Perhaps it is a sign of the times that most people are saying that Graham Rahal should be happy with a sixteenth place finish at the Milwaukee IndyFest this past weekend. I know that he started twenty-fourth, but I find it hard to believe that Rahal or his team were happy with a sixteenth place finish.
It’s been a difficult year for Graham Rahal – and that’s putting it mildly. The twenty-four year-old seems to lead a charmed life off the track. He has dated beautiful women and is always tweeting about his golf game, exotic dining locales or a lifestyle that most of us only dream about. I’ve heard it said more than once that “..it’s good to be Graham”. When his career started out, he seemed to lead a charmed life on the track, as well. Somewhere along the way, that has changed.
Graham Rahal burst onto the scene in the Champ Car World Series in 2007 as an eighteen year-old rookie teammate to Sébastien Bourdais at Newman/Haas. He placed second in one race, finished third three times and fourth once on his way to a fifth place finish in the points. Great things were obviously in-store for this young phenom.
When unification took place, finally merging Champ Car and IndyCar in 2008; Rahal crashed during Spring Training at Homestead. Given the shortage of Dallara’s and spare parts – the car could not be repaired in time and Rahal missed the season-opener. Therefore, his first race in the new unified open-wheel series was the street course at St. Petersburg – which he promptly went out and won. If being the son of an Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART champion wasn’t enough pressure – Rahal raised the bar even higher by becoming a nineteen year-old winner the first time he raced in the IndyCar Series.
Rahal failed to come close to the success he had in that first race for the rest of the season. In fact, he cracked the top-ten only three more times with two eighths and a ninth place finish on his way to finishing seventeenth in the points. For 2009, Rahal had a part-time teammate in Robert Doornboos. Their relationship was not great, but Rahal improved with nine top-ten runs, including two podiums, en route to a seventh place finish in points. There were no wins, but there were many solid runs. It was considered just a matter of time before he would turn those solid runs into victories.
Hard times hit Newman/Haas in 2010. Rahal’s McDonald’s sponsorship went away and the team had no choice but to release him. Instead, they ran Hideki Mutoh who brought sponsorship with him. Rahal ran a limited schedule for four different teams that season – Sarah Fisher, Rahal Letterman, Dreyer & Reinbold and ultimately back topNewman/Haas to close out the season. That summer, however, Rahal was able to put together a deal for 2011 that saw Chip Ganassi expand his operation to two satellite teams – one for Rahal and Service Central sponsorship, the other for rookie Charlie Kimball with funding from Novo Nordisk.
This looked to be the breakout deal that Rahal had been seeking. After all, Chip Ganassi Racing had taken every championship since 2008 and had won the Indianapolis 500 for two of the past three years. Even though the satellite teams were to be situated in a different location, Ganassi was on a roll and this would be an excellent opportunity for Rahal to showcase the talents that were so obvious to everyone.
Once the 2011 season started, it didn’t take long for Graham Rahal’s demeanor to sour. While his Target teammates were winning races, the two “G2” teams were struggling to find their way. The fourth race at São Paulo when Rahal came in second, was the only bright spot prior to the Indianapolis 500. Things went terribly wrong during qualifying for the 500. While his Target teammates were battling in the Firestone Fast-Nine; Rahal was a second-day qualifier and started thirtieth. It was there that he publically questioned how cars from the same team could produce such different results. Rahal ultimately finished third in the 2011 Indianapolis 500 – the highest of all the Ganassi cars – but the tone had been set.
It was at that point that Rahal’s entire attitude seemed to change. Quite honestly, he became very whiney and made a habit of laying blame on his crew. The next two seasons saw mixed results at best, as Rahal posted ninth and tenth place finishes in 2011 and 2012. By the second half of the 2012 season, it was a foregone conclusion that Rahal would not return to Ganassi for 2013. After making it clear he was a free-agent, there were no offers from other teams attractive enough to lure Rahal to sign. He ultimately signed with his father’s team that had a history of running hot-&-cold.
Here, Graham Rahal had the perfect situation. He was the undisputed leader of the team. He obviously had the ear of the owner so that he could have whatever he wanted, within reason. James Jakes brought sponsorship so that they could have the benefit of shared data with a two-car team; but there was no question who would be the star of the team – unlike the muddled situation he had just left at Ganassi.
On paper, this seemed to make sense. Rahal Letterman Lanigan had returned full-time to the IndyCar Season in 2012. They had been on hiatus since 2009, when sponsorship woes forced them to release Ryan Hunter-Reay. The team had been in a rapid decline since the glory days of 2004 & 2005. The team won the Indianapolis 500 with Buddy Rice in 2004. Then in 2005, they became a three-car team with Rice, Vitor Meira and rookie Danica Patrick.
