Rather than use this space this week to recant tales of the few racing events that took place this weekend (Audi won the 6 hours of Spa, Bruno Spengler took the DTM victory, Brad Keselowski won a NASCAR race, and Casey Stoner won a Moto GP event), I thought I would give you an up close and personal taste of what it’s like to spend most of the morning and part of the afternoon with the extraordinary racing driver, Graham Rahal.
While I was visiting Graham primarily for the opportunity to drive his phenomenal collection of cars for an upcoming magazine article, we did happen to discuss his day job in between back road rumbles. While this year has, thus far, not been the most kind to Mr. Rahal, I still regard him as possibly the most underrated American racing driver right now. Also, after having spent a little time with him, I certainly regard him as an all around genuinely awesome young man.
The following is an excerpted transcript of a conversation we shared. In some portions, it almost reads like Graham is interviewing me, but the truth is, it was just candid conversation. I hope you enjoy it, I know I did.
Hooniverse: So, you are driving a Honda powered car this season, but it seems the Chevrolets are walking away this year. How do you think you will fare this year?
Graham Rahal: I think we’ll do fine.
Hooniverse: Well, at least you don’t have a Lotus!
Graham Rahal: Yeah, I think we’ll be alright. The biggest thing is that Borg Warner spec’d the turbos, which for the Honda is a single (turbo setup). Being a single, of course they are going to have more lag, but the way they measured the efficiencies, they were way off. IndyCar had to take a step back, and told Borg Warner to develop a new cold side of the turbo. Hopefully with a little more testing we can make it happen.
. . .
Graham Rahal: So where are you from?
Hooniverse: Well, right now I’m living in Medina, Ohio.
Graham Rahal: You live in Medina? That’s where my Dad is from.
Hooniverse: I know. Being “the motorsport guy”, as soon as I said I was moving there, everyone made sure to tell me “That’s where Bobby Rahal is from.” I just moved from Atlanta not long ago.
Graham Rahal: Are you from Atlanta?
Hooniverse: Originally I’m from Michigan.
Graham Rahal: So are you a Michigan fan?
At this point, Graham’s girlfriend Laken jumps in to calm him down, in an attempt to avoid the contretemps inevitable when an Ohio State fan and a University of Michigan fan get in the same room.
. . .
After seeing the extensive aeronautical theme of Mr. Rahal’s home office.
Hooniverse: Wow, this is neat. So, it looks like you are an airplane nut.
Graham Rahal: Yeah, I mean, I like planes.
Hooniverse: It seems like one of those things that goes hand in hand. If you like cars, chances are you like planes and motorcycles as well.
Graham Rahal: Yeah, yeah. I love motorcycles. Motorcycles are a huge weakness. In fact, about a month ago, there was a motorcycle sitting right where you are sitting right now. Ducatis specifically, I love.
Hooniverse: I absolutely love Ducati. I’ve been passively looking at picking one up, but haven’t pulled the trigger.
Graham Rahal: Yeah, they are great. I’ve had a Desmosedici RR, two Tricolores, I’ve had a few Monsters, a yellow 1098, then a pearl white 1198S. I just love them. To me, the most free feeling you could ever have is riding a bike.
Hooniverse: I know you used to drive a Z06, what made you move into more exotic cars?
Graham Rahal: Well, without sounding pompous, money. I got the Corvette, because I always wanted something cool, and it was between the Z06 and a Viper, at the time. I ended up with the Corvette because it opened up better, and I could fit my golf equipment. I still drive my cars every day, and I still take the Carrera GT when I go golfing, but the clubs sit in the passenger seat.
Hooniverse: The Vette is still pretty hard to beat on the price.
Graham Rahal: Yeah, and I love them. I had a Ron Fellows edition Z06, I had the 16th ZR1 in the world, a black one. You can’t beat that car for the money. It’s fun because you can do the biggest burnouts ever, and still drive it down the street to your Chevy dealer to get it fixed if you need to.
After that, My dad and I got a pair of 997 GT3 RS. Mine was Viper Green, it was great, but to be honest, that car was kind of boring. It did everything so well, that it was boring.
. . .
Hooniverse: So, you are the youngest winner in series history. You are the youngest pole winner in series history. What does that mean, going into the rest of the season?
Graham Rahal: It’s great to have on your CV, and I love having the trophy on my shelf, but I feel like I have such a monkey on my back. I’m such a better driver today than I was in 2008, 2009, and probably even 2010. If I were the driver I am today back in 2009, I probably would have won several more races. In 2009 I had a great car, I just didn’t do the job. I know I can compete, and I know I can win races, but I have such a monkey on my back, it drives me nuts.
. . .
Hooniverse: What was the transition like from the Panoz Champcar to the IndyCars? Is it any different than the transition from last year’s car to this year’s car?
Graham Rahal: It’s very similar to the transition from last year to this year. The new car has a whole different feel. The old IndyCar, through the corners and stuff was pretty quick, it had a lot of grip, but it just had no top speed. It was a lot lower on power compared to the Champ Car. This new car is getting better, in that respect. It’s quicker through the corners, and it has much better top end. The engines are in such early stages of development, that I suspect it will just get even better. It’s a big change, it’s completely different. They both go, but the way they do it is completely different.
. . .
Hooniverse: What is your favorite race track?
Graham Rahal: Indy is the best, just because of the history. Milwaukee is the best oval, because it’s so rewarding to put in a good lap. The ultimate road courses are Road America or Laguna Seca. Also, Mid Ohio is my home track, so it’s hard to argue against that.
. . .
An interesting anecdote.
Graham Rahal: I went with my dad to get my first car, which was a Subaru STi. So we go to the dealership, and when we get there, the first thing he does is to open the door and slam it as hard as he can. I’m thinking “what in the hell are you doing?” and he said “well, let me tell you something, you can tell the quality of a car by how hard you can shut the doors, and the sound it makes when you slam it.”
. . .
This was an interesting exchange that I probably shouldn’t put down in words…for fear that my girlfriend were to see it.
Graham Rahal: So, are you married or anything?
Hooniverse: Long term girlfriend. We’ve been together, actually, since high school
Graham Rahal: Really? So it’s gettin’ to be time, isn’t it?
Hooniverse: Yeah, probably soon. Perhaps sometime this year.
Graham Rahal: I’m kinda getting the heat a little, too.
Hooniverse:Yeah, I hear it from her all the time! After 9 years, she’s getting tired of waiting.
The fact that even Graham Rahal thinks I ought to be committing… Maybe it IS time…
. . .
Hooniverse: You are still early in your career, and you are with a great team… What comes next?
Graham Rahal: Just keep going. I don’t sit and think about “oh, I’m going to go to NASCAR, or I’m going to Formula 1”. The great thing about IndyCar is, you can live a good life if you are good at it. I get to come home during the week and play with my dogs.
Hooniverse: So, if you were offered a contract to run an LMP car at Le Mans, would you take it?
Graham Rahal: Um, I’d probably stay in open wheel. Open wheel stuff is what I love. I might do sports cars after my open wheel career goes away. I want to stay here, I want to win Indy. I have a lot more to do before I let this go.
. . .
A HUGE thank you goes out to Graham for letting a schlub like me spend the day riding his coat tails and driving his cars. If you ever want to offer the opportunity again, I’d be glad to take you up on it!