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Graham Rahal looks to repeat winning performance at Mid-Ohio

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Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. But for Verizon IndyCar Series driver Graham Rahal, his heart will always be in Mid-Ohio.

That’s both the middle of the Buckeye State, where he grew up in the shadow of the capital city of Columbus, as well as – more importantly – Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, 50 miles north in Lexington, Ohio.

Mid-Ohio was where Rahal watched his father, Bobby, race (best career showing there were a pair of third-place finishes), qualify, practice and test.

Mid-Ohio was where the younger Rahal learned a great deal of not only how to drive a race car, but more importantly, how to be a race car drive both inside and outside the cockpit.

If Rahal had a dollar for every time he dreamed about or fantasized about winning an IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio, he could probably own the track now.

Next to winning the Indianapolis 500, winning an IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio was right at the top of the younger Rahal’s bucket list – which he finally achieved in emotional fashion last year.

(Photo courtesy Chris Jones/IndyCar)
Graham Rahal celebrates in the winner’s circle at Mid-Ohio last year. (Photo courtesy Chris Jones/IndyCar)

Now, Rahal returns to Mid-Ohio to try and make it to the winner’s circle two years in a row in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (2 p.m. ET on CNBC/re-aired at 5:30 p.m. ET the same day on NBCSN).

“Mid-Ohio is home to me,” the younger Rahal said in a media release. “I grew up at the track and spent so many days there as a kid.

“Watching races there, being a part of it, seeing and loving what it’s all about is a big part of who I am. The way it all came together last year, every aspect of it made it perfect for me. Having the Buckeye helmet and gear, having my entire family there – which never happens, ever, since everyone is spread out – and having the crowd support, to have that sort of experience makes it impossible to tell anyone how much it means to me.

“The sense of accomplishment for me is so great. Everyone knows this but I love Ohio. I’m very proud to be from Ohio and that event means so much to me. To win it is a career accomplishment that I will never forgot or take for granted. It means just as much to me now as it did then. To me it’s one of the highlights of my lifetime, and definitely the most meaningful win of my career. I sure hope it happens again.”

Prior to last year’s win, Rahal’s best IndyCar finish at his home track was fifth in 2014.

(He previously won one other time at Mid-Ohio: at 16 years old became the youngest driver to ever win the SCCA National Formula Atlantic Championship Runoffs in 2005.)

Rahal’s only other IndyCar top-10 at his home track was eighth in 2009, when he drove for Newman-Haas-Lanigan Racing (he’s now in his fourth season with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing).

And even though he’d leave the 2.258-mile, 13-turn natural terrain road course time after time without the checkered flag, Rahal was determined to one day do it – and he did just that on August 2, 2015.

Rahal drove his Steak ‘n Shake/Maxim sponsored Honda to the winner’s circle, leading one-fourth (23 laps) of the 90-lap event, taking the lead for the first and only time of the day on Lap 68 and holding on the rest of the way.

“We had to rally last year,” Rahal recalled. “We started 13th which wasn’t great. We should have qualified better than that as our pace was certainly better than that.

“We ended up getting up to the top three on pure pace then I was held up in traffic. I said over the radio that I wanted to pit. I like to think about strategy a lot as a driver, which is the way my dad was. I knew that with the strategy we were running, we were in the window to pit, I knew I was getting held up so I made the call and told them I was coming in.

“It happened to go yellow right as we came in, which was absolutely perfect. It worked out great for us. … There was so much pride involved in that day. It’s hard for me to explain the feelings that I had to people. It was a great moment in my life and I just hope it carries over and we see a lot of support this year.”

Sunday will be Rahal’s ninth IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio, but there will be a definite change in the aura from last year. He came into and left the track ranked No. 2 in the series standings, earning his second win of the season.

That’s not the case this year.

Rahal and his team have had strong showings for the most part, but have struggled in their quest for the winner’s circle (none), and even podium finishes (just two in the first 11 races).

Firestone 600 - Practice

Even worse, they’re mid-pack in the series standings (11th), 140 points behind points leader Simon Pagenaud. On the flip side, Rahal is only eight points out of seventh place (occupied by Alexander Rossi), and just 52 points behind fifth-ranked Josef Newgarden (344).

Overall, Rahal has five top-five finishes and a per-race finishing average of a respectable 9.4. That includes finishes on permanent road courses of second and third at Barber and Road America, as well as street course runs of fourth at Indianapolis (Grand Prix) and Belle Isle Race 1.

But he also has six finishes between 11th and 16th (twice), including disappointing showings in the season’s last two races – at Iowa (16th) and Toronto (13th). He also struggled in street courses at St. Petersburg (16th), Long Beach (15th) and Belle Isle Race 2 (11th).

That’s why a little home cooking back in Mid-Ohio may be just what Rahal needs to get back on track and make a late season surge upward in the rankings.

