After missing his shot at college, Graham Rahal keeps high priority on higher education

Graham Rahal college
Fifth Third Bank

Graham Rahal still has the letter signifying when his college dream essentially ended before it ever truly started.

“I think it’s huge to go, and it was always my full intention,” Rahal, 33, told NBC Sports. “I applied. I was accepted. In fact, I found my letter when I kept deferring, and they were finally like, ‘Hey, you’re like 30 years old, you can’t defer anymore. You have to reapply.’ ”

Rahal, of course, did not resubmit an application to Dennison University (a liberal arts college in Granville, Ohio, where his father, Bobby, went before winning the 1986 Indy 500), having already established a career in the NTT IndyCar Series that began when he was 18.

The six-time IndyCar winner is ninth in the points standings four races into his 16th season and soon will begin preparations for his 15th start in the Indy 500 (the 106th running will take place May 29 with coverage starting at 11 a.m. ET on NBC).

But Rahal’s passion for getting an education also remains strong and was evident as he helped Fifth Third Bank (which co-sponsors his No. 15 Dallara-Honda at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) with a promotion for establishing college funds.

“College is a great asset,” Rahal said. “I think it’s also important to have a balance and understand working because the common sense of real life sometimes is eye-opening, too.

“But I think (college is) really, really important and also with tuition just climbing so much that we’ve got to be prepared as a society for our kids. And I think parents as best as possible need to help plan for that, too.”

Rahal visited three Indianapolis area hospitals Tuesday as Fifth Third celebrated its namesake day (May 3) by providing the parents of 77 newborns across 19 health systems with $1,053 gift cards to open a 529 college savings account (in partnership with the Gift of College).

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver also delivered gift boxes (with onesies, sleep sacks and self-care items for moms) and helped provide baked treats for maternity ward nurses.

“These people that had babies last night or this morning, probably the last thing they want to do is see me walk into their room after delivering a baby,” Rahal said. “But in the case that they do, this will turn on a light bulb for them that, ‘Oh wow, I can put in a hundred bucks this year. Or maybe I can afford to put in a thousand bucks. Maybe I can afford to put 10 bucks in, but it’s something, and it makes a difference.”

It also hits home for Rahal, who became a father 18 months ago to Harlan. Wife Courtney is due with their second child in mid-September.

As “a planner,” Graham would like to know the gender but said, “I’d imagine we will find out the minute it pops out because Courtney is very particular about not knowing, and that’s fine. It was probably one of life’s greatest surprises. This time I’d like to be prepared.”

Naturally, he already has begun preparing for Harlan’s future by alternating annual investments between a traditional savings plan and a 529 college fund (which is tax-advantaged.

“With Harlan to have her education is so critical to her success as a person and professionally, whatever she so decides to do in 25 years, God knows what that may be,” Rahal said. “My grandparents did a lot to help us, and so yes, it does hit home.

“When Fifth Third first approached me and said, ‘This is what we’re thinking about doing,’ it was quite clearly a yes from me because I literally am living this at this time, and I realize that maybe some people have the ability to put in more than others, but every bit helps and getting prepared and thinking down the road is what you need to be doing.”

Amid skyrocketing tuition costs and a spirited national discussion over how long a pause on federal college loans (which began during the pandemic) will continue, Rahal said he was focused on raising awareness of his belief that a small contribution now “can make a big difference 20 years from now.

“In my case, 18 years from now when (Harlan) goes off to college, hopefully, it’s paid for,” he said. “And God knows with the prices of college and everything else climbing the way it has, but hopefully you get ahead of it, and when the time comes, there’s no stress there.”

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test


THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500