Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing feels good about the future of IndyCar, even during a dark time when all of pro sports has been shut down because of the growing COVID-19 pandemic.
Rahal, like the rest of America, is doing his best to get through it but is confident once the health threat subsides, it will be time to go back to work.
Meantime, the leadership of the IndyCar Series led by new owner Roger Penske, IndyCar CEO Mark Miles, IndyCar President Jay Frye and Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles were working to save the season.
By “thinking outside of the box” they were able to dramatically rearrange the schedule and move the 104th Indianapolis 500 from May 24 to August 23.
It is hoped, by then, the COVID-19 pandemic will have subsided, and large events can once again bring people together, instead of sending them for shelter.
“We are very fortunate to have the ownership and leadership we have today,” Rahal told NBCSports.com. “Who knows how different this would have been if it had happened last year? I’m not throwing anybody under the bus, but Roger Penske is an incredibly organized problem solver. A guy that finds solutions and leads companies to a successful future. He’s been thrown to the wolves this year, not only with IndyCar and IMS, but all of his businesses.
“We’re in the automotive retail business, and it is brutal right now. At our dealerships, we are not allowed to sell a car right now. Not allowed. Even if we had a client that wants to buy one, we can’t sell it. Imagine how that affects Roger (who has dealerships across the United States).
“Here he is focused on IndyCar racing trying to put together this great schedule. Greg Penske — those of us involved know Greg is a chip off the old block; he is Roger — he has been heavily involved. You can’t thank those guys enough.
“Also, Mark Miles and Jay Frye have done a tremendous job putting this all together at not a very favorable time for all of us. It definitely turned out pretty good.
“It will still be the same for the drivers. The adrenaline is going, and you are ready to go. It’s Indy. We are excited about that.”
Rahal will participate in Saturday’s American Red Cross Grand Prix, the first race in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge. The virtual race featuring a field of 25 with many NTT IndyCar Series drivers along and seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. It will be held at a virtual Watkins Glen International.
“I feel like it is an interesting concept,” Rahal said. “I’m going to put my sim together and see what comes of that. I’ve never done this. I have seen it. I’m aware of it. I drove a simulator 12 years ago and it’s pretty different from where it is and what it is today. I’m definitely excited. It’s a good way to kill time. I’m not a big gamer. I have businesses to run and everything else. For me, it’s cool to have this in the house and play with it and see what it is all about.
“It’s great. Even Jimmie Johnson is going to get in on it. Other guys want to come in and play. I already tweeted at Jimmie Johnson to run the IndyCar Grand Prix.
“We all know Jimmie Johnson is going to come here in the future. Right now, he wants to stay committed to his craft and what he is doing.”
Although events such as this keep Rahal’s reflexes sharp, he has upped his physical workouts at home.
“I’ve been full-on working out,” Rahal said. “It’s giving me a good combination of cardio and my lifting and try to get my weight down further. Being at home, you can control what you are eating better than when you are traveling.
“The crappy side for me is the same for everybody else. When I go to the gym to work out, I turn on the Columbus Blue Jackets or something to watch. Now, they aren’t on. It’s no fun, but it is what it is.”
There are times where Rahal, like the rest of us, gets restless being forced to stay at home. But he realizes that this a time to think of others and reflect on why lies ahead.
Once the season begins, whether it’s May 30 in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix or possibly later, the pace of the schedule will be relentless, so enjoy the time off now because it will be non-stop action when racing returns.
“As Scott Dixon said, we have plenty of off time right now,” Rahal said. “All of our guys have plenty of off time. I don’t think our guys have been at the shop except for a couple days since St. Pete, and they won’t be for another week or two, until the governor lets everyone come back. They are getting a solid, month-plus off.
“All of us need to sit back and try our best to enjoy this little bit of time that we’ve got because once we go back, it will be full-in. But we are all going to be happy for that. We will all be excited that is the case.”
Rahal believes an Indianapolis 500 in August will be just as exciting and spectacular as it is in May.
“I feel better about it, too,” Rahal said. “I think there is good direction and good leadership with what we are doing. We have a couple of months, which sucks, but we are hoping it all settles down. I’m hopeful that it will.
“If you look at the coronavirus issue and the spread, 300,000 people in May was going to be a tall task. Delaying that for a few months certainly is a better place. I’m excited by it.
“I think the promoters did a great job making this happen with IndyCar as well.”
By thinking outside of the box, it also has provided IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the chance to have IndyCar and NASCAR compete on the same race course on July 4.
The GMR IndyCar Grand Prix has been moved from May 9 to July 4 at the IMS Road Course. That same day, NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers will compete in the Pennzoil 150 on the same road course.
The following day, it’s the Brickyard 400 when NASCAR Cup drivers compete on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.
“I think it’s huge,” Rahal said. “I’ve been a big proponent of it. With my wife, I proposed IndyCar and NHRA should run a double-header. IndyCar and NASCAR would be a great combination. It’s mutually beneficial for both to do this and for the health of motorsports.
“I’ve had so many tweets today of people who were not coming to Brickyard who flat out have said, now I know where I’m going to be in July. You already see the excitement. It’s a great thing that could, and should, continue.
“This schedule is eye-opening to us what could work, too? How can we be a little bit different and innovative schedule-wise? Yes, we get stuck in a rut sometimes, but how can this work and how can it be beneficial?
“From a TV perspective, to combine those two over a weekend is huge. I think it’s a great opportunity.”