It's the day after Graham Rahal's 22nd birthday, and he's feeling somewhat frazzled by the rapid passage of time. “I feel like things just seem to disappear so quickly,” he laments, sounding much more like 52 than 22. Seems as if only last week he was 19 and winning at St. Petersburg, establishing himself as the future of open-wheel racing, the Great American Hope, the kid who could change everything.
Older folks might find amusement in his concern about the speed of time, since that particular sensation usually isn't acknowledged until far beyond one's 20s. Yet here is young Rahal, an old soul in a young body, realizing at 22 that the metronome is ticking a bit faster with each passing hour.
“It just seems like yesterday that I was having a lot of sleepless nights wondering if I was going to get a shot to do any races at all,” Rahal says, recalling the previous year and its hardships and comebacks. “That time has come and gone. It's absolutely flown by, which is strange for me. It literally feels like it was yesterday that I got to Homestead for the season finale. It felt then like the season had just started. Time seems to go so quickly.”
Hear him out before you roll your eyes, old-timers. The young man has solid evidence for his reasoning that the past few years – and the past 12 months in particular – have flown by at an astonishing rate. It's about the circumstances, you see. During the most fractured year of his career – he drove for four teams in the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season (and missed five races) – he was busy assembling the deal of a lifetime, bringing together Service Central and Chip Ganassi to form a satellite team to Ganassi's empire that should be of significant consequence in 2011. Every day of the past year brought a harried adventure for Rahal. Likewise, every day brought the illusion of time getting away.
The flapping of the calendar pages continues into this year. He's settling into his new surroundings, meeting his new crew, getting the lay of the land at the new shop in Brownsburg, Ind., a few miles from Ganassi's main IndyCar headquarters in Indianapolis. He's getting to know new teammate Charlie Kimball, becoming accustomed to having champions and Indianapolis 500 winners Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon as his other teammates, and adjusting to the realization that his dream is now brick and mortar. This isn't just a rumor anymore. It's real, and the clock is ticking.
“It is a project, there's no doubt about that,” he says. “As I look at where we stand today, I see the size of the task and the potential of it. I look at where we were three weeks ago and then look ahead at where we're going to be eight to 10 months down the road, and I know how much it involves – and how much it can be.
“Nobody has come on board to feel like we're playing second fiddle, whether it's to teammates or the rest of the field. The goal is to compete for race wins, but we have to manage our expectations. It is an expansion of Chip Ganassi Racing, and by that, it's a brand-new team. We have a lot of knowledge and things to lean on at the big shop, but it's an entirely new program. We've all got to mesh together and get on the same page in a very short period of time.”That seems to be Rahal's forte; he acclimatizes quickly and completely to new situations. He moved seamlessly from Champ Car to the IndyCar Series with Newman/Haas Racing in 2008, winning famously in St. Pete, his first race in the new series. He's adjusted to the bobs and weaves thrown at him since, including four teams in 12 races last season (and a solid seven top-10s in that span). He is his father's son, essentially. Bobby Rahal made a career out of making the big adjustments, winning three championships and 24 races in 17 years with five variations of race teams. They look alike, sound alike and race alike, none of which has been missed by the new boss.
“Graham seems to be very purpose-driven, which has provided the basis for his maturity,” says Mike Hull, Target Chip Ganassi Racing's managing director. “From a very young age, he studied what his dad was doing. He motivated himself when he was very young to be prepared to race in a big car – not just race, but race at the top level. He directed himself to be able to drive a big car, and that's a very difficult proposition from just becoming a professional race driver.
“Graham studied his dad. It's not that he's a quick study, but he's thoroughly prepared himself to drive at the top level of professional racing.”
That's why this move is so crucial to Rahal's path and Ganassi's timeline. It's not that Chip's two aces, Franchitti and Dixon are anywhere near the end of their career arcs, but they are at a point when the period of time after they depart is at least worthy of consideration. The major competition, Team Penske, has successfully expanded from two to three cars, and Rahal is at the level at which he deserves a quality ride. Positives all around, indeed.
