In this week’s interview, Speedway Media catches up with NTT IndyCar Series and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver, Graham Rahal. During the interview, we talk about his first season in the IndyCar Series and what he remembers about being a rookie. We also discuss whether there is anything he would change after all these years, his recollection of his first Indy 500, and what his 31-year-old self would tell his 19-year-old self.
SM: You entered the IndyCar Series in 2008 at the age of 19 after completing a year in CART. What it was like transitioning from CART to IndyCar? Were there any differences between the cars and did it take some time getting comfortable with the IndyCar style car?
GR: “The cars are very different, as you can imagine,” Rahal said regarding the difference between a CART and IndyCar. “They’re a little more of a challenge. The hardest part was there are a lot of very good drivers. In fact, Sage Karam and I were talking about this the other night. We talked about how we were all young and came into this deal, you know? We think we’re going to go out there and crush it, life is going to be good and easy. But then you go, wait a second. This isn’t like Star Mazda or anything else.”
“The point being is the competitive nature and that’s the hardest part of our sport. There’s a lot of very good guys.”
SM: Can you just talk about what it was like entering the series as a rookie at such a young age? Were there any nerves entering this series?
GR: I mean, we all have nerves,” we said. “I think we all have nerves and we all understand that it’s a tough sport. My hope was to always race in IndyCar and be in the sport, all that sort of thing. How quickly does that take shape? You never know. That type of thing is always a question mark. But for me, I had hoped my opportunity was going to come. Thanks to Newman-Haas, it did come. It came at a young age and there was a lot to learn.”
“If I look back today in some ways, I could have been too young. You know what I mean? I really didn’t fully comprehend what I had gotten into. Even though I spent my whole life around it, there’s a lot of learning left to be done when you first personally step foot into the series. But in trade, I enjoyed every aspect. I’ve had my good years and bad years. Certainly, it’s all I ever wanted. It’s the only dream I ever had was to be in this sport. I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones to see that through.”
SM: I am sure when you entered the IndyCar Series for the first time, there were probably some high expectations with being the son of Bobby Rahal. What do you remember about that and if there was any hype, or criticism from the garage from other drivers? Or, were they very supportive? Was there a specific driver you got along with and sought advice from?
GR: “I don’t think there was any criticism about it,” Rahal said. “I think everyone was pretty nice to me. For me, a lot of the guys had respect for my dad. I mean, it wasn’t easy. You know, you had the rookie orientation you had to take part of. The first time you go out on an oval, Tony Kanaan is going to scare you. He’s going to do it on purpose and he does it to teach you a lesson. You have to accept that and learn that, and take it for what it is worth, move on.”
“I don’t think anyone was extra hard on me or anything like that. We were all kind of in it together.”
SM: In your first season you got off with a bang by winning in your first start at St. Petersburg after starting ninth and leading 19 laps. Winning that race, I am sure had to have felt good. Describe what that race was like for you all these years later.
GR: “It means a lot,” he said. “I think it means the world to get that first win off your back. I kind of came up short for many years after that. In the midst of all that, I don’t think I would have changed anything. Why is that? We all learn at a different pace. My win kind of came quick, but then you need to reset. Take a step back and learn. You know, understand the value of what you’re doing, the importance of what you’re doing. How much it means and how hard you have to work for it.”
“A lot of times when you come in, you win a race or a few races, you ultimately grasp what you’re doing. So yes, from my perspective, I was fortunate enough that it worked out. Obviously, I would have liked to not go eight years without a win, but at the end of the day everything happens for a reason.”
SM: After that race, you had some okay runs throughout your rookie season leading up to the Indianapolis 500. When the Indy 500 came, it was your first as a driver. What was it like in the weeks leading up to your first 500?
GR: “Oh, I mean it’s huge,” Rahal said regarding the Indy 500. “It’s a crazy world to be in that position. I think the Indy 500 has always stood on its own, it stood out from the rest. I always enjoyed that aspect of having the honor to go race there. I was lucky enough to get that opportunity at a young age.”
“The one thing I can say about Indianapolis is, I never took that one for granted. Going to Indy was always an eye opening experience and it will be forever. You know, right now and meet it, it’s like wow. We’re here.”
