Q and A with IndyCar's Graham Rahal
Graham, welcome to today's call.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Thanks for having me.
THE MODERATOR: Graham enters his eighth season as a competitor in IndyCar racing and his second full season with a team co-owned by his father racing legend Bobby Rahal. He'll race the No. 15 National Guard Honda starting with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this weekend.
Graham, the off-season is finally over. It's time to start the 2014 season. St. Pete has to be the best place for you to start a new relationship with a new sponsor in the National Guard.
GRAHAM RAHAL: St. Pete has always been good to me. It's obviously a track I like, getting my first win there, my first pole there. Always been good vibes around St. Pete for whatever reason.
I'm definitely excited to get back racing, number one, and number two there at St. Pete. Of all of our races throughout the year, I wish we had more identical to St. Pete. Great place, great atmosphere.
Ready to go racing. Feel like I've been sitting around for the last six months. Nice that that is finally over and we can finally get on with it.
Q. You mentioned your first win and first pole at St. Petersburg. From a driver's perspective, what does it take to go quick at St. Pete?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, I think it's a pretty typical sort of street course as far as the layout is concerned. However, the one thing that I think makes St. Pete pretty different is a lot of time, even on some of the street courses, there's a small margin for error. St. Pete, especially when you get in the back section of the track, turns five, six, seven, eight, there's no margin for error at all.
I think that's extremely, extremely difficult. Makes it very difficult. 110 laps there is a long time. It gives you an opportunity to make a lot of mistakes.
Q. And what is the latest with the ride swap with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, I don't know. I threw that out there. It's something I really wanted to do. I was surprised he responded. Of course, I felt with the National Guard that it could potentially I would say happen. Media-wise, for sponsor exposure, I think it would be tremendous for them. But I also thought it would be something that would be fun to do.
There's been a lot of Cup guys jumping in an IndyCar. Kurt Busch is going to be doing it in the month of May. Jimmie Johnson and others have been always interested.
We have a tie here now. Let's see getting Earnhardt and a Rahal, I think the last time those two names were on the same track were the IROC days with my dad. It would be good to go back out there and see what we could do, have some fun.
Q. Do you remember all the way back to 2008 and what it feels like to win an IndyCar race? Do you feel an urgency right now? What is your feeling going into this season about getting things turned upward toward the winning aspect of things?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Everybody feels a lot of pressure I would say as a team. Obviously, compared to last year, it wouldn't be hard to do a better job, but certainly to be more competitive and run up front.
I look at it, and obviously I've had chances to win. I think I finished second like 10 times or something. In my trophy room in my house it's all second-place trophies. I've had opportunity to win from time to time, unfortunately it didn't just come together. This year we need to focus on doing all those things.
I think what we really have to work on is we have to qualify better. We race very well, but when you're qualifying 14th, 15th on some of these street courses, it's hard to make up that gap.
I think we have a good opportunity this year. I feel with National Guard it helps take our team to a whole new level. Of course, with Bill Pappas, John Dick, all the guys we brought onboard, that's going to help a lot.
But there's always more work to be done. We're going to see this weekend where we stand. At this point I couldn't tell you. From our Sebring test, we were quickest there two of the three days we tested there, so I feel like we're in the hunt when it comes to the street course package. We're going to have to see what happens coming up this Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Weather might be a part of it, but we'll just have to see.
Q. You've raced well a lot of places, but qualifying has been a bugaboo for the team. What have you addressed about that with the new team you have around you? Is it to be more aggressive out of the gate? What is, in a nutshell, sort of the focus?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I don't think it's more aggressive. I think it's smarter. Last year with the engineering staff that we had, there was no common sensical thing. Everything became a project. I think we have to get back to the days where at the end of the day it's still a racecar and we're trying to make it go fast. We have to think about the things that have worked the last 30 years to do so.
I think Bill is that guy. We went and tested down in Sebring. Over the lunch break one day, he didn't even open up his computer. I can't tell you how refreshing that was.
Just from my standpoint, we have to be common sensical. We have to be quick on our feet. We don't get a lot of time in practice anymore so we need to make sure everything we're doing is the right way. It's not always going to be, but we need to try.
Qualifying-wise, it comes down to me just as much as it does the car. Certainly last year I struggled to get the car to do what I want. At some point you just have to wring its neck and get a little more out of it.
Q. How has the turnaround been? You had the fire last night on the transporter. How much of a setback is that, or is it one?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Yeah, it is. I mean, I think all of our equipment was really clean. The guys did a great job this winter preparing everything top to bottom. The trailer looks great, the new National Guard wraps. It's all gone now.
I think the fire started up in the engineering lounge, so luckily I think the cars were fine. But it smoked everything out. We have to thank all the dry cleaners in Indianapolis because I think they're putting everybody else's stuff on hold today.
