Keeping It All In The Family

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There was a family gathering of the Rahal clan near Birmingham, Alabama this week, but this was no post-Thanksgiving family vacation. This was all-business. In fact, it was the first time for Graham Rahal to climb into the cockpit of a car fielded by his famous father’s team as their full-time driver.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing made the trip down I-65 to test at Barber Motorsports Park with the newly signed Graham Rahal as driver of the No.15 TBC-Group sponsored DW12. While rain dampened the track on Tuesday morning, it did nothing to dampen the spirits of this team. This is a good pairing and not simply because of the family ties.

Graham Rahal has had an inconsistent run to this point. Like most second (and third) generation drivers, enormous expectations were hoisted on the young Rahal’s shoulders at a young age. Early on, he didn’t disappoint. As an eighteen year-old Champ Car rookie in 2007, he finished fifth in the championship standings with four podium finishes including a second place at Houston. After the unification with IndyCar prior to the 2008 season, Rahal crashed his Newman/Haas Dallara at Spring Training at Homestead and was forced to sit out the opening race of the season the following week.

Rahal would make his debut at St. Petersburg in the second race of the season. All the nineteen year-old did in his opening race was survive a late-race duel in the rain with veteran Helio Castroneves to take the win in his IndyCar debut. Those that had followed his career saw this as no fluke. The apple had not fallen too far from the tree. After all, he was the son of the 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART champion, Bobby Rahal. The DNA had obviously been handed down.

Unfortunately, the early success was short-lived. Rahal never came close to that level of success for the remainder of the season. Two eighth place finishes at Watkins Glen and Sonoma were the only bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2008 campaign that saw Rahal finish thirty-third at Indianapolis, twenty-sixth at Edmonton, twenty-fifth at Milwaukee and Kentucky and sixteenth at his home track at Mid-Ohio en route to finishing seventeenth in the points.

The 2009 season showed improvement as he was considered the number one driver at Newman/Haas/Lanigan over his new teammate Robert Doornbos, who had brought family money to the team. Although there were no wins, Rahal showed consistency and maturity throughout the season. He had two third place finishes at Richmond and Motegi along with a fourth at Milwaukee. Altogether, Graham Rahal strung together nine top-ten finishes in a seventeen race season on his way to finishing a respectable seventh in points. Things were certainly trending favorably for the driver who was still only twenty years old following the 2009 season.

But suddenly, everything went wrong in the offseason. McDonald’s went away as a sponsor as it looked like Newman/Haas wouldn’t even answer the bell for 2010, before they finally signed Hideki Mutoh. As inconceivable as it seemed, the promising American driver with the famous name that the series was banking on for future star-power was sitting on the sidelines for the 2010 season. If it weren’t for an eleventh hour decision by Sarah Fisher to vacate the seat of her car for three of the opening road courses in favor of Rahal, one wonders if Rahal would have had anything before Indianapolis. Those three drives were unspectacular, although there was a respectable ninth-place finish at St. Petersburg for a team that focused solely on ovals.

Graham Rahal was a nomad for the remainder of 2010. He had a one-off appearance at Indianapolis for his father’s team, which had not run the regular season since 2008. Rahal finished a respectable twelfth in the one race, marking his best finish to that point at Indianapolis. He also had appearances for Dreyer & Reinbold, Newman/Haas and another late-season drive for Sarah Fisher during the 2010 campaign.

Behind the scenes, Rahal had been working on a deal for 2011 that saw Chip Ganassi open up a satellite team that expanded his team from the two Target cars of Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti to a four-car operation that teamed Rahal with rookie Charlie Kimball. From the beginning, many (myself included) wondered if the two satellite teams would receive the same level of attention and commitment that the Target cars did. It didn’t take long for Rahal to start wondering out loud, as well.

During practice and qualifying for Indianapolis, Rahal seemed bewildered that the two “G2” cars were much slower than their Target counterparts. Still, there were some bright moments. Rahal finished second at São Paulo and Milwaukee and third at Indianapolis. But there were some rough spots. In a three-race late-summer span, Rahal finished twenty-fifth, twenty-fourth and twenty-sixth at Edmonton, Mid-Ohio and New Hampshire respectively. He eventually righted the ship enough to finish ninth for 2011.

It was more of the same for 2012. Four top-fives, were combined with some very mediocre finishes. Then there was the incident at Texas where Rahal gave away a sure win when he slapped the wall late in the race and managed to hold on for second. All in all, it led to a frustrating season that saw Rahal finish tenth in points and leaving the satellite team for greener pastures.