SM: How did you prepare for the 500 in your first year?
GR: “I’m one of the guys that likes to go back and watch old races,” he continued regarding the 500. “You learn to figure out what I could do better and differently. So, I am one of those guys that likes to take a step back and soak it all in and understand what it is all about.”
SM: Looking back, it wasn’t the results you wanted after crashing out and being credited with a last place finish. Is there anything you would have done differently in the race to have a better finish?
GR: “In my first year, we actually had an issue where the right front shock failed,” Rahal said. “I was lucky the way it happened on how it did. It could have been a lot worse. In my second year in 2009, it was a major screw up. In 2009, we had a really good chance of winning that race. That’s the race that opened my eyes up. You know, what am I doing, why did I screw up so badly?”
“And the reason was, I was racing with Helio (Castroneves) a lot that day. I had tons of opportunities to pass Helio. I thought I was being patient and wise. On that specific day, our car was better than his. We were faster. I had a lot of opportunities to pass him and I didn’t. I crash out and who wins the race? Helio. I’ll never forget. I sat there after that race, like are you kidding me? How did that just happen? How did I let that opportunity go? It was a real lesson for me to understand how that race can change so quickly. I took that to heart and as I go forward, I think about that often.”
SM: How long did it take to get over that race?
GM: “Oh, it took a long time,” he added. “I could bounce right out of Indianapolis and go to Detroit, and take a lot of my frustration, anger out. Detroit was always a good opportunity at redemption.”
SM: In every driver that I have talked to, they kind of wish they had another shot at a specific race or just another shot at a better finish, or erase a mistake. For you, is there any race that sticks in your mind about your 2008 season, where you wish you had another do over/chance?
GR: “There has been plenty,” Rahal said. “I can’t really name one. I messed up on millions and you know, that’s the truth. I think everyone makes their mistakes and unfortunately for me, I made my mistake a few times.”
“Probably if I look back, Milwaukee in ’08 was a good opportunity. We sat on the front row and we were very strong in the race, and I crashed. That’s when it started to hit me. Like, man you’re fast, but out of control. So that was a bad one. Richmond also comes to mind. I started on the front row and crashed. Those are hard, short ovals. Those two taught me really good lessons.”
SM: It’s been several years since your rookie season in IndyCar. Do you have anything you look back on fondly or is it just all a blur to you?
GR: “Well, there’s a lot of blur, but yes I have some memories,” he said. “I have always really enjoyed what I have done.”
“When I look back at the initial years and the races that meant most to me, like Indianapolis was always extremely special. Because in that time, era, it is so weird for me to talk about it today. Indianapolis was about three-weeks long. You didn’t run every Monday and Tuesday. We practiced Thursday and Friday. So instead, Monday and Tuesday were all activities. Like for example, a drivers golf tournament. A charity golf tournament and another charity event, or a fashion show.”
“All these things weren’t crammed into a week, where you can’t absorb any of it. So in that time, it was kind of a lot more fun because it was a lot longer to be able to take it all in. Nowadays, it’s a little harder to enjoy the Month of May because there is no time.”
SM: An additional follow up to that. Some racers keep their memorabilia and some don’t. Do you have a specific piece in your collection that reminds of your rookie season?
GR: “I don’t, but I have one of my first helmets back home,” Rahal said. “My first Indy 500 helmet. So often, I think about that. When I see it, I think it through and all that kind of stuff. Typically not a lot, but I’m not somebody who dwells on that stuff or thinks back about that stuff, if that makes sense? I kind of focus on the here and now. You know, what do I need to do today to be better?”
SM: It seems hard to believe that your rookie season was 12 years ago. However, what would a 31-year-old Graham Rahal tell the 19-year-old Graham Rahal if you had the chance to time travel?
GR: “Oh man, a lot,” he said. “I think patience is a virtue, you know that old saying? Also, take advantage of every opportunity that you get. Live it to the fullest. I tell this all the time to all the young guys. Taking an opportunity doesn’t mean you have to go out there and be the fastest guy. Opportunity means don’t make mistakes. That’s a huge deal. For me, that’s all I really think about and focus on nowadays. Each and every race weekend, make the most of it.”