Gordon Kirby

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A change for the better

Back in 2009, at only 19, Graham Rahal became IndyCar’s youngest winner. Since then his career has floundered. Many people began to write him off, but he has bounced back in style this year, winning two mid-season races and pushing himself into a title battle with Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Dixon.

Graham has driven for his father Bobby’s team over the past three years and, after two disappointing campaigns, Bobby made some major changes. He promoted Eddie Jones to be his son’s race engineer and hired Mike Talbott and Martin Pare, both formerly with Newman/Haas, to lead his team’s vehicle dynamics and R&D departments. Rahal also promoted long-time employee Ricardo Nault to team manager. “I decided I was going to get out of the way and let those guys do their jobs, and the proof is in the pudding,” Rahal says. “Ricardo has done a fantastic job running the team. He’s a racer’s racer, very competitive, and has developed a very good working relationship among the crew.

“The biggest by-product of all these changes is that the atmosphere in the organisation is 180 degrees from where it had been. My job is now to find the funding, make the big picture decisions and give those guys the tools they need to do their jobs.”

Bobby also made the decision to take himself off the team’s timing stand. “I loved being on the radio with Graham,” he says, “but it was clear there were times when emotions ran high. I said to Graham last winter that we need to get the emotion out of it. I said we needed to be less passionate and one way to achieve that was for me to walk away and observe from elsewhere. I still help out by spotting, but I think not being on the timing stand has proven to be a positive.”

Graham agrees wholeheartedly with his father. “Putting Eddie, Martin and Mark together has been like magic,” he says, with a grin. “They clicked from the very beginning and everything worked. There’s never any second-guessing and we’ve made the car’s handling significantly better.”

It’s doubly impressive that Rahal has achieved so much this year because he’s a one-car team competing against the four-car operations from Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. “The focus on a single car can be powerful if you can figure out the basic set-ups that the driver likes,” Bobby says. “I don’t think it’s a negative being a one-car team, but you have to have a very hard-working, committed group of people to get the right kind of results. I think putting all the focus on one entity is pretty powerful.”

Bobby couldn’t be more pleased with Graham’s performances this year. He says: “Self-confidence in a driver is probably the most powerful of all the tools a team has. Graham is very confident when it comes to the races and very confident in the work the engineers are doing.

“I think Graham is one of the best racers out there. When raceday comes he goes to the front and doesn’t make mistakes. He’s not over-driving the car and has it set up the way he likes it.

“Now we’re seeing the real Graham. I think we’re seeing the Graham we saw in 2009, but it’s a better Graham because he’s that much more mature. At 26, it’s like everything has come together. He’s in a good place and we’re seeing the effects of that.”

As well as emerging this year as a serious force in IndyCar, Graham will get married at the end of November to NHRA drag racing star Courtney Force, a daughter of drag legend John Force. Life couldn’t be better.