Career-best weekend for Graham Rahal one to savor in Detroit


Weekends like the one Graham Rahal just had in the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Detroit doubleheader, where he swept the two races, don’t come often.

In fact, one hadn’t come to the 28-year-old from outside Columbus throughout the entirety of his 11-year career, combined between IndyCar and Champ Car, since he debuted as an 18-year-old in 2007.

Add in the fact Rahal witnessed his wife Courtney Force go through a fireball of an accident in her NHRA event in Epping, N.H., but emerge unscathed, and Rahal had the whirlwind of emotions hit like a tidal wave.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – FEBRUARY 18: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, talks to IndyCar driver Graham Rahal and his wife, Courtney Force (R) during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“Contrary to what a lot of people or fans or whatever want to think, it’s not cool,” Rahal admitted after his first of two wins this weekend on Saturday. “You know, it’s nerve-wracking because I see those cars firsthand each and every weekend. There’s a lot to be nervous about. There’s goods and bads there.

“That’s not a very comforting thing because I’ve seen that scenario before on others. I’ve never seen that with her. I guess, you know, you probably a lot of times take those things for granted, that it’s not going to happen to you, or that the safety has really been improved, when it’s really the same as it has been and everything else.

“You know, particularly when it’s your wife, it hits home.”

That was the scary part of his weekend, but the scarier part for the rest of his competitors in the Verizon IndyCar Series was what Rahal achieved this weekend on track.

Rahal’s No. 15 Honda. Photo: IndyCar

Rahal’s overriding emotion was one of elation after the dominance he displayed in Detroit this weekend in the No. 15 SoldierStrong/ Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing wasn’t sabotaged by anything outside his hands.

He won both races at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Presented by Lear, a first for the event since the doubleheader format was introduced in 2013, led 96 of the 140 laps (55 of 70 in race one, 41 of 70 in race two), scored the pole for race one and banked all but one of a possible 108 points – with 107 combined points, he moved from 15th in the championship, 101 markers behind leader Helio Castroneves after last week’s Indianapolis 500, to sixth, 52 points out (303-251) of Scott Dixon in just one week.

It was a huge weekend for United Rentals’ Turns For Troops program as well, which raises money per each lap completed.

The doubleheader sweep was the first by any driver in IndyCar since Dixon at Toronto in 2013, and the first time RLL Racing has won back-to-back races since Kenny Brack at the Motegi and Milwaukee ovals in the 2001 CART season… when Rahal was 12 years old.

With a tremendous setup off the truck thanks to the engineering staff and the rest of the crew, Rahal’s swagger bordered on overconfidence, but he knew from the off he had a damn good race car, perhaps the best of his career.

It seemed Rahal’s presence in the media center for press conferences this weekend was as ubiquitous as his status being No. 1 on the timesheets.

“Overall, it’s been a place I’ve had some success, which is nice,” Rahal said in his first of what would be four appearances this past weekend, Friday after the two practice sessions.

He had runner-up finishes in Detroit in both 2014 and 2015, and was one of the hardest charging cars on the old layout in 2012 as well.

“But obviously today started off on the right foot. The United Rentals car seems to be very strong, very competitive right off the trailer this morning. The first session, we didn’t even change anything. I mean, there was no reason to.”

He continued, “This setup kind of started with a concept out of Long Beach. It is very, very, very, very different from what we ran here last year, or over the last handful of years, so…

“It is certainly a departure in our mindset than what we had done for a while. But this was something that we had tried at Long Beach, in basic theory, and it worked relatively well. I mean, on race day, had it not been for a flat (tire), we were in the top 5 for sure.

“Certainly I think what we’ve got going here is better. I don’t want to get over-confident, but hopefully it’s going to be strong tomorrow.”

Then Courtney’s incident happened, and on Friday night, Rahal had the chance to view it. While he didn’t address it Saturday morning in the press conference, his high hopes for the weekend superseded whatever concern or angst he had over witnessing it.

Rahal would have started second but inherited the pole for Saturday’s race one after Helio Castroneves was docked his fastest lap for failing to slow for a yellow flag period on course. Castroneves was livid; Rahal fortunate, and on the pole for the first time in more than 130 races since Kansas in 2009. It marked the team’s first pole since Scott Sharp, nearly 10 years to the day, did so at Texas in 2007.

