THE MODERATOR: Graham, welcome to the call and thanks for joining us.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Thank you for having me.
THE MODERATOR: Obviously, the big story for you is going back home, the homecoming, driving for your dad. Is this the realization of a childhood dream for you?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I would say in many parts it is. Both a childhood dream for me and a lifelong dream for my dad probably. We have been saying for a long time that this would eventually happen. It really was just a matter of when, if and how. For us, we have always talked about it, since I was a kid, since I started racing, but as many people know, Dad and I were very outspoken for years about having to earn it on your own and being out and competing for other teams, which is what I’ve done.
However, at some point, everybody has to realize what’s in the best interests of myself as a driver, our family, and, of course, the team and our sponsors. So it’s exciting for us to be together. It feels like this winter has kind of flown by, simply because it’s been so busy and announcing new sponsors and getting the team together but I’m ready to go next week in Barber and then on to St. Pete.
THE MODERATOR: You said over the winter that you are more at ease going into this season; why is that?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I would say that that’s 100 percent true, and the reason for that really is, there’s just no doubts in my mind, and I’m not going to sit here and tell everybody that I had doubts anywhere that I was before. But, here at this team, I certainly always know what is in my best interests, is what the team is going to do, and there’s no reason for me to question that, to worry about it, to doubt it while I’m not here at the shop each and every day.
I do come by and I’m here at this shop every day. I work out here every day. Actually, I’m here right now. So I’m definitely more involved with this team and the organization than I’ve ever been before, which some people would say is kind of an obvious connection. But just deep down inside, there’s just no doubts in my mind what we are doing and where we are headed. The focus, the energy, all of the people in the shop have the same goals in mind. We are here to win races, and while I’ve been at places that are that way before, this is the first time that I can see it from a hands‑on approach, being here each and every day, watching the guys work on the cars, watching them work out each and every day at the facility we put together here at the shop for them to train with a trainer.
We are here to win and that’s what we are going to make sure that we do this year.
Q. Going back to your run with Ganassi, a run that may or may not have been as successful as you hoped; were you able to take away some valuable lessons from your time there, and if so, how do you plan to apply what you learned over there here to Team Rahal?
GRAHAM RAHAL: First of all, to touch on my experience with Ganassi. I really appreciated the opportunity that Chip (Ganassi), Mike (Hull), all the guys over there gave me. Certainly we had our ups and our downs. Through it all, I enjoyed the people I worked with.
I can’t say it was a disappointment. It was a disappointment because I never won a race. I should have won a couple but, of course, we all know, shoulda, coulda, woulda, but frankly, I don’t look at it and say it was a complete failure. I think there were a lot of different things thrown our way that were maybe challenges that we didn’t think we would face going in there.
Long story short, you learn from all these things. Every place I’ve ever gone, every team I’ve ever driven for, you learn through not only the way that they operate; the way that the engineers work, the mechanics, you meet people you like, you dislike. You just learn about the business. You learn about how you want the car set up. I can tell you a Ganassi car is very different from the way I would have driven a Newman/Haas car in my past. But you figure those things out when you come and you learn the different styles.
As a driver, my job is to No. 1 try to write that down, remember it and carry it on with me to every other team that I may come across. And certainly here at Rahal Letterman Lanigan, there’s really not a lot I can teach them. I think that the team in its first full season back last year proved to be pretty damn impressive, whether you’re looking at Indy, even if ‑‑ if you look at road course or oval, they were fast on every type of circuit, and I think that’s a really good sign for us.
I think the Ganassi thing, it will be good for me moving on forward in my career. Who knows, I would love to be in IndyCar racing for many years to come and maybe one of these days will end up back there. But I’m not going to sit there and tell you it was a complete failure. We just maybe didn’t have all the wins and successes that we hoped for.
Q. What are similarities between the Ganassi team and the team you’re now driving for? Are there any things that are similar from the standpoint of how they approach things, or is every team different?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I don’t think there’s a heck of a lot that’s similar. It’s a very different atmosphere around this shop, very different.
