That sound from Graham Rahal after he finished fourth at Edmonton was a sigh of relief, an exhale that carried from the City Centre Airport temporary road course back to base in Indianapolis.
Rahal's second season with Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing hasn't yet borne the fruit of results both he and the team may have expected. Rahal was one of the all-around best drivers the second half of 2011 even if the results didn't show it, with potential podium finishes going begging at Baltimore and Kentucky.
This year, there were only two top-five finishes prior to the result in Edmonton. A fourth at Barber could have set the momentum in motion but in the next eight races, a mere second was the lone trip into the top-five. And that runner-up at Texas should have been a win; Rahal bounced off the Turn 4 wall in a mistake he said the night of would “haunt him” going forward.
That's what made the fourth at Edmonton, in a caution-free race, and given the depth of this year's field, so satisfying.
“It feels good any time you can build momentum at any point in the season,” Rahal said Wednesday. “Particularly for us at this point – of course, going to Mid-Ohio, which is my home race, a place that's always kind of stumped me, I've never really had a great result there. Even more than that, I think the season's been so up and down, it means a lot to us just to get a good finish.
“Really I'm happy with the result we had at Edmonton. I feel like it's a result we should be having every weekend, or certainly more frequently than we have been right now.”
Beyond Texas, it was drives at Detroit and Iowa that really raised eyebrows this year in a good way. In both races, Rahal took his turn riding the 10-spot grid penalty Ferris wheel of an unapproved engine change.
A series of passes on-track at Detroit (largely missed by the TV cameras) were done on a day when it was widely acknowledged drivers couldn't pass and, at the time, there was no benefit of push-to-pass for overtaking.
He'd passed all of Mike Conway, James Hinchcliffe, Oriol Servia (who eventually finished fifth), Josef Newgarden, Ryan Briscoe, Helio Castroneves and Sebastien Bourdais on track, and likely would have had more there off the red flag and restart had it not been for an electrical glitch.
At Iowa, he won his qualifying heat race, but had no chance of starting any better than 10th without the chance of advancing and then wound up 20th with the grid penalty. That meant a charge had to happen early before getting lapped, and made a ninth a respectable result.
Still, there have been mistakes – controversial contact with Marco Andretti at Long Beach earned him time on probation and an early accident at Turn 1 in Toronto was a rare lapse in judgment. It hasn't been the most consistent of years, and the depth of competition this year has only made it more difficult to get the “big” results.
“I think that the new car, when we started testing it right away, it was like, ‘Holy smokes, this is going to be awfully competitive,'” he says. “The times were so close together. I think everybody was awfully impressed by that.
“At Edmonton, over a fairly large course, the whole field was within a second, I think, at one point in time. That is incredibly close. I'm not surprised by it simply because I do think the driving quality is very high. We didn't have a yellow at Edmonton. I think that says a lot.
“Even finishing fourth for me last weekend, it's all good because you know you beat some really good guys. I can't say I'm surprised. I think it's been kind of heading this way since, say, 2009 or so. I felt that it really got competitive, and it's only built since then.”
The development of his second-year teammate, Charlie Kimball, in the differently named (Novo Nordisk CGR) but still under the same roof, has also shifted the spotlight a bit away from one of the assumed top American drivers. Kimball's runner-up finish in Toronto opened some eyes, but the result moved him merely one point behind Rahal in the standings. What was his fifth top-10 of the year also led Rahal by one, although that's now been equaled.
“Charlie has done a fantastic job, really working to develop his speed,” Rahal says. “Of course, I get to see it all first hand in the areas where he really lacked when he came in, the areas that he's really gained on now.
“I know he kind of hit a lot of things last weekend, but that's not all bad. I actually am quite impressed with his race last weekend for many reasons. I think the biggest thing is he's showing his confidence and aggressiveness in the car. That's the way you've gotta be. I think last year everybody would have looked at Charlie as an easier guy to get by – on the restarts, he was a little tentative. He's not that way anymore. I think that's a very good sign for him.”
Heading to Mid-Ohio, Rahal has several items on his plate. While the magnitude of racing at home always provides pressure, Rahal has still stayed active on a philanthropic front. A ticket deal to promote the Columbus Zoo will see $5 of each ticket sold go toward the zoo, and Rahal will have a specially designed helmet and gloves also on tap. Additionally, he's already announced a chance for fans to design his Fontana helmet, which will be auctioned to support both his foundation and the Serious Fun Children's Network, which was formerly the Hole in the Wall Camps.
On track, figuring out the grip levels and discerning the difference between Firestone's primary and alternate red tires will be key to success, especially on a weekend when multiple tire manufacturers are present with the joint IndyCar/American Le Mans Series weekend.
“The rubber is always a trick,” he says. “We've always kind of adapted well to the ALMS rubber. I don't think we struggled that much. Maybe it's because there's so many different types of rubber. You have Dunlop, Michelin, Yokohama, Falken – everything is out there. Maybe it helps that there's not a single type put down on the track.
“As far as the primaries to options, to the alternate reds, I hope it's a big gap because I think it makes it awfully exciting. You know, hopefully we'll see a little bit more than Edmonton.”
In four prior Mid-Ohio starts, Rahal has a best finish of eighth (2009) – although his best result at the track came with a win in the SCCA Runoffs in Formula Atlantic in 2005.