Q&A: Graham Rahal on his IndyCar title prospects

Speedcafe.com

Wednesday 29th July, 2015 - 10:30am

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Graham Rahal is currently second in the IndyCar standings

Graham Rahal is currently second in the IndyCar standings

In an extensive interview, Graham Rahal talks about his chances of emerging from his famous father Bobby Rahal’s shadow as he enjoys a career defining IndyCar season.

With three races remaining Rahal has managed to storm into contention for the title against the odds in the single-car Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda-powered operation.

The 26-year-old is 42 points behind Penske’s Juan Montoya, who has led since the season-opening St Petersburg race in March.

Recording only his second career IndyCar win in the wild MAVTV 500 at Fontana late last month, Rahal has managed to buck convention to become a key player in what was billed as a fight between the giants of the sport – Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Ahead of his home race at Mid-Ohio this weekend, Rahal gives an insight into his season so far and his title prospects.

QUESTION: The next Verizon IndyCar Series race is the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. What would it mean to you to win there this year?

GRAHAM RAHAL: It would be awesome. Other than the Indy 500, the one race I would love to win is my home race. I’m very proud to be from Ohio. I’m a huge Buckeye fan.

To me, that track, the connection I have with that venue, is really a big part of why I am doing what I am and what I love. Being around Mid-Ohio as a kid, camping out, ironically enough, going to Steak ‘n Shake all those nights right down in Mansfield. It’s a lot of the memories that created my bond with IndyCar racing, one of the big loves I’ve had with it.

To go back there, to compete there, is very, very cool. Being in this position, in a position to win a championship, is something I truly never dreamed of. Hard to believe we’re in the battle now.

I’m looking forward to hopefully having great crowd support both at the race and also for our Steak ‘n Shake appearance Thursday night. It should be a lot of fun.

QUESTION. It’s often said having fun at work, surrounding yourself with good people, kind of gets good results. What’s working better with you and the team this year?

GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, I think everything. As you just said, and I bring this up all the time, whether it be IndyCar racing (or) the family car dealerships, it’s people. It’s people that make things go round.

I’m not saying we haven’t been with a great group of people before, but I think the way the team has come together and unified is what has made it successful.

There’s not a single person that doesn’t get along with each other on the team. There is no weak link. On the engineering side of things, when you have Eddie (Jones), Martin (Pare) and Mike (Talbott), these three guys are all in charge of their own respective areas, but they’re always in sync.

We never have any arguing, concerns or any issues. That’s a change from the past. I think that’s really a huge, huge part of the success that we’ve had this season. I mean, I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had this year, and it’s not just fun because we’ve been doing well, it’s fun because of the people that we’re around. It’s been pretty cool.

Rahal prevailed in a tense encounter at Fontana last month in a race that was laced with a spate of late race crashes

Rahal prevailed in a tense encounter at Fontana last month in a race that was laced with a spate of late race crashes

QUESTION: You talked a little bit in the opening about Pocono. Obviously your focus is on Mid-Ohio this week, but can you talk a little bit about racing at Pocono, what do you feel you have to do there to be successful, narrow the gap on the deficit with Juan Pablo?

GRAHAM RAHAL: Look, I love Pocono. It’s a cool place, special place. There’s been a Rahal in Victory Lane, as there has been in most places, with Dad. It’s a great track to go run at. Also with our family dealerships going in western Pennsylvania, it ties well in there as well.

We’re going to have to put our best foot forward there, for sure. That’s a long race, one that Penske has pretty well dominated. Last year it was obvious. It hasn’t really been a place that we’ve been the best at.

But I think with our setups, the things that we found that were wrong before, the things we’ve improved on, I feel pretty good about going there, frankly, I really do. I think we’re going to have a great shot at it. We’re just going to have to keep working hard and putting yourself in the best place possible to gain points.