Q. What does that mean? Explain.
GRAHAM RAHAL: What’s similar is the goals that are in me. Everybody wants to win. That’s what we are all here to do. But it’s a much more relaxed atmosphere around this team, and I think that comes from my dad on down. Dad is here at the shop quite often. He knows all the mechanics and all the guys here on a first‑name basis. I think that it’s a family atmosphere around here, and I’ll be honest, I’ve never felt that at Ganassi, ever. So, from that standpoint, I think it’s very different. But when you talk about the goals in mind, everybody wants to win. It’s just teams do it in a different manner.
The way I feel here is much more similar to the way I felt at Newman/Haas, where I felt like we had a team that was very close, and that family sort of feel is probably what gave us a lot of the successes that we had together in a short period of time. And I thought at Newman/Haas we were really on the brink of something great, but I thought a lot of that was driven by the relationships that we had as a team with one another and I feel that here already.
Every team you go to, though, has a different mentality. I’ve been fortunate to drive for a variety of different organizations, but I think that that mentality, the atmosphere that I feel here, is also another reason that it puts me at ease a little bit more. It’s what I’ve grown up around, is this team, and so this is kind of what my expectation was of every team that I would ever go to, and of course I’ve learned that that’s not necessarily the case.
Q. Following up on that, your dad wanted you to go out on your own, fly, and then come back to the nest, so to speak. Using the expression Urban Meyer uses, I don’t want to use the whole thing, but you’re a grown man now. Do you find yourself in conversations and stuff with your dad talking more like a grown man would to your boss than you do as an 18‑year‑old would talking as a son to his father?
GRAHAM RAHAL: My conversations generally ‑‑ still I wouldn’t say that our conversations are all about racing. If anything, my dad’s first topic of conversation to me is money, saving my money, that’s what he tells me all the time. He and I have a very close relationship.
We do talk a lot differently when it comes to racing about how the team, how he perceives the team should operate versus me, and the people in which he’s looking to hire, those sort of things he’ll bring up to me.
My conversations with my dad is still a father/son sort of thing until we get to the racetrack, which the first time I’ve ever had him on the radio is at Sebring, just a couple weeks ago. But Dad and I have a very close relationship, and far as this team operating together, I think it’s going to be fantastic, because you are not going to see a clash of personalities. We are very similar in the way that we operate separate from one another, and I think it’s going to be really exciting.
Q. I’ve heard you mention a couple times now, you’re more at ease, feeling comfortable, like this is where you’re supposed to be. You’ve also said that you’re in the best physical condition and mental condition you’ve been in in your career right now. What are you doing differently and how does that help you on the track and in your everyday life?
GRAHAM RAHAL: My engineer, Gerry Hughes, has certainly reminded me each and every day that I’m a big guy and that I need to lose weight. So I’ve tried to change my habits, whether it be working out ‑‑ I’m here each and every day at the race shop with the guys and I work out right after them. But I think that influences ‑‑ seeing them work hard influences me, and seeing me work hard influences them.
I think the biggest key for me is probably watching what I eat. I’m a Big Green Egg addict. I just feel like being at home, I control what I can eat a lot more. I’ve always been the type of person to go out. I always love to go out to eat, and I’ve tried to change that over the last six months, and I can tell you that since Christmas I’ve lost 12 pounds or something. That’s quite a lot for a guy who was relatively skinny anyhow.
I think when I tried to focus on really what are the ultimate goals of this team and how can I help out, and being in the best physical shape as I can be and losing as much weight as I can, that’s going to help. So that’s what I’ve really pushed this year, extremely hard on.
Q. And just to follow up with that, you talk about you’re a bigger guy, it’s not that I weigh a lot, it’s that you are very tall. How difficult is that with Indy cars and your height? Most drivers are small, but a few are tall and struggle a little bit. What are the struggles that you have getting in and out of the car?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Without a doubt, it’s tight. My teammate, Mike Conway, is here today, and of course, James Jakes will be with us full time, and they are both a lot smaller than me. That presents different issues. But I will say that I think INDYCAR and Dallara, have done a good job with this car. It is a little better for me. I definitely feel safer in the car. With the mandatory foam you have to have underneath you and behind you and on your side for safety, it makes me as a tall guy feel a lot better, and frankly, I can sit as low in the car