“I'm not interested in pushing Dario or Scott out the door, but you need to keep an eye on who's coming in the door,” Ganassi says. “And what better way to do it than to have these guys on your team understanding your system, understanding the people, being able to work alongside Scott and Dario and getting first-hand knowledge as opposed to from afar or from outside the organization?”
To that point, Rahal fits. His demeanor is that of an accomplished, experienced racer, not of a kid who's been handed a bag of gold. “The mark of a really good driver is how he acts when he has a really bad day,” Hull explains. “Let's say he's had not the most successful qualifying day and now he's got to race the next day from a bad starting position. It's how he handles himself with the guys, the media and keeping the people around him up and ready to go. That demeanor makes the difference for them to repeat the effort in an even better way. I think Graham possesses that demeanor. It's all about how he's able to comprehend what needs to happen next. That's the mark of how we'll measure him. If he's able to cope mentally, then he can cope physically.”In many ways, time might be flying by faster because Rahal knows now that he must deliver. This is his “Will Power moment,” and he must prove worthy. As with Power before his blockbuster season in 2010 with Team Penske, everyone knows Rahal has championship potential. It's turning potential into reality that has Rahal moving faster than the perceived speed of time.
“It's not, ‘Hey, let's get Dario's and Dixon's hand-me-downs and go off and try to win races,'” Rahal says. “We've got our own equipment. We've got great stuff, there's no doubt. There will be no excuses, but it will take a ton of effort and an entire team to make it all come together. When I was with Newman/Haas, Sarah Fisher Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold [BELOW], I prided myself on being good at developing relationships with the people I work with. It's not something that happens overnight.”
Again, that goes back to pedigree. But it also goes back to understanding and utilizing what's been inherited. In other words, not just getting the gift, but knowing how to use it.
“Everybody assumes or takes for granted that sons of famous race drivers just have that ability and understanding of the entire picture. They're supposed to just know what's going on, but that isn't always the case,” Hull says. “They're immersed in racing from a young age, but sometimes they don't put it all together. Graham is one who gets it. He understands the big picture.”
Rahal smiles at the thought. When he was young, he would follow his dad into the basement to watch him work out, witnessing this strange ritual of lifting weights and sweating and running – a ritual that seemed to have nothing whatsoever to do with driving a car. As he got older, Graham followed his dad to the races. The off-track effort began to make sense. An understanding of the complicated pieces of motorsports fell into place before wide, eager eyes.
“I've always felt like in a big way I was a student of my dad as far as listening to him and watching him,” Rahal explains. “My dad is one of the most respected guys out there. He might not have had the talent of a Michael Andretti or guys like that, but he far outweighed their accomplishments. They may have won more races, but they didn't win Indy or championships like Dad did. He showed it's not just about God-given talent. It's about how much effort you put into it.
“I tried to always take that from my dad. I tried not to be too involved when I was a kid, but I always wanted to be right there and see it, and that has been a benefit to me. There haven't been a whole lot of things I haven't been told about or seen. And if I haven't, I can always go to him and ask about it.”
And now there are more possibilities to improve by osmosis. In Franchitti and Dixon, Rahal has access to the knowledge behind five championships and three Indy 500 victories. He's in the odd position of learning from them while attempting to outrace them.
“I'm very fortunate to have two guys to work with and learn from,” Rahal says. “Those two guys have split the last four championships and three Indys between them. The knowledge is incredible. These are guys who are very experienced. The goal is to compete with them, and that notion has always been very hard for me to grasp. When I was teammates with [Sebastien] Bourdais and Justin [Wilson], it was hard for me to visualize where I would be when I was their age. I just wanted to get out there and beat them but at the same time learn from them. This is an awesome opportunity for me because I've got those two guys to pull from.”
If only he could pull on the clock – counterclockwise, of course – to make the days and years last a little longer.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the February 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.