Q&A: IndyCar Star Graham Rahal Talks Karting, Cars, and Racing Heroes
For those who follow IndyCar or sports car racing, the Rahal name is a familiar one. Bobby Rahal is a three-time IndyCar champion and has twice won the Indy 500: as a driver in 1986, and team owner in 2004. His son, Graham, has continued the family’s racing lineage and currently races for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing with teammate Takuma Sato in the Verizon IndyCar series.
It’s Rahal’s 12th season racing in North America’s premier open-wheel championship (starting in the Champ Car series final season in 2007), and has amassed seven wins, 24 podiums, and three pole positions. Graham’s also the winner of the 2011 24 Hours of Daytona with Chip Ganassi driving a Riley & Scott-BMW Grand-Am Daytona Prototype, and continues to race in sports cars from time to time, most recently at this year’s 12 Hours of Sebring for Team Penske Acura Racing, driving their Acura ARX-05 DPi (Daytona Prototype International).
We had a chance for a quick chat with the IndyCar star during the Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix’s media day, where he revisited his racing roots in karting with us and talked about a range of topics – from favorite cars to whether the 2018 IndyCars are more to his liking than previous years.
K1 Speed: When was the first time you drove a go-kart? Do you remember how old you were?
Graham Rahal: Yeah, I was five or six years old (when I started) but really ten years old when I started getting really competitive with it. Go-karting’s always been some of my fondest memories. It was low intensity compared to the demands of today (racing in IndyCar). It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed those times and being out there. I miss it. I try to relive it occasionally when I can and when I can back out there on the track. It’s not often anymore, but I do still have a couple of karts.
But yeah, great memories and a lot of great racing. You know, in go-karts you can do a lot of racing within a calendar year. It’s harder to do that nowadays. You know, once you get to the top, you’ve got 17 races in IndyCar, maybe you add in some sports car races up to 20 races. In go-karts, we do double that and then some. So, it was cool.
K1S: Do you remember your first professional kart race?
GR: I want to say my first big event was probably WKA at like Jacksonville (North Florida Kart Club) or something. And it was tough. It was tough in those times – I had no clue what I was getting myself into. Jacksonville was a pretty daunting racetrack. It had a super long back straight with a big left-hand bowl corner entering that back straight – pretty intense, you know? But there were a lot of great memories, and a lot of great wins in go-karts. Coming out here racing in the west coast – SuperNats, Stars of Karting and everything else. A lot of great times there.
K1S: What were your biggest go-kart racing accomplishments?
GR: I would say Stars of Karting. Winning a few national events in that last year that I did it. And then I finished second to finish the year off in the championship, which was actually held at (Rocky) Moran’s place. First of all, that was a spectacular racetrack (Moran Raceway) and second of all, I finished second there I think to (pauses to think for second) god, it might have been Darren Elliot or somebody like that who had achieved so much in karts that it was pretty cool to be right there with him.
I won both races up at Road America which was fun that year. In those ICC years, those are when the shifter ICC 125cc kart was really big and so it was a lot of fun, because really you had all your top guys, you had guys coming up from Europe. That category really grew in that short period of time and it was really fun.
K1S: What lessons from karting have you been able to apply to this day?
GR: It’s hard to translate the actual driving experience. When you drive a car, it’s a lot heavier. Go-karts are going to be more nimble, more responsive than even an IndyCar is. But, where I think karting is great is getting that race craft under your belt. Because when you’re racing wheel-to-wheel, karting highlights that so well. And purely getting those racing miles and laps under your belt.
And also, you know, for drivers that are really involved in karting, it makes a difference. What I mean by “involved” is understanding what a stiffer axle does, what a softer axle does, what is caster, how do things have an effect on what I’m trying to do, and how I’m going to change the car. Because there’s still a lot of people that make it to the top on talent, but they have no clue how to set up a car. And if the car’s a little bit off-target, they struggle. And in go-karts, I think it can really shape that.
K1S: Do you still race karts today as a hobby or for training?
GR: Well when I do it now, it’s just training. You know, but I don’t get to do it much. I’ve actually set a goal for myself to be able to do it a lot more this year. That’s my goal, so we’ll see what happens.
K1S: Do you have some general kart racing tips you can share with those who are racing at K1 Speed?
GR: Well, there’s a lot, obviously. I just tell people all the time, whether it’s in go-karts or in IndyCars, to take it seriously. If you want to go and have fun with it, just understand that there is no end-game to it, you know? If you want to make it a career, you’ve got to take it really seriously each and every weekend as a great opportunity.
K1S: Now, we’ll step away from karting for some general questions. Let’s start with this: what’s your favorite track to race at and why?
GR: My favorite track is probably Road America. And really the reason is IndyCar – it’s built for IndyCars: super long straights, it’s really high-speed, it’s just right for us.
K1S: If you could drive any racecar from the past, which would it be?
GR: Well.. (pauses in thought) I have a couple. Probably the ‘99/2000 ChampCar, either the Reynard, Lola, Swift, whatever. I’d just like to see how different they are. I know that speed-wise, they’re about the same that we do today, but I’d just like to see the difference of it. But the cars that I really, really loved – you know the Porsche 962 was an awesome car, the Sauber-Mercedes C-whatever they were. Those cars were really, really, really cool. So that would’ve been fun.
K1S: What car/truck/SUV is your daily driver?
GR: I drive an Acura NSX – a new one.
K1S: What’s your favorite vehicle in your garage?
GR: The NSX and the 911 R. Those are my two favorites. The fun car I have is a ’73 911 S, and I bought it just to have some fun. You know, certainly those cars are so full of character, but they just don’t have what today’s cars do in any way.
K1S: Do you have a favorite win from your career?
GR: Ah, for sure Mid-Ohio (in 2015). The Detroit double-header win, both races last year, was pretty cool. But Mid-Ohio’s home and that’s a spectacular event for me.
K1S: Besides your father, did you have any racing heroes growing up that inspired you?
GR: Well, obviously, like most I grew up idolizing Michael Schumacher when watching him in Formula 1 and was always really cool to see him. It’s sad the way that things have turned out there (Schumacher suffered a severe head injury while skiing in 2013 and has yet to be seen since). But you know, there were a lot of guys that raced for my dad over the years, like Kenny Brack. Kenny Brack’s a guy that I have just tremendous respect for the way he went about his craft. But you know, guys like Max (Papis) and (Jimmy) Vasser, and (Bryan) Herta and all these guys that were around my whole life. So it was always fun to have them be a part of my career.
K1S: You’ve been pretty critical of IndyCars in recent years. Especially since the introduction of the manufacturer aero kits, when they got rid of that simple, classic IndyCar design. Now that it has gone back to being simpler for 2018, what’s your opinion?
GR: Oh, I love it! I mean I think in person too, it looks even better. And as new paints schemes come out throughout the year and stuff, I think people are really going to fall in love with this thing. And I think that this is only going to improve and get better as they develop more power with the 2020 engine or whatever. I think it can have another 150 horsepower plus, is what I’m hearing. These cars are just going to get better.