“We have certainly had an up and down season, and are in need of a good result this weekend in a big way,” Rahal said. “It’s exciting to go back as the defending champion, but we want to do that again year in and year out. We just have to focus on the task at hand, and hopefully we can pull it off.”

Rahal may have an ace up his sleeve. Of 20 drivers that took part in an open test at Mid-Ohio on July 21, Rahal was the fastest Honda-powered driver.

“The test was good,” Rahal said. “We were focused on getting to the mileage limit on our Honda engine, which we successfully did.

“Now we turn our attention to finding little bits of speed we will need to be quick come this weekend. I hope we can get the balance a bit better, but it didn’t feel far off on the test day.

“I expect that we should be very competitive and our performance from the other road courses should carry over to Mid-Ohio. The tricky part is that everyone is competitive nowadays. There are no longer any bad teams or non-contenders. So I fully expect it to be a patented tight IndyCar race weekend and I hope the Steak ‘n Shake team can come out on top again!”

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Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

NHRA: How this weekend’s championship battles shape up

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After nine months and 23 races, the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season all comes down to this: one race for the championship.

This weekend’s Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, California will crown champions in a number of classes, most notably the four professional ranks of Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

This weekend’s race is one of only two – the other is the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day Weekend – that offers drivers 1.5 times as many points as they earn in the season’s other 22 races.

To give you a better idea of how valuable those extra points are, here’s how they break down for all four classes: Winner (150 points), runner-up (120 points), third-round loser (90), second-round loser (60) and first-round loser (30 points).

Drivers also earn qualifying points: 10 for first, 9 for second, 8 for third, 7 for fourth, 6 for fifth and sixth, 5 for seventh and eighth, 4 for ninth through 12th and 3 for 13th through 16th.

In addition, every driver that qualifies earns 15 points each. Plus, performance bonus points are awarded for each qualifying session for: low elapsed time of each session (4 points), second-quickest (3 points), third-quickest (2 points) and fourth-quickest (1 point).

Here’s a quick breakdown of what – and more importantly, who – to watch for in those four pro categories:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence is going for his second consecutive championship. But the route to this year’s title has not been nearly as easy as it was last year, when Torrence became the first driver in NHRA history to sweep all six races of the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Steve Torrence (Photo: NHRA)

Torrence has still had a very strong season, but his championship hopes are anything but secure. He leads 2017 champion Brittany Force, who has come on strong late in the season, by a mere 16 points coming into this weekend.

And don’t count out third-ranked Doug Kalitta, who at 55 points behind Torrence is less than two rounds of points away from taking the top spot if Torrence is upset. Kalitta is seeking his first career Top Fuel championship.

Mathematically at 86 points behind, even fourth-ranked Billy Torrence – Steve’s father – is still in contention, although it would take a complete first- or second-round meltdown in Sunday’s four final rounds of eliminations by his son, Force and Kalitta for dear old dad to rally to win the championship.

Still, that’s the beauty of NHRA racing: anything can happen.

FUNNY CAR: Robert Hight is aiming for his third championship but has some of the best in the class all still within striking distance heading into this weekend.

Robert Hight (Photo: NHRA)

Hight, who is president of John Force Racing when he isn’t hurtling down a drag strip in his AAA Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro, leads a pair of Don Schumacher Racing drivers, Jack Beckman (46 points behind Hight) and Matt Hagan (-56).

And don’t rule out 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, who is 72 points behind his teammate. Force needs to win the race, as well as have Hight, Beckman and Hagan all lose in the first two rounds, to potentially earn his 17th championship.

Still in it mathematically is Bob Tasca III, but at 104 points behind Hight, he would likely have to be No. 1 qualifier, set both ends of the speed and elapsed time national records, and have the four drivers in front of him all be eliminated in the first or second rounds.

PRO STOCK: Erica Enders has a very healthy lead in her quest for a third Pro Stock championship.

Erica Enders (Photo: NHRA)

Enders leads teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. by 92 points heading into this weekend.

Three other drivers are mathematically still in the running, but if Enders gets past the second round, they’ll be eliminated unless they potentially go on to victory.

Those three drivers – who are separated by just five points – are 2017 champion Bo Butner (113 points behind Enders), Jason Line (-116) and Matt Hartford (-118).

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: About the only way Andrew Hines fails to clinch his sixth career PSM championship is if he fails to qualify for Sunday’s finals, is kidnapped by one of his rivals or simply doesn’t show up.

Andrew Hines (Photo: NHRA)

Fat chance of any of those things happening.

Hines has a commanding 115-point lead over 2016 champion Jerry Savoie.

Right behind is three-time champ Eddie Krawiec (-116 points), leads last year’s PSM champion, Matt Smith, by 117 points and has a 124-point edge over Karen Stoffer.

Follow @JerryBonkowski