As you look at Pocono, you’d be a fool to think that Juan’s not going to be dominant or that Juan is not going to be right at the front. But at this point our job isn’t only to catch Juan, but to keep ourselves in the top two or three in points. We’re going to do our best that we can to compete with all the other guys as well as just Juan.

QUESTION: Graham, you made a comment after the last race about Honda needs to get behind you. Can you elaborate on that? Have you had conversations with the manufacturer? Has anything changed as you head to the last three races of the season?

GRAHAM RAHAL: On that, I’m just going to leave that to what it was. I think our team’s done an excellent job this year for Honda. We put ourselves in a great position to succeed all year.

I think we can make them proud and we’ll continue to do so. We’ll just leave that where it’s at. I know we can be, but I want to be their top team. We have been all year. Like I said, I think we can win them a championship, and nobody else can. Hopefully we can do it.

QUESTION: Do you regret saying that?

GRAHAM RAHAL: No, no. But, I mean, in the heat of the moment you certainly say stuff. These things happen, as you know. You guys know, I’m a pretty emotional guy. I try to always, always give it my all and do my best. On that night we wanted to beat Andretti, that’s for sure.

QUESTION: Graham, you are the dominant Honda team and you have been able to do much more with the aero packages than anyone else has been able to. To whom or to what do you attribute that? How much of it is you? How much of it is that great team of engineers you spoke of earlier?

GRAHAM RAHAL: I think it’s a little bit of everything, as you know. I think this year, we just put a decent car on the track everywhere we’ve gone. I think we’ve been strong pretty much everywhere and given ourselves a chance for success.

I feel like the engineering staff has been a huge part of getting this team back to where it needs to be and can be.

On my end of things, what I found early on is that the Honda aero kit typically is pretty edgy in the sense that the rear end is pretty hard to get stable or secure.

But I just kind of figured that I’m just going to have to drive it, that I probably wasn’t going to get it exactly where I want it to be handling-wise, but that’s what we were going to face.

It was time to make the most of it. I feel we’ve done a decent job of that this year.

The guys at HPD (Honda Performance Development) have done a decent job with the engines, there’s no doubt about that. My Honda engineer, Joe, he’s been tremendous at helping us on that end, too. People have been pretty hard on him.

I’ve got to say they’ve been keeping their heads down and working pretty hard there.

Rahal with his co-driver team, the former Late Show host David Letterman earlier this year

Rahal with his co-driver team, the former Late Show host David Letterman earlier this year

QUESTION: It is a little bit more difficult to get that aero kit to work, it seems, especially when you’re driving behind a Chevy. How do you work that?

GRAHAM RAHAL: You make the most of it, that’s really all we can do. On road courses and stuff, and I hope this weekend’s different, but we certainly haven’t had their ultimate pace that they have.

But I think when it comes to race day, we’ve proven that the Honda can be pretty good over the long run, keep the rear tyre underneath it. That’s really played into our hands.

But like I said, that’s kind of not really our biggest concern right now. Our concern is putting no excuses out there.

We’ve got to go beat these guys. If you look at the last several road course races, we’ve been pretty strong on the permanent road courses. That’s what we have left. We’ve got to just make sure the positives we had at the Grand Prix of Indy, NOLA, Barber, those sorts of things, make that a little bit better, go attack these guys.

That’s exactly what we’re going to try to do here.

QUESTION: I was wondering, has your dad given you any advice on how to deal with things or is he just happy to be in the background?

GRAHAM RAHAL: To be honest with you, my dad’s been on vacation the last two weeks. I haven’t even heard from him. He hasn’t been at the last three races. Maybe that’s the way he wants it to be.

But I definitely haven’t heard much from him. We haven’t talked much about it. Frankly, that’s kind of fine. We allow it to go the way that we have. You know, things have been pretty good lately.

I would love to have him here, love to see him be a bigger part of this and everything else. But it hasn’t played out this way thus far. He hasn’t said much. I know he trusts in us, trusts in myself, this team. Maybe he’s happy just kind of letting it go that way.