for Tomac as the series resumes Sunday at Salt Lake City, Utah (3-4 p.m. ET on NBCSN, 4-6 p.m. on NBC).

The final seven events will be held over 22 days in Rice-Eccles Stadium, which sits at just over 4,000 feet.

The elevation could favor Tomac, who was born and lives in Colorado and is accustomed to riding and training at altitude, which is a departure for many Supercross riders (many of whom hail from California and Florida).

COVID-19 TESTING REQUIRED: Supercross outlines protocols for last seven races

“That’s going to be the test for us,” said the Kawasaki rider, who five of the first 10 races this season. “We’re at elevation in Salt Lake, so when you’re on a motorcycle, you have a little bit of a loss of power. That’s just what happens when you come up in elevation. And a lot of guys train at sea level, and we’re at 4,000 to 5,000 feet, so cardio-wise, we’ll be pushed to the limit.

“Most of our races are Saturday nights and back to back weeks, but this go around it’s Sunday and Wednesday, so recovery is going to be key.”

Supercross will race Sunday and Wednesday for the next three weeks, capping the season with the June 21 finale, which also will be shown on NBCSN from 3-4:30 p.m. ET and NBC from 4:30-6 p.m. ET.

Tomac, who holds a three-point lead over Ken Roczen (who also recently visited “Lunch Talk Live”), told Tirico he had been riding for 90 minutes Thursday morning on a track outside Salt Lake City.

“Most of us we can rely on our past riding pretty well,” Tomac said. “The question is if you can go the distance. That’s what a lot of guys have to train on is going the distance. We go 20 minutes plus a lap. That’s what you’ve got to keep sharp is your general muscles. Within two to three days, your brain starts warming up more if you take a few weeks off the motorcycle.”

Here is the schedule and TV information for the rest of the season:

  • Sunday, May 31 (3-4 p.m. ET, NBCSN; 4-6 p.m. ET, NBC);
  • Wednesday, June 3 ( 10:00 pm – 1:00 am ET, NBCSN);
  • Sunday, June 7 (5-8:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN);
  • Wednesday, June 10 (7–10 p.m. ET, NBCSN);
  • Sunday, June 14 (7-10 p.m. ET, NBCSN);
  • Wednesday, June 17 (7-10 p.m. ET, NBCSN);
  • Sunday, June 21 (3-4:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; 4:30 – 6:00 p.m. ET, NBC).
Eli Tomac rides his No. 3 Kawasaki in the Feb. 29 race at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia (Charles Mitchell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).