“I felt for the first time in a long time I had a legitimate shot, that if I did my job, and I did my best, I felt we would be on pole or we would start on the front row,” he said. “Rarely does that actually work to plan, but today it did.

“I don’t want to put any extra pressure on myself or my team. But if we go out there and do our job today, yellows don’t play a huge role in strategy, things like that, where alternate strategies could pay off, I feel pretty good about where we’re at, without a doubt.”

Rahal bordered on being called Nostra-Grahamus with that prediction. He did his job, the team did in its job in pit stops in race one, the yellows affected other strategies but not his – and by the end of day one, Rahal had what could be considered the most authoritative of his at that point five career victories.

Compared to his four prior wins – in the rain at St. Petersburg in 2008, via strategy at home at Mid-Ohio in 2015 and in thrilling duels at Fontana in 2015 and Texas in 2016 – this was the first time in a while Rahal looked unbeatable from the off in an IndyCar race.

“Trust me, a lot of drivers didn’t like my comment that I felt like I could dominate if I got out front, but I didn’t lie,” he said Saturday afternoon. “You know, I didn’t say that in any other way other than I felt that confident in my car. It’s not about anything else. I just knew if I could be out front in clean air, we could do what we did today.”

Newgarden (left) and Power (right) flank Rahal. Photo: IndyCar

Rahal explained what the “dominate” comment meant and how he used it to in essence, “call his shot” on Saturday as he wound up and poked fun with Team Penske drivers Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud.

“Power liked my comment. So Power said to me today, he came to me today, ‘Hey, mate, give Newgarden some (crap),'” Rahal laughed.

“At the autograph session, I’m like, ‘Hey, Newgarden, I’m going to dominate today. You watch.’

“He’s like, ‘Oh, come on, man, nobody dominates.’ He gets all bent out of shape.

“Then Pag jumped on me. All the Penske guys, you know. They’re used to kicking everybody’s butt. When somebody challenges them, they don’t like it so much.

“Yeah, no, I mean, it’s typical Will trying to get everybody spun up. It was fun. It was fun.”

Almost perfectly, Newgarden and Power finished second and third to Rahal in race two, and as such, could offer their take on Rahal’s friendly jabbing. Newgarden didn’t realize Rahal had said it but Power joked, “Clearly he did get in his head.”

Rahal with some of the RLL crew. Photo: IndyCar

The race two win came courtesy of two more excellent things Rahal did. Killer in and out-laps on the first sequence netted him the lead after Takuma Sato led the opening stint of the race. Then, after a restart following a red flag, Rahal launched away from Newgarden to keep the dominance alive.

Newgarden was congratulatory to Rahal and said he can understand what it means to have such a dominant weekend, as Newgarden did himself at Iowa last year, leading 282 of 300 laps not long after suffering injuries to his collarbone and hand in Texas.

“It’s the best thing you can do in racing. You feel great about it, when you feel like you’re just better than everybody and no one had anything for you.

“They don’t come around very often. So when you see them in front of you, you try to capitalize on them as best you can.”

Rahal could only reflect on what he’d accomplished in full once Sunday night hit and he had his second win of the weekend in the books. It’s his first weekend sweep in anything since he did so at Cleveland in 2006 in Formula Atlantic.

But now, he has this in the books and returns to Texas next weekend (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) for the Rainguard Water Sealers 600, with a chance to defend his win there, too.

“As I said to you all last night, these things don’t happen very often. Through my career, through the ups and downs of my career, you know, when you get a chance to win a race, you never take it for granted. So it’s pretty special for me. You know, nice for our team.

“The guys are going to certainly feel good going into Texas next week, a place we know we can win at. You know, hopefully we can get it done again.”

Colton Herta, Bobby Rahal team up with BMW in pursuit of Rolex 24 at Daytona overall win

Herta Rahal Rolex 24
IMSA, BMW Motorsport

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Though they have opposed each other in the NTT IndyCar Series the past four seasons, the Rolex 24 at Daytona union of Bobby Rahal and Colton Herta seems natural.

