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INDIANAPOLIS – Before the AMR Safety Team’s white and red Chevy trucks could reach him, Graham Rahal was climbing out of his mangled, misshapen racecar that faced backward on the backstretch of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Rahal needed to punch something, kick something, hit something, even just throw his head back for an exasperated sigh – all things it’s impossible to do packed into a DW12 chassis like a sardine as a 6-4 IndyCar driver.
Every left turn he makes nowadays – and he makes a lot of those during the Month of May – leads to a spark of pain in his right shoulder, a torn labrum from a teenage ski trip gone wrong. Leg pain rears its ugly head every yellow flag, when shorter drivers can wriggle their legs, ankles and toes. Last year, a wrist injury lingered the entire year, the single-digit handicapper didn’t play a single round of golf all offseason.
Now in the middle of his 16th season at the pinnacle of American open-wheel racing, the 33-year-old has a constant reminder of what his future could be: a famous racing father, Bobby Rahal, who in the past couple years has had a hip replacement and back surgery, mending ailments that have lingered for decades.
“I don’t want this to sound like I’m on my way out, 'cause I’m not planning to step aside in the too near future. These are just things I think about,” the younger Rahal told IndyStar earlier this year in an exclusive interview. “Where do I want to be 20 years from now? Is it walking around with a walker, the way my dad was two years ago? That isn’t a spot I want to find myself in.”
Before we get any further, let’s make one thing clear: This is not Graham Rahal’s career send-off. The six-time race-winner who began his Champ Car career a couple months past his 18th birthday isn’t hanging up his helmet this year, or the next, or likely even the one after that. But with every fleeting race and passing season, Rahal says that exit ramp gets clearer and clearer – even moreso than one might expect.
It speaks to the overflowing love he has for this sport that comes with the grueling pressure of being the son of a three-time series champ and the 1986 Indianapolis 500-winner. Like his contemporary Marco Andretti, the younger Rahal was billed as the second-coming of his father – the next young American driver who would take open-wheel racing by storm.
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The younger Rahal is closing in on the five-year anniversary of his last IndyCar win. He’s sat on pole three times in his career – just once in the past decade. He's had a fine career, but the longer he goes without reaching what he believes to be his potential, the more annoyed and impatient he gets.
“Do we need to be qualifying better? Sure. But the truth of the matter is, when Sundays come along, there’s not a more consistent or better race team than we have been,” Rahal told IndyStar. “We simply need to help ourselves, and to be frank, we need some of the bounces to go our way.
“I know maybe others don’t say this about me, but I absolutely feel that when it comes to racing – you guys know I’m not egotistical – but I feel when it comes to being a pure racer, I’m top-3 in this whole sport.”
Though the numbers might say otherwise, there’s little more a team owner could want from a driver than an endless pool of confidence. And with Rahal, it’s paired with a glass-half-full attitude that keeps him going even when it seems the racing gods are out to get him.
But in those moments last May 30, after he’d climbed out of his wrecked car 82 laps from eternal glory, Rahal appeared almost inconsolable. After lurking near the front for the first half of the race, Rahal took over the lead on Lap 114. The rest of the lead-pack made their third stop between Laps 103-114. The No. 15 Honda stretched it to 118, when he held a 35-second lead on 2nd-place.
“I haven’t re-watched the race because I know – in fact, I had someone come up to me the other day at an event and tell me, ‘Hey, I’ve been keeping a lap chart here since (the 1970s), and you were going to do one less pitstop than those guys,’” Rahal said earlier this week. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m aware.’”
That afternoon, as a member of the AMR Safety Team is attempting to usher Rahal over to his truck to drive him to the infield care center, the driver’s in his own little world. Rahal takes a detour, smacks his hands together hard and then falls to all fours. He falls back onto his knees, letting his clenched fists fall into his lap. He looks at the asphalt, then smacks it twice with his right hand.
Before he gets in the truck, he’ll lean up against the SAFER barrier, look up at the bright blue sky, then walk away again as track workers try to zip him from the scene. He punches the air, rips his racing gloves off, puts his hands on his head, folds in half and then drops to a knee again, his fingers rubbing his eyes.
Minutes before, his crew had released him from his pit with his left-rear wheel not fastened onto his car. Not long after he sliced through the warmup lane, trying to build enough speed to stay with Alex Palou, Helio Castroneves and the rest of the leaders, that wheel spun clear off, sending Rahal careening into the wall. This would be his sixth DNF at the 500 in 14 starts to go with a pair of podiums – including a 3rd-place in 2020 while his then-teammate Takuma Sato tasted the milk.