It's not ideal. Everybody knows that. I just got a text from one of my guys, What do we have to do to change our luck? It's literally like somebody doesn't like us. Hopefully this is the last bit of bad luck we'll have this year.
Q. Can you qualify how much you want to win a race? Is it palpable? In your gut what do you feel along those lines?
GRAHAM RAHAL: It's hard because you have to balance that. Of course I want to go win, like everybody does. But you can't put too much pressure on yourself. I think when you put a lot of pressure is when you can fail.
We want to do the best that we can. But I can tell you something, there have been guys winning races last year that I know I can beat. I don't look at myself and say, There's no way that I can win because there's guys that are winning that I've always been able to beat. There is some frustration in that.
But we as a team just have to do a better job. When an opportunity presents itself to us, we have to take the opportunity, can't be making mistakes. I think we'll do a better job of that this year for sure.
In St. Pete there will be all new National Guard uniforms, but a lot of new faces on this team. We're all going to work well together. I'm sure we're going to see a better effort to come from that.
Q. How much would you say you've changed since your first season in IndyCar to where you stand now with the National Guard team?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I don't even think it's comparable. If we look at wins, I think if I had been the driver I am, as mature as I am today, versus like 2009 even, I probably would have won a couple races in 2009. We had a car that was definitely capable of winning.
I think Indy in 2009 I could have won. Totally different thing. I would say totally different driver.
Obviously my strengths and weaknesses have flip-flopped. '09 I was a great qualifier; I was an average to poor racer. The past couple years have been the opposite: I can't qualify, but been able to race extremely well.
As you mature, the more time you are around this, things happen. I have to find a happy medium, qualify better, then I think the races will kind of come to us.
Q. Would you say that the DW12 cars have thrown a curve ball to you or do you welcome it and it's more or less the margin of error in IndyCar has changed since 2009?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, you look at like Barber tests. We were 18th and 19th at the tests, but only one second off the pace. In my early years, probably one second covered the top five. I think it's a lot more competitive today than it's ever been before.
Q. You were talking to some NASCAR drivers, then later on Twitter there was an offer about Dale Jr. to drive a stockcar. Do you think your dad would offer an IndyCar demonstration for Dale Jr.?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Actually it was the other way. I went out and offered it to him. He responded.
Yeah, as we talked about before, I think it would be a great media PR venture if we could do this. But we'll have to see. You just never know. Timing is always a tough part of this.
But I feel like if we both want to do it, there's a desire of course, National Guard, it would be a big deal for them, I think we can definitely make it happen.
Q. Getting used to the new twin turbo, you've driven it for a full winter now. While your team wasn't quite high up on the charts, the Hondas and Chevys were pretty even as far as the Barber tests go. How confident are you that the new Honda twin turbo is going to be very competitive this season?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, we all have the utmost respect and confidence in Honda, otherwise I don't think we would be with them. It's a great group of people. Certainly with Roger Griffiths gone, it's certainly going to be a changing of the guard, some adapting to do.
I thought the engine worked very well. We were making a lot of changes throughout the two days there that were having a big effect. I feel pretty confident with the group of people we have around us with our support engineers. I hope we can start it off well in St. Pete for them.
I think it's going to be very competitive. I don't think we know exactly what we have till qualifying Saturday, maybe not even till Indy. You just never know.
I remember the last time there was a big change like this in 2012, the Hondas were dominating at St. Pete, then came qualifying, and the highest Honda was eighth. Everybody was wondering what the heck just happened.
We just have to see how it all works out for us come Saturday and Sunday.
Q. How much does your dad play into your driving? Is he out there coaching you? Is it kind of your own way?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Yeah, he probably doesn't have a huge effect on it, to be honest. He really doesn't ever say much to me about driving or driving style or anything like that.
From what I'm told from people that have worked with me that also worked with him, I think our driving styles are very similar actually. He, himself, I don't know, he's kind of pretty quiet about it I would say, which now that you mention it is kind of funny. I haven't even kind of thought about that.
As far as on a day-to-day basis, he's definitely extremely influential and always a part of it. Maybe I should ask him some more tips, you never know. But I feel on the driving end, he's pretty quiet generally.
Q. What are your feelings of Indy, now having a road course and the oval?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I think it's a great thing. Obviously I did the test at Indy on the road course. I feel like it's a great track, a great venue. I'm excited. I hope the fans will come out and really support it. I think it's going to be a great time.
I feel like it's something totally different. You'd be amazed. Obviously Indy is kind of the center of the IndyCar world. You'd be amazed, you talk about a road course, they're like, What's that? It's pretty funny to me.
I hope they all come out and play a part in it. I think it will be a great first year, and I hope it continues for many years to come.