While it is evident that Graham Rahal possesses a ton of talent, it is sometimes hard to be a fan of his. When things are going well, he can be the affable teammate and a sponsor’s dream. However, when things go south as they invariably do in racing – Rahal can be a seething curmudgeon that doesn’t hesitate to play the blame game.

He’s now headed to his famous father’s team that has had its own checkered past, mostly due to poor choices and bad decisions. The current variation of his team started as Rahal-Hogan Racing in 1992, when Bobby Rahal and the likeable Carl Hogan bought the remnants of Pat Patrick’s team. They were immediately successful, winning the 1992 CART title with Rahal as the driver.

There are some that say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. There are others that follow the theory that “if you’re sitting still, you’re falling behind”. For 1993, Rahal should have followed the former instead of choosing the latter. Instead, Rahal/Hogan chose to buy the old American-made Truesports chassis and revive it. The results were disastrous, as the defending CART champion failed to qualify for the 1993 Indianapolis 500. Rahal switched to a Lola chassis after Indianapolis and played catch-up for the remainder of the season.

Did he learn his lesson to not mess with a good thing? No. For 1994, Rahal opted to partner with Honda in their first venture into CART. The strangest sounding engine you ever heard was woefully uncompetitive. For the second year in a row, Rahal/Hogan was looking at missing the Indianapolis 500 before Honda gave their blessing for the team to switch to the Ilmor-D engine for Indianapolis only. The switch propelled Rahal to a third place finish. Rahal/Hogan switched to the more traditional Lola-Ilmor Mercedes for 1995, but didn’t stay pat with that. For 1996, he switched to the Reynard chassis which had become much more competitive than the Lola, but he stayed with Mercedes which had fallen behind the resurgent Honda that Rahal had abandoned and the Ford-Cosworth. Changes were afoot again in 1997 as Rahal switched to Ford power, but Rahal finished twelfth in points.

By this time Carl Hogan had split away to form a satellite team with Roger Penske in 1996 and finally form his own team in 1997. Rahal announced that 1998 would be his final season. For the first time since forming his own team in 1992, Bobby Rahal kept the same chassis-engine combination for the second year in a row for 1998, that saw Rahal finish tenth in points.

Throughout the twenty year history of Bobby Rahal’s team, there has been a star-studded driver lineup that had mixed results while under Rahal’s employment. Drivers like Bryan Herta, Raul Boesel, Jimmy Vasser, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Kenny Bräck and Danica Patrick had their best years employed by other teams. Max Pappis, Michel Jourdain, Jr., Vitor Meira, Takuma Sato and Buddy Rice had their best years while driving for Rahal.

Despite their curious choices over the years, Rahal’s team has had periods of success. After sitting out the IZOD IndyCar Series from 2009 to 2011, Rahal returned to run the full 2012 season with Takuma Sato. The Mi-Jack car was always fast, but had a habit of ending up in the wall. Sato may return to RLLR in a second car or Graham Rahal may end up with another teammate. But make no mistake – this is now Graham Rahal’s team, and for good reason.

Graham Rahal has undeniable talent. He has proven that. He has also experienced various levels of success with the spectrum of IndyCar teams – from Ganassi and Newman/ Haas to Dreyer & Reinbold and Sarah Fisher’s team. Now he is driving for his father’s team, but this is no family bail-out. Unlike some drivers we’ve seen driving for family teams, Graham Rahal knows what it is like to have to perform without the safety net of job security through family connections. This is more of the stars aligning for this to happen. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing needs a mature and experienced driver and Graham Rahal needs to feel like he is the focus of his team. This is a win-win for both parties.

Don’t be too surprised if this pairing nets Bobby Rahal his first victory since Ryan Hunter-Reay won at Watkins Glen in 2008. RLLR has also come agonizingly close the last couple of years to winning the Indianapolis 500. They’ve already won it once with Buddy Rice in 2004. It would be a great story if Bobby’s son brought him his second Indianapolis 500 as an owner.

George Phillips

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4 Responses to “Keeping It All In The Family”

  1. My take is that Rahal will be a most formidible team. The team proved themselves at this past year at Indianapolis and Bobby as well as Graham know how to win.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    A nice summary of the careers of both Rahals, George.

    It seems quite apparent that Graham did not think he got what he was sold when he joined Ganassi. Handling that situation may not have been his best work, but I can’t imagine it’s fun when it seems that your team owner clearly prefers that his other drivers win. I don’t expect any such problems this season.

  3. I still can’t believe Rahal just walked away from a ride with Chip Ganassi. This is IndyCar, not NASCAR. The move seems to validate people’s opinion on his sense of entitlement. Sharing a hometown with him made me want to pull for him, but his attitude has been a real turn off.

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