Graham Rahal's turnaround, part two


Last week we took a close look inside Graham Rahal’s unexpected pursuit of this year’s IndyCar championship. This week we complete our peek at how Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan’s one-car team has been able to fight on an equal footing this year with the multi-car teams from Penske, Ganassi and Andretti.

Graham gives full credit to Honda. Early in the year there was a lot of criticism and complaints about Honda’s 2015 aero kit versus Chevrolet’s competing package. But in the season’s second half both Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay have won races for Honda.

“Honda has done an excellent job of climbing back up into this thing,” Graham says. “At the start of the year Chevy was clearly the best. I think in qualifying they still have a little advantage but Honda has done an incredible job with the engine. I think the horsepower was always good but now we’ve got great fuel mileage and maybe a slightly better power curve that are proving to be such a benefit to us in the races. I’m awfully proud of everything Honda has done to get us back in the position we’re in.”

Team manager Ricardo Nault has equal praise for Honda. “Honda has been doing a good job,” he says. “We didn’t have the best car to begin with, but Honda kept working on it and we kept working on it. Honda has been taking a beating this year and there’s something to that. When you look at qualifying times and speeds, it shows the Chevy has got a leg up on us on overall speed, or lack of drag, but we can race pretty well.

“I think we get a little better fuel mileage than the Chevys and I think the Honda has a little bit better power curve, so we’re a little better on tyre management than they are. As the year has gone on I’ve started to think we’re not so much getting better fuel mileage as using our tyres better so we’re quicker than them at the end of a run.”

Last year Rahal’s team lost major sponsorship from the National Guard after the US government voted to cancel both its NASCAR and IndyCar sponsorship programmes. Such lucrative dollars are hard to replace, but Bobby was able to find useful sponsorship from Steak & Shake, a fast food restaurant chain.

“The search for sponsorship is an ongoing thing,” Bobby remarked. “When we were awarded the National Guard sponsorship I thought we had a financial base where we could go head-to-head with Roger and Chip. But unfortunately politics took care of that and the National Guard had to withdraw. So we were back to square one.

“Our funding is adequate. Thankfully, Steak & Shake came on board, actually after the season started. But they’re a new sponsor for us and hopefully it’s going to grow. We’re building a collection of sponsors and clients who we can grow with for the future and get back to the level we enjoyed with the National Guard program.

“One of our mandates for this year was, OK, we don’t have all the money in the world so we need to focus on whatever areas are going to give us the best return. We need to be more efficient and vehicle dynamics was a big part of that. One of the areas where, as I say, we’ve done more research and work than previously was the dampers. I think I’ve given our guys the tools to do their jobs.

“We didn’t go to the wind tunnel. We relied on Honda for that. Everybody was starting from scratch with new bodywork but Mike Talbott did a lot of good work looking at the wind tunnel data from Honda and crunching the numbers. It gave us a little bit of a better feel for things.

“Could we use more money? Of course. That’s racing. There’s never enough money. But you can waste a lot of money too and I think Ricardo and Eddie [Jones] and all the guys have been really good in finding out where we get the biggest bang for the buck.”

Bobby expects his team to continue running just one car for Graham next year. “We’ve got commitments from our sponsors and some commitments for some new companies that are coming in. We’re still looking for more money, but we’ll be in good shape. It’s just a matter of what more we can do to build up our engineering group to give us even more capability. Of course, there will be a new bodykit next year with development opened up in certain areas so we’re not quite sure what’s going to happen.

From the archive: Bobby wins the big one for Jim Trueman

“Our commitment is to make sure we’re the best one-car team out there next year. Once we feel we’ve got that we can then look at the possibility of running a second car. We’ve got a great atmosphere and environment that’s producing results and I don’t want to mess with that. So we could be a one-car team again next year, but that’s not a problem in my mind.”

Bobby couldn’t be more pleased with Graham’s performance this year. “With Eddie, Martin [Pare] and Mike there’s a support group that I think Graham has a lot of belief in. They’re clearly giving him a better feel for the car and consequently when we go to races we’re pretty much on the pace right from the start of the weekend.

“When you’re a driver and you go to every race knowing that’s going to be the case, you’re much more positive and much more confident. I’m sure Graham’s confidence in the car has gone up because he’s getting good cars and is working with the engineers to tune the car the way he wants it. At Mid-Ohio, they made a change for the morning warm-up and he came in and said, ‘That’s my car!’

“Self-confidence in a driver is probably the most powerful of all the tools a team has and Graham is very confident when it comes to the races and very confident in the work the engineers are doing.

“Clearly, I think Graham is one of the best racers out there. When race day comes he goes to the front and he doesn’t make mistakes. There was a lot of pressure on him at Mid-Ohio, but he just drove away from them. He’s not over-driving the car.

“His confidence has been a big improvement this year. At Barber near the beginning of the year he was in complete attack mode and I told him that was the most complete race I’ve seen him drive. There were no mistakes or lapses. He was just relentless and we saw that again at Mid-Ohio and at Fontana on the oval.

“He’s driving what I would describe as very complete races. His in and out laps are good, his pitstops are good, and how he goes about the race weekend is good. He’s putting forth the effort and energy and that’s hard to do when you’re having a bad year – and the past couple of years weren’t good.

“But now we’re seeing the real Graham. People forget that in 2009 when he was only 20 he finished seventh in the championship with Newman/Haas and was one of the few guys who could run with Ganassi’s guys. I think we’re seeing that Graham again but it’s a better Graham because he’s that much more mature and older. At 26, it’s like everything has come together.

“When you have adversity you find out very quickly how bad you want it and how much you’re willing to work for it. I’m most pleased for him with the success he’s had this year because he’s worked for it. He’s in a good place and we’re seeing the effects of that.”

Graham is very clear about his approach to the year’s final two races, a 500-mile race at Pocono and the season closer the following week on the road course at Sonoma in Northern California.

Rahal’s best finish at Sonoma was in 2012, when he came fifth

“We’re going for the championship!” he declares. “Pocono is my biggest concern, but having said that we won the last big oval race in California so I guess I shouldn’t worry so much. I always freak out about the ovals this year, but the ovals have actually gone incredibly well. I’m definitely pleased with the way things are working out right now.”

Team manager Nault added his perspective on the last two races of IndyCar’s season. “We can’t be worried about the championship,” Nault remarked. “We’ve got to take care of today and make sure we put the best car we can on the track every day. Iowa is a good example. We had a lot of gearbox problems there and got a few laps down but Graham was able to finish fourth stuck in one gear and when we took the gearbox out it was falling apart. But Graham nursed it home and got some great points.

“I don’t want to stress the championship because I don’t want to stress the guys. I want them to do their jobs today and let tomorrow take care of itself. We’ve got to give Graham the best preparation we can and not say at the end of the year, ‘I wish we would’ve done this or that.’ We’ve got to do the job right today and that’s what we’ve been doing all year.”

And of course, Graham will get married at the end of November to NHRA drag racing star Courtney Force, a daughter of drag racing legend John Force. “It’s been a good year for us to break out a little bit and put ourselves in a position towards the championship,” Graham concludes. “That’s obviously a dream of mine, but I never thought we would be this close at the end of this year. So far, so good, but we all know Montoya and Dixon are going to be tough in the last few races.”

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