Verizon IndyCar Series fans hear it all the time: Small teams can’t compete with multi-car organizations. Honda drivers can’t match the results of the Chevrolet entries. But Graham Rahal lives in defiance of those arguments. The driver of the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda nearly had his best career season ever in 2015, and spoke to IndyCar Examiner at this weekend’s Grand Prix of Long Beach about exceeding that and breaking the expectations.
Graham was a contender for the IndyCar championship last year and also won two races on the way to a fourth place finish. He’s proven that it doesn’t matter how many teammates you have or which manufacturer you drive for. Offering his assessment of the dynamic of the league, he told us, “I think a small team can be competitive if done efficiently and done smart. You have to have smart people, you have to work smart, allocate your resources to the areas that do work and really are going to work. We’ve been fortunate enough to do that.”
“We’re fighting an uphill battle for sure on a lot of fronts but we have to keep our head down and working hard,” he continued. “I think what it comes down to, the reason we do better than others, is the people behind me. My team, I really do feel they are superb at what they do and had we had the resources some of these other teams do, I think we’d be pretty awesome.”
He has established himself as one of IndyCar’s most tenacious drivers, both on and off the track. Graham isn’t afraid to take risks in a race, such as when he battled Tony Kanaan down to the wire at the MAVTV 500 in Fontana, and he also shoots straight when it comes to telling it how it is and making a positive contribution to open-wheel racing. In 2015 he put race fans on notice that he’s going to be a threat for the title and in 2016 he’s on pace to do that again, recording his first top-five finish at Phoenix. So was there anything in particular that helped him turn the corner?
“I just think as a whole, when we moved on to being a one-car [team], everybody was focused on the 15 machine and making sure that every little detail was really strong and our pit stops were good,” Graham told us.
“We hired a couple guys back that I had worked with or had experience with before to be assistant engineers but in different departments,” he continued. “When we got our three main engineers Eddie, Mike and Martin together it clicked immediately. Their personalities are very similar, their beliefs are similar and we all just focused on this one mindset and everyone’s on the same page.”
He knows that the first step to putting himself in position for the 2016 title is starting this opening portion of the season well. “I want to be a Top 5 contender. That’s what I believe a championship is made up of,” he told us. “A guy that can finish in the Top 5 all weekend. We were very close [at Phoenix]. I believe coming here we have to do the same, we’ve got to run up front, we have to win races.”
While he always drives hard every weekend, another strength he has that shouldn’t be overlooked is the way he carries himself outside of competition. Like many of the drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Graham is dedicated not just to the success of his team but the continued growth of the sport as a whole. He’s honestly invested in every aspect of the game.
Beyond that, he’s also a strong representative of the quality of person that exists in IndyCar. Graham is personable, smart, straightforward and an upstanding human being. He spearheaded the Justin Wilson Memorial Auction last fall and founded the Graham Rahal Foundation in 2009. This is someone that fans can be proud to support. Yet when we asked, he told us that he’s not bothered that IndyCar drivers don’t get the same level of buzz as their stock car counterparts.
“The thing is for me as a person, I can be outspoken and all that stuff,” Graham said, unconcerned about earning attention outside of the track. “I do this because I love this and I want to help the series grow, which means you have to have a certain level of fame, but I like being able to walk down the street and be my own person honestly.”
His focus now is on capturing his first win in 2016. With Long Beach in the books, Graham moves on to next Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, which will serve as round four of the year. That means we’re already a quarter of the way through the season. Talk has been going for years about expanding IndyCar’s schedule to compete with that of NASCAR, and Graham said he’d be up for that challenge under the right circumstances.
“I’d like to see a longer year,” he explained, “but we need to develop really good races versus quantity. I like quality over quantity…The way I look at it is we have a couple weak links for sure, but we’ve got a lot of strong events. I’d like to see more races but I want to see us continue on that trend.”
“I’m really looking forward to this season,” he concluded. “I think we’ve got great potential and our team’s done a great job introducing a lot of new sponsors to the sport, and we’re going to continue to develop this. We’ve all got skin in the game. We need to work hard and get ourselves in a place where IndyCar racing is the top motorsport.”
With drivers like Graham representing the present and future of IndyCar, there’s no reason to believe it won’t be. It’s not a matter of if he’ll ever be Verizon IndyCar Series champion, but when.
For more on Graham Rahal, visit his official website. Then watch when the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda returns to the track in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama this Sunday, Apr. 24 on NBC Sports Network.