INDIANAPOLIS — Rarely has someone as accomplished at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as Bobby Rahal looked so uncomfortable there.
That’ll happen when you’re asked about the future of your own kid on your race team.
Yet there he sat Friday morning, overlooking the famed yard of bricks before Indy 500 practice, answering questions about Graham Rahal’s future with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
The 34-year-old son of the 1986 winner said this week that while he wants to continue driving for dad, Graham Rahal also wants to drive somewhere that he can be competitive.
That hasn’t been with Bobby Rahal and co-owners Mike Lanigan and David Letterman lately.
So as a contract year for Graham Rahal heads toward “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the elder Rahal was asked pointedly Friday whether he sees a future on the team for his son, who has not won an IndyCar race in six years.
“Yeah, of course,” Bobby Rahal said, “because he’s a hell of a race car driver.”
Left unsaid was that Graham Rahal has not often had a chance to prove it.
Heading into last weekend’s Grand Prix on the Indianapolis road course, Rahal Letterman Lanigan had three top-10 finishes and none in the top five through a combined 12 starts this season. The best had been Graham Rahal in sixth at the season-opener at St. Petersburg and Christian Lundgaard, who also ran sixth at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.
Yet there have been some positive signs since the team walked into Gasoline Alley this month.
Lundgaard nearly landed on the podium with a fourth-place run in the Grand Prix, and perhaps more impressively, Rahal showed poise and maturity in rallying from an early incident that put him off strategy and at the back of the field to finish 10th.
“That takes discipline to do that,” Bobby Rahal said of that comeback performance. “People are passing you and you can’t get sucked into racing them. You have to take it and hope and drive your race. Yeah, I’d put Graham up against anybody on race day.”
That includes the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend in the one race every IndyCar driver wants to win most.
The team won the Indy 500 in 2004 with Buddy Rice before reaching victory lane again in 2020, when Takuma Sato won a fall edition during the pandemic and Rahal finished third.
But the team hasn’t cracked the podium the past two years, and last year, the trio of Rahal, Lundgaard and Jack Harvey all struggled so much that nobody was better than 14th.
“This place is always a challenge. Every year it throws different curveballs at you,” Graham Rahal said, “but close doesn’t count here. We all know that. This year we put a lot into this. Some of that – the fruits of that labor – haven’t been seen yet. But I think we’ve come a long way, even in practice, to be where we need to be.”
Some of those labors involved changes in leadership and personnel. Another big one has been the construction of a shiny new complex in nearby Zionsville, where the team has been able to consolidate its racing programs under one roof.
The team also added a fourth Indy 500 entry for Katherine Legge, putting the pieces in place for that more than a year ago.
“We didn’t build that (race shop) just to play in racing. We built that building to give us an environment to excel,” Bobby Rahal said. “Our goal is to be one of the best teams out there on a consistent basis, and that’s our commitment to the people within our team.”
That includes his heir.
“Where am I going to go?” Graham Rahal wondered earlier this week, when asked about next year and beyond. “Everything is on the table.”
That comment in particular led to the awkward exchange alongside his father Friday. More uncomfortable moments are sure to follow during contract negotiations, though Graham Rahal will conduct that business with Lanigan rather than his father.
Perhaps they will work out a deal to avoid the most awkward situation yet: Graham Rahal driving against dad’s team.
“As far as Graham, you know, I don’t think anybody wants to see him go anywhere else,” Bobby Rahal said, “but I will tell you any of these guys, if you’re a driver you want to go where you can see the commitment, and I think our commitment is obvious.”