What’s Driving Graham Rahal?
The IndyCar standout doesn’t just compete against other drivers—his family’s racing legacy is always in the rearview.
The son is fast, just like the father was. Graham Rahal, driver of the #15 Steak ’n Shake car in the IndyCar series (cosponsored by Maxim), is having a career year. He just scored a pair of thrilling runner-up finishes: at the Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park last April, and at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May. More importantly, he has been fast and furious in every outing on the IndyCar circuit. But don’t look for the signature ’stache that his legendary dad, Bobby, sported during his Indianapolis 500 win in 1986. “I can’t grow one,” Rahal says with a chuckle. “It looks terrible.”
If the young Rahal has a handicap, it might be the weight of expectations. Bobby’s dad, Mike, raced Porsches before Bobby became an Indy 500 winner, three-time CART-series champion, and team co-owner with none other than recently liberated Late Show host David Letterman. Graham is named for the late English Formula 1 star Graham Hill.
Graham, 26, who is a spokesman for Sunoco’s tongue-in-cheek fragrance, Burnt Rubbèr, is tall and slender. He loves golf and is a fiercely devoted hockey fan. But he always wanted to race cars for a living—with or without his father’s blessing. “I really wasn’t supportive,” Bobby recalls. “I wanted him to do something different because the pressure to perform is greater. But he’s a very tenacious young man.” Graham isn’t just tenacious, however. He’s one of the most talented drivers in the sport.
“I think the biggest key to success is a relentless mentality,” Graham says. “In racing or in life, there’s lots of speed bumps, lots of times in which you feel like you aren’t progressing, then suddenly, all the hard work pays off.”
They cut a deal: A’s in school equaled racing time, first in karts, then in entry-level Formula BMW cars. Graham first tasted success in the Pro Mazda developmental series when he was 16. He followed that with a European test in a Formula 3000 car, beating the pole-position-setting lap in the prior race. Setting that lap time in an unfamiliar car and track, against Europe’s top young drivers, was what convinced Graham he could succeed as a professional. “At that point I was thinking, Maybe this can happen,” he recalls.
The Saturday morning dawns cool and drizzly at Barber Motorsports Park. The night before, the drivers sleeping in motor homes at the track had been pounded with the first major Alabama thunderstorm of the summer. Those who’d stayed in hotels returned to park in soupy fields that caked mud on their shoes.
They gather in bunches in the meeting room, leaning in to chat with their neighbors before the proceedings get under way. The chief steward starts with housekeeping—minor rules adjustments, Indy 500 practice scheduling. Juan Pablo Montoya, who would go on to win the Indy 500 four weeks later, wants to argue about a detail involving yellow flags during qualifying. The steward shrugs him off.
These are the familiar rhythms of life in the IndyCar paddock: meet, discuss, drive, repeat. There’s practice, qualifying, debriefs with engineers to make the cars faster, and of course, the races. Graham was practically raised on the track, much like another IndyCar kid, Marco Andretti, son of Michael and grandson of the great Mario. Both Graham and Marco wanted to follow in their famous fathers’ footsteps.
For Graham, it was always about the cars, not the legacy. Street cars, racecars, old, new—it didn’t matter. It’s an obsession he has indulged since his very first ride, a 1964 Mini Cooper, through a current fleet that ranges from the exotic (Porsche 918) to the mundane (Acura MDX). His all-time favorite? The Porsche Carrera GT.
“I’ve always been a big Porsche nut, and the Carrera GT is just the greatest street car ever,” he gushes. “It is so difficult and so rewarding to drive. I love it. I absolutely love it.”
Upon reaching his goal of racing IndyCars, Graham wasted no time establishing his legitimacy and putting to rest any whispers that he was only a lucky legacy. He won the 2008 season opener—his first professional race—when he was 19, making him IndyCar’s youngest-ever champion.
The top-performing Honda driver in the IndyCar series, he is notching impressive times despite a Honda engine that is notably less powerful this year than the rival Chevys. For 2015, his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team brought in two of the engineers he worked with previously. Graham needed a crew he knew and trusted, his dad says. “If you have confidence in your engineer, that’s a powerful asset,” Bobby observes.
Orbiting Indy at 236 mph, his top speed at the Indy 500, requires steely confidence, a point Bobby illustrates with a baseball analogy: “If you’re worried about getting into the batter’s box with some guy throwing 95 miles per hour, you ought not be there,” he says.
By this season’s race at Barber, the team changes had paid off, with Graham enjoying a white-knuckle charge through the field at the Grand Prix of Alabama. Then, after the Indy 500, he made a podium finish at the Detroit Grand Prix.
At least he has someone to go home to who truly understands racing’s pressures and heritage. Graham is engaged to Courtney Force, the professional-drag-racing daughter of legendary champion John Force. She, too, needs to win races to uphold a family tradition. The young couple have discussed kids, possibly extending their families’ automotive legacies. Because racing isn’t just something that happens on the track—it’s in the blood, too. ■
Photos by Julian Dufort