Of all the what ifs,, this one clearly hurt most, perhaps because just 72 hours prior, Rahal admitted to several reporters at media day that he didn’t know how many more shots he’d have at this. Just 32 at the time, he’d go on to watch a 46-year-old win the 500 later that weekend, but Rahal knew even then he didn’t have that much time.
“My body, man, it hurts,” Rahal said last year. “I’ll be here a while longer, but I’m not sure how many more I’ll really get. I’d rather have a good post-career than be the bionic man.”
Graham Rahal doesn't want to race 'because he has to'
Early this year, Rahal surprised the series’ reporters on content day when he took a rather innocuous question about his position in a rapidly-expanding team and gave us a look into his inner turmoil about his future.
“I’m old, I get it,” Rahal chirped with a laugh. “Where am I? I’m getting closer to the end, and I think we all know that.”
It was an all-time opening news conference statement, as Rahal revealed a recent phone call with his father, co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Back in September at Laguna Seca when speaking on the future of the sport, the younger Rahal had emphasized the need for younger owners in the sport to help carry IndyCar’s momentum on into the future.
“But I certainly don’t want to set myself up to be a team owner,” he said.
Four months later, that story had changed.
“It was never really my mindset that someday I would be a team owner, but the minute that new building (RLL’s new Zionsville headquarters that span more than 100,000 square feet) started being built, I got a phone call from (co-owner Mike Lanigan) and my dad,” Rahal said. “And it was very clear that the expectation is that I’m going to assume that role with Pat Lanigan.”
A few weeks later with IndyStar, Rahal clarified, saying, “I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but this was the first time this was a very clear message from my dad that this was what the expectation was. But to be honest, team ownership in racing is not the most glamorous of jobs. It’s a lot of stress and responsibility, and for many years, when it was asked if this would be what I wanted to do, to be honest, it’s not the first thing that came to mind, but the message is clear now that ultimately that’s the path that we’ll be going down.”
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As Rahal goes on to explain in-depth, it’s not that he’s uninterested in team ownership. He speaks of “the boys” on his team with the love and appreciation of a brother. He has endless appreciation for his long-time personal trainer Ryan Harber, who used to work with Rahal at St. Vincent and now works full-time with all RLL's drivers and crew members. The IndyCar veteran is incredibly proud that, as he believes, RLL was one of the few, if not the only IndyCar team not to lay-off or furlough employees or cut pay during the opening days and weeks of the pandemic when the series raced once in four months.
“We feel that this team is a family, and we owe it to everybody to treat them like that, but that comes with a lot of responsibility, from a financial and a stress standpoint,” he said. “You’re always trying to raise money every year, and if you don’t, there’s a shortfall, and you have to reach into the old back pocket.”
Like his own father did, Rahal got started early on the investments that, along with his money earned racing over the years, would help carry him through his second chapter. Among other things, he’s gone in with Bobby on a couple car dealerships. His shop Graham Rahal Performance details high-performance street cars, and he now owns an Indianapolis Ducati bike dealership, too.
Racing and cars have always been in his blood, and Rahal doesn’t have any intention on that ever ceasing, but when the 33-year-old looked at the next 50 years or more of his life, he saw a fairly open runway. Race as long as he wants and his body allows, spend more time with his wife, Courtney, his 1-year-old daughter, Harlan, and the family’s baby on the way; ski, play golf, and somehow, keep his racing passions alive.
“Racing has been my life, and it will always be my life,” Rahal said. “But I want it to be my life in the same capacity it is for my dad, which is, if he goes racing, it’s because he wants to – not because he has to.
“I’m a big thinker, and to me, I’ve literally committed my whole life to being here, trying to win IndyCar races, which I’ve been fortunate enough to do for 15 years, but there’s more to life than that, and I’m the type that thinks of that I suppose.”
Coming to terms with the future
Bobby Rahal isn’t about to step aside, either. The 69-year-old says he still sees himself with 20 years left at least – most, if not all, of which he wants to spend around racetracks. He and Mike Lanigan didn’t make the sizable investment in this colossal team headquarters that brings together RLL’s IMSA and IndyCar programs under one roof with a short-term vision.
“We’re here for the long-term, regardless of who’s driving the cars. You don’t build a building like this for the next five years. You do that for the next 20-30 years.”
And yet, the elder Rahal readily admits he may have overlooked an important piece. Call it those parent goggles, where you think you know what’s best for your child, and so you just assume that’s the course they’ll chart.