It's all about building up to the month of May, building up to the 500. I think this does nothing but get the fans more and more excited for what's to come.
Q. A lot of fans get to see St. Pete as picturesque. Can you explain to them the difference between the intensity of a street course as opposed to an oval?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Certainly ovals are far less physical. Street courses just beat you up. Your elbows get bruised up, your body just gets sore. St. Pete is probably going to be pretty warm, so you get pretty tired with that. Being that it's as bumpy as it is, it just rattles you for three days. That's probably the hardest part.
It's not a 500-mile race. 500-mile races are not physically demanding, it's mentally demanding. Being in the car that long, your head, you kind of get beat up.
Totally different. You have to look at it a different way.
St. Pete is 110 laps, which is a long time around there. That mentally can get pretty demanding, as well. But a 500-mile race kind of sucks everything out of you, all the energy that you have, versus being just bumps and bruises like a street course.
Q. With Dale Jr. having the same sponsor, did you expect you would probably run into each other in some sort of promotional thing anyway even before you put that out on Twitter?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I'm sure we're going to cross paths this year with National Guard, no matter what. Like I said, I'm a little surprised he even responded, but it was nice. Hopefully we can get some power behind this and make it happen.
Q. We know that Penske had a very solid test in the open test. They've added Juan Pablo. They're loaded again. Do you find that a little bit incongruous that Helio has been unable to win a championship with everything he's done in his career?
GRAHAM RAHAL: You know, I don't know. If I were Helio, I wouldn't think twice about it, though. I'd take three Indys over five championships any day.
I'm sure he wants to win one badly. Last year was a great opportunity. It didn't work out. You just never know.
Like I said, if I look at Helio, I wouldn't take anything for granted. I'd rather have his Indy wins than anything else.
I can't say that I feel bad for him. But he has accomplished a lot. He has won a lot. To never get a championship, when I think several of his teammates have gotten championships, that's got to be frustrating.
Then again, a guy in my shoes, he's always been in the championship hunt, so that's what I'm focused on, is getting myself into that position and hopefully winning one, one day myself.
Q. How much of a factor do you think Juan Pablo is going to be or do you think it will take him time to learn these cars?
GRAHAM RAHAL: No. Juan Pablo, if you ask me, is probably one of the most talented guys to ever sit in a racecar. I don't think it's going to take him time at all. To jump back into some of these street courses is going to be different for him.
There's a reason the guy has won in NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One. He is without a doubt one of the most talented people to ever drive. I have no doubt he's going to be right on pace.
Q. When you joined your dad's team, I think a lot of people thought it was going to be magic, this is what you need, get you on track to a championship. Were we all being a little bit unreasonable or maybe hoping for something that wouldn't happen overnight?
GRAHAM RAHAL: With dad and I, you're referring to?
Q. Yes, driving for your dad, that that was the magic pill.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Everybody has to remember there's never a magic pill. We knew there was some growing to be done. I think we're just kind of getting to that now.
Both dad and I had hoped the last year was going to go a lot better than it did. For various reasons it didn't.
I think people are unreasonable. If you think Tony Kanaan jumping in the Target car is going to win five races this year, that's unreasonable. Everybody has to adapt, get used to their environment.
We've made a lot of changes, like I said. There are reasons things didn't work last year. I'm just looking forward to seeing what works this year and how well it does.
Q. Might you comment a little bit about your experience going back to St. Pete, being the dominant driver, then the following year changing to a different car with a different team, you had some big struggles there, as you reported not because of yourself, what you learned from that and how that might assist. Also, talk about your brand-new engineering team working behind you.
GRAHAM RAHAL: St. Pete has always been good to me. I got my first win, the next year I got my first pole. The year after that I think I drove for Sarah. We finished in the top 10, which was their team's best finish to that point. The last few years has been bad luck.
I can't remember 2011 what happened. 2012 we had some issues. 2013, last year, I had a great car, great chance to win, an electronic issue, the car just shut off. It's basically been a dose of bad luck.
But we can get through all this stuff. The engineering staff that we have, they're great guys, they're great people. I think they're committed to making this team one of the best.
I'm excited for what's to come. I think at the end of the day we have a great opportunity ahead of us with the National Guard. Everybody knows the funding we have, the ability that we now have to develop, and we have to make the most of it.
Q. Are you going to be able to pick the brains non-stop of your new engineering staff? Have they told you not to call them at 3 a.m. in the morning?
GRAHAM RAHAL: No, we have very open communication, always going back and forth about everything. Like I said, they're great guys.
We have to stay in touch. That's what a great engineering team is all about, the relationship between engineer and driver. So we just have to make sure that we stay in touch and we work very closely together.
THE MODERATOR: We have run out of time with Graham today. Graham, thank you for your time today and best of luck in St. Petersburg.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Thank you.
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