Bryan Herta scored his first CART victory with Team Rahal during a 1996-99 run before Colton was even born, and the ties built then

“It’s very cool,” Colton Herta, 22, told NBC Sports. “Obviously Bobby is a legend in the sport that I normally compete in in IndyCar, a three-time champion and won the Indianapolis 500 (in 1986). It’s really cool, and I’ve known Bobby forever. My dad drove for him in the ‘90s in CART and so that transpired into me getting to know him growing up, so it’s really cool and an honor to say you drive for Team RLL.

“We’re not talking about our Indy cars and setups and stuff. We’re talking about how we can make our sports cars faster that we’re driving that weekend. So it’s a completely separate thing, and honestly, I see it as a completely different sport in that aspect. There is no hard feelings over anything in IndyCar and we can just go racing.”

Rahal’s team is known as Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in IndyCar, but it’s branded as BMW M Team RLL for its IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship entries – signifying its status as the operating arm for BMW, which essentially foots the bill and calls the shots on car development and driver selection.

But Rahal, whose Hall of Fame career was launched by his sports car successes, plays a vital role as team principal. So it’s a special throwback to have having Herta in both of the team’s new BMW M Hybrid V8 prototypes.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

“We, of course, compete against Colton almost every weekend in IndyCar racing, and I really wish he was with us in that series,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “But he’s certainly proved himself to be one of the fastest guys out there and of course, his father was my teammate for several years. We go back a long way. So it’s really fun for me to have Colton with us. For both personal and professional reasons.”

This won’t be the first time Herta has driven a sports car for BMW Team RLL. He made six starts in the BMW M8 GTE from 2019-20 and was part of the winning GTLM team at the 2019 Rolex 24 in his debut.

With seven victories and nine pole positions through four IndyCar seasons, the California native has proven adept at getting up to speed quickly in whatever he is driving. Last year, a Formula One test for McLaren Racing nearly led to an F1 ride in 2023.

“And it’s not just speed,” Rahal said of Herta. “I think he brings a lot of good judgment. When he won the 24 Hours (in 2019), it was a horrible rain, and as an 18-year-old, he didn’t put a foot wrong. And really helped put us in a position to win that race. So he’s smart. He’s obviously very capable. And so he’s a plus for us to have.

“Having said that I would say all our drivers bring attributes that are unique. I won’t say our drivers are better than anybody else’s. Only the race will tell that, but I feel very confident the drivers we do have are equal to anything that’s out there.”

Herta will be teamed with Philip Eng, Augusto Farfus, Marco Wittmann, Connor De Phillippi, Nick Yelloly and Sheldon van der Linde in this year’s Rolex 24.

It’s an unusually long list of co-drivers because Herta is in a unique situation – listed as the fourth driver for both BMW’s No. 24 and No. 25 in the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category.

The step up from GT racing to the new premier hybrid class will be major for BMW, which will race a prototype for the first time in two decades.

But there also is special meaning for Rahal, who put himself on the map with an overall victory in the 1981 Rolex 24 at Daytona (co-driving with Bob Garretson and Brian Redman).

“This was the biggest race I won at that point, and at a time in my career when it probably could have gone away more easily than continued,” said Rahal, who recently turned 70. “It was a nexus point at my career. We had a very trouble-free race. Great strategy. As a 28-year-old whose career was kind of iffy, winning this race was a huge turning point for me (and) very, very special and meaningful.

“I can’t think of anything better than if we start our GTP relationship with BMW on a winning note. For me, (GTP) is where we’ve wanted to be. We’ve always been a company that has raced for overall victories, particularly in IndyCar. We’ve had a long relationship with BMW mainly in the GT category, which has been a tremendous honor for us. We won a lot of races (in GT). Won Daytona a couple of times. Won Sebring a couple of times. So those are great victories and things we’re proud of, but for us now, we’re running for overall victories. We worked hard to get to this point and are thrilled to be partnering with BMW to be able to do that.”

Though the GT success provides a great foundation, the leap to prototype is a massive undertaking. BMW also was the last of the four manufacturers to commit to GTP, getting the green light in June 2021, five months after Porsche Penske Motorsport had been announced (Cadillac and Acura are holdovers from DPi, the previous premier prototype division).

Maurizio Leschiutta, the LMDh project leader for BMW M, has described the transition as “a GT is more of a bulldog, the LMDh car is a ballerina. So they require different approaches.”

