Mid-Ohio will always be special to Graham Rahal

Leave a comment

STEAM CORNERS, Ohio – When Graham Rahal was just a kid, the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course was his playground. His father, Bobby, was one of the big-name stars of the 1980s and 1990s, his shop was based in Hilliard, Ohio and the Rahals made the Columbus, Ohio suburb of New Albany their home.

Young Graham would accompany his father to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the big-time CART races at that time, and maybe a few test sessions when Rahal was in the early days of owning his own racing team in the 1990s.

Bobby Rahal’s final season as a driver was in 1998 and he was honored at many of the race tracks, including Mid-Ohio. The Rahal Family took a ceremonial lap around the road course before that 1998 race with nine-year-old Graham waving to the fans seated alongside his famous father.

Bobby Rahal finished third that day at a track where he won back-to-back races in 1985-86.

Two decades later, Graham joined his father as a winner at Mid-Ohio in 2015, driving a Honda owned by Bobby Rahal along with former TV funnyman David Letterman and South Chicago industrialist Michael Lanigan.

To this day, Graham, now 30, considers that his greatest victory.

“Having won there in 2015, it’s a special race for me,” Rahal told NBC Sports.com. “In 2015, we were in a really good place in the championship that year and the win at Mid-Ohio helped us close the gap on Juan Pablo Montoya. The home crowd, I will never forget doing the doughnuts afterwards and looking up and seeing all the people go nuts. It’s a moment, I will never, ever forget. Sharing the podium with my good friend, Justin Wilson, was extremely special as well. It was an important day in my career.

“I’m hoping we can make it happen again. I don’t see why we can’t. We’ve had really good runs there in the past and hopefully, we can get another one.”

Rahal hopes to break into NTT IndyCar Series victory lane for the first time this season in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.

Watch the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio on NBC Sunday, July 28 at 4 p.m. Eastern Time.

“I think we are looking good off Road America, but also Toronto, Rahal said. “We learned some great stuff at Toronto. Between the two of those, I feel strongly we are in a good spot and we should be pretty competitive as we go forward into Mid-Ohio. I’m excited. It’s an important race for me. It’s my home race. I love competing there.”

There are many things that make the 13-turn, 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course unique. It is set in the middle of Ohio’s “Amish Country” with cornfields surrounding the twists and turns of the course.

It also features an up-and-down ride for the high-speed competitors.

“The elevation is the most unique because to go fast there, you really have to push to the limit,” Rahal explained. “We say that everywhere, but there are certain areas that are trickier than the others. At Mid-Ohio, you have a lot of elevation. You have a ton through the Keyhole through Turn 2 and at the end of the backstraight, Turn 4 really falls away from you, then you go way up the hill, straight up into Turns 5 and 6. The elevation makes that such a challenging track to figure out and find the speed.

“We’ve raced there a long time, now, and hopefully we can have a good weekend and our car can be more settled than at some of the other places. Our performance at Road America, we found some good stuff and had a great race day. I’m excited. We should be pretty strong.”

The race course is located on Interstate 71 between Ohio’s largest city of Columbus and the metropolis of Cleveland. But it is also a short drive from IndyCar’s home base of Indianapolis, with many fans making the four-hour drive to spend the weekend camping out at Mid-Ohio.

Even many of the IndyCar team crewmembers camp out at the track, instead of spending another weekend in a motel.

“It’s good fun,” Rahal admitted. “We all stay at the track, but a lot of guys camp out. We have a lot of friends and family that camp. It’s a great environment. It’s a special place.

“I strongly urge anybody who hasn’t been to come check it out. It’s very different than most of the places you go to. It’s a great place to enjoy a race with the family. As I’ve said a few times, hopefully we can get another win.”

Getting a win would help give Rahal a boost to what has been an unusual season. He was expected to be a top-five competitor for the NTT IndyCar Series championship and at times has had some really good races. But he arrives at Mid-Ohio eighth in the championship, 197 points behind points leader Josef Newgarden with only five races left in the season.

He finished third at Texas Motor Speedway in June and fourth at Circuit of the Americas (COTA), Long Beach and Road America. He also has a pair of seventh-place finishes in both races of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

But it was a crash in the 103rdIndianapolis 500 when Rahal was in position for a top-four finish that doomed his season.

“We’ve raced pretty well at a lot of place, but Indianapolis is going to haunt us,” Rahal admitted. “It’s going to haunt us not from the fact we would have finished third or fourth, but because points-wise that really shaped our season in the wrong direction. The gap between finishing third or fourth to 27thwas almost 50 points. Fifty-points would put us fourth in the championship right now.

“We’ve had a good year but let a couple of good opportunities slip. Toronto was disappointing. We passed a ton of cars at Toronto and had one of the fastest cars for sure. To let that one slip hurt. But we also maximized others where maybe we weren’t as strong.

“Goods and bads – that’s the way it goes. We still need to work on our pace a little bit and get our cars a little more competitive than what they are in a couple of areas.

“I feel good about going into Mid-Ohio this weekend.

“Let’s go make it happen.”

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

Honda Photo
Honda Photo
Leave a comment

One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

Getty Images

Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500