“It would seem to me that Graham, like me, will always be involved in racing in some level, but that’s his choice,” Rahal said. “So maybe it was a little cheeky of me to think, ‘Oh, automatically when he’s done racing as a driver, he’s going to stay involved as a partner or exec or what have you.
“Clearly, he was a lot of passion for IndyCar racing, and I think it would just seem automatic. Has he said, ‘Dad, I want to take over the building when you’re done'? No, he’s not. But like any family business…”
Rahal pauses for a moment, then continues.
“Whether it works out the way I think it could ultimately, it’s not my decision. It’s Graham’s, but I think it would just make a lot of sense. But it’s his choice in the end.”
Though there’s clearly conflict in his voice, Graham gives no indication he plans to default on his duties to keep the Rahal family racing name active and competitive in IndyCar. Perhaps it’s partly because he’s never felt pigeon-holed into a racing role before – running six full seasons before finally joining RLL for the start of 2013. Perhaps it’s because he’s just not ready to think about how soon that switch may come. Perhaps it’s because he’s more ready for it than he wants to come to terms with.
At the moment, 40 years old is the general target before he plans to step aside from racing full-time, he told IndyStar.
“I think probably five to seven years at the earliest,” he said. “Right around 40, that’s when there’s other things in life that might be more appealing to me. I’ve got a daughter and a lot more going on in life, and that opens your eyes that you’ve got to start considering things.
“I’ve told Courtney, I think 40 is my number where I need to be pretty well ready to move on and in a financial position to move on for good. And then my role may just be different.”
For now, Rahal said he’s content plowing forward with his body as-is, even if that means holding off on surgery to repair that torn labrum. The injury, which he hid from Bobby until a couple of years ago, would require a surgery with too long a recovery period when you consider the demands around the calendar to race, test, work in the sim and keep up one’s general peak fitness.
Outside of laying off the weights that put an extra strain on his wrist and shelving his golf clubs last winter, Rahal said he still feels he’s in some of the best shape of his life.
“There’s a lot left in the tank, but when you do start to feel that there’s not, you need to be cognizant on your own to know it’s time for you to step away,” he said.
Part of that, Rahal said, is he doesn’t want to stand in the way of the next crop of talent. So much of what drives him, outside of wins, titles and 500s, is to see the sport continue to thrive, and that eventually he leaves it in a better place than when he came over from Champ Car in 2008. A large part of that is making certain the next wave of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds get their shot like he did in 2007.
The 40-and-older crew of IndyCar veterans full-timers – Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Takuma Sato and Will Power, along with part-timers Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Kanaan and Ed Carpenter – are still at the tail-end of their respective primes, Rahal said. They’re still very competitive, winning races and making the most money in the series.
Those aren’t things he plans to plainly ignore, “but I highly doubt I’ll be there, as far as timing.”
“At some point, you just want to feel good,” Rahal continued. “And mentally, if you’re not able to give the effort, you need to step back. It takes a lot out of all of us in this sport to forge ahead and commit yourself to be at your highest level. It’s a 24/7, 365 mindset. Everyone has those days where they’re off having some fun, but you better believe there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t worry about my weight or my physical stamina or cardio or my shoulder. It’s an everyday ordeal.”
That mental barrier, Bobby said, is where a switch finally flipped for him coming to the end of that 1998 CART season. After taking the 1992 season title, which included his final four victories, the elder Rahal finished 7th or worse in the standings four of the next six seasons, something he’d only done once since he burst onto the scene in 1982.
“You have to have a willingness to commit and sacrifice to be a champion, and at some point, you’re not willing to do that anymore – especially when you have a family,” Bobby said. “When you’re single, you can be very focused and almost have blinders on. But as you get older, there’s more distractions you have, and I felt I wasn’t ready to make the same level of commitment I was previously.
“I never wanted to race just to race. I wanted to race to win, and if I wasn’t ready to make the sacrifice to win, it was time to bow out.”
Maybe because that drive and desire exists for the younger Rahal, these months of May mean that much more than when he was 18. Maybe it’s why the DNFs or the close calls cut even deeper, to the point where he’s doubling over in the middle of the racetrack while millions of fans watch on TV – not in physical pain, but emotional agony.
Because he knows he deserves it. Because he knows he can do it. And because with each passing May, he’s running out of time.
“I think I wasted my first few (500s), and I understand that I was super young, 18, 19 and 20,” Rahal said. “Even then, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. You think you do, but you don’t.
“As you get older, you learn to appreciate this even more, and you learn that the opportunities aren’t going to be there forever. You appreciate the opportunities when you get them.”
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indy 500: Graham Rahal coming to terms with career mortality at 33