Though it had the latest start among the four automakers, BMW has tested with furious intensity over the last several months, recently hitting Sebring and Circuit of the Americas.

Before getting 25 laps across both cars on the Daytona International Speedway road course in last week’s Roar before the Rolex 24 practice sessions, Herta had a handful of days testing at Daytona and Bowling Green, Ohio.

The new hybrid system will put a complicated menu of buttons and options on the steering wheel that Herta still was digesting. The car is a high-downforce, high-speed car that bears some similarities to an Indy Car, and Herta does have prototype experience as the LMP2 winner at last year’s Rolex 24 (on a team with Pato O’Ward).

“I’d say the deceleration feels a little different,” Herta said. “The way the brakes changes throughout the brake zone is different. And that’s all done because of the regeneration, and it might regen more at the beginning or more at the later end of the braking zone. But it changes the balance and the way the brake bias is set. There is a little bit of an adjustment period, and you do need to be on your toes with making adjustments inside the car as you drive it. So it’s a little bit more of a handful initially when you get in, but once you get a few laps under your belt and understand how all the systems work, it is a friendly car to drive.

“It’s close to being representative with IndyCar lap times. I don’t think it’s quite as fast, but definitely a huge chunk faster than the GT cars. And a little bit more of a different driving style with obviously a lot more downforce and power.”

Known for being smooth, Herta and the rest of the GTP field will be extra careful about being gentler on the equipment while managing a track clogged by 61 cars with reliability at a premium. Parts supplies are scarce for the GTP cars, and there also are major concerns about the durability of the hybrid engines in their 24-hour debut.

“It seems like it’s going to be a really big endurance race and not a sprint race how this race usually is,” Herta said. “Even the DPis were so reliable, and you could smash the curbs for 24 hours and hammer the throttle, and you wouldn’t have that much of a worry of breaking or blowing an engine or a gearbox.

“It seems with this new formula, everyone is still getting to grips, so maybe reliability will be more of a key and a little more of what we’d see in the ‘80s and early ‘90s of it being more of an endurance race. But it’s still too hard to say. For sure BMW has had great success not only in IMSA but all around in sports car racing as a whole. It shows they have a program that’s capable of winning endurance races and at a very high level.”

Though Herta is uncertain how much time he will have in each car, BMW M Team RLL already has settled his biggest concern of ensuring his seat insert fits well in each car. The main challenge then becomes adapting with each car featuring distinct seat positioning and setups based on the other three drivers.

It also will be a shot at history. Herta is trying to become the third driver to win the overall and score multiple podium finishes with the same team in the top category (a feat also accomplished in the 1968 and ’70 races).

“It’ll be a good opportunity for me to have two chances at winning,” Herta said. “Not a lot of people get that. It’s going to be a really cool dynamic of being able to drive both cars. For sure, it’s a little different, but it’s part of the job. You need to be able to adapt very quickly. I really feel like that’s something that can be taught. You hop around in all these different cars long enough, you learn some tricks to get up to speed a little bit quicker. Hopefully that plays into my advantage, but it is a very exciting opportunity that I think will be very interesting to see how it goes.

To be used in each car, Herta will need to make a minimum drive time of two hours. Rahal views Herta as “an insurance policy to a large degree” if a driver falls ill or gets injured.

“There’s no question he’s up to the challenge,” Rahal said. “Colton’s a race car driver, and race car drivers want to be in the car. So I’m sure naturally a guy like Colton or any other would want to be in a regular basis on the starting rotation, but the way this race is and the difficulty, and of course these cars are going to exact more energy from the drivers than the cars in the past, I think he’s going to get more than his share.”

He also will be running wheel to wheel against familiar teams – Indy 500 winners Team Penske (Porsche), Chip Ganassi Racing (Cadillac) and Meyer Shank Racing (Acura) all have GTP entries.

Herta laughs about even competing against his IndyCar car owner, Michael Andretti, who just became a partner in Wayne Taylor Racing’s championship-contending GTP team.

“It’s very cool,” he said. “Not only do you have these great manufacturers but these amazing IndyCar teams. So it’s pretty cool to see the crossover. I know these teams are very well respected in North America and the manufacturers they bring are respected all across the world. It’s a really cool championship and really cool era of sports car racing that’s dawned here.”