Tragedy struck at the beginning of the 2006 season when Paul Dana was fatally injured during the morning warm-up for the season opener at Homestead. Later that season, the team made a mid-season switch from the ill-handling Panoz chassis to the unfamiliar Dallara that most other teams were running. All the while, Danica Patrick’s flirtation with other teams was becoming a distraction, as the season came to a close. The next season saw Scott Sharp come to the team for one season. Ryan Hunter-Reay was signed mid-season to replace the ineffective Scott Simmons. For 2008, Rahal’s team contracted to one car for Hunter-Reay – a far fall in a short period of time. By the next year the team had suspended their IndyCar operations for what turned out to be three years, with the exception of the Indianapolis 500 and a handful of selected races.
When the team returned to run the full schedule last season with Takuma Sato, there were brushes with success as well as crushing defeats. Sato had two podiums and came within three turns of possibly winning the Indianapolis 500. But there were many crashed racecars left behind as well. Sato moved on to Foyt’s team, when it became obvious that Graham Rahal was headed to his father’s team.
Things looked promising. The team had a full year of working together under their belt. There was sufficient sponsorship in place with Midas and Valvoline. Honda had won the Indianapolis 500 in 2012 and promised to be better this season. Surely there would be chemistry between the team and the kid that had grown up around the shop.
For Graham Rahal, this was what he needed. That win at the beginning of the 2008 season was now five full seasons away and was a distant memory. There had been no more wins since. He came close at Texas last season before he brushed the wall with three laps remaining and was lucky to hold on for second. He had experienced stints at several teams – some being more pleasant experiences than others. It seemed he would finally be in a place where he would be a good fit.
Like many drivers; Graham can come across as affable and fun-loving when things are going well, but can appear surly and downtrodden when things aren’t. In fact, Graham’s whole demeanor takes on the personality of someone on their way to a proctology office when things aren’t going his way. Rumor has it that he has burned a few bridges in the paddock with his inability to get along with his crew. This move was going to solve that problem…or would it?
I don’t begrudge anyone for growing up in a privileged background. I certainly didn’t grow up in the poorest of households, so I’ve never appreciated seeing reverse snobbery applied in holding it against someone simply because they haven’t struggled financially. In all fairness, Graham Rahal is very fan-friendly in the paddock. He should also be commended for his many charitable activities. And no one should forget the auction he started to raise money for the Wheldon family. That being said – when you see some of the tweets from Graham Rahal and some of his off-track activities; he doesn’t really come across as one of us. Some might say he comes off as a bit of a jerk at times, and he’s overdue to see some adversity in his life. I wouldn’t necessarily say that, but I’ve heard some that do.
You do wonder if it all seemed too easy for Rahal. He certainly has talent, and his last name certainly opens up some sponsorship opportunities. One could argue that the worst thing that could have happened to him was to win in his very first IndyCar race. It would be natural for a nineteen year-old to think that he didn’t need to work as hard as anyone else. Accomplished drivers can spend their entire career chasing that elusive first win, while Rahal got it in his first start. It may have been just too much for a teenager to comprehend and process.
Marco Andretti went through a similar pattern. He came within a few hundred feet of winning the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He ended up winning a race later in his rookie season. He then went several years with unmatched success. Driving for his father’s team, he had job security that most drivers will never have. He could have continued on that path and still be set financially for life. But credit Marco for identifying a problem and taking the steps to fix it. After many mediocre seasons of unfulfilled potential, Marco sought help during this past offseason by enlisting the services of a driving coach/life coach across the pond. The result has been a driver with newfound maturity and confidence, and consequently – outstanding results on the track.
It’s hard to remember that Graham Rahal is only twenty-four years old. He is now in his sixth IndyCar season. Those that have been clamoring for American stars in the series have been waiting for Graham and Marco to win regularly. It hasn’t happened. Marco finally seems to be on the threshold, but Graham Rahal’s career seems to be stuck in reverse. While he has three top-ten finishes this season, including a second at Long Beach – he sits seventeenth in points and appears to be headed nowhere as he has lately been outshined by his unheralded teammate James Jakes.
It would be easy to say his team is the problem, but is he so unlucky that he always hits teams in a down cycle? Is he the problem? If he can’t succeed at his father’s team, can he succeed anywhere? Should he follow Marco’s lead and seek a driving coach/mentor? I don’t pretend to know the answers to any of these questions. One thing I do know – the series would benefit by Graham Rahal succeeding. I like Graham Rahal and want to see him win. But fans are beginning to think that we may be looking at another case of unfulfilled potential in American sports. If that turns out to be the situation in another five years, I’ll find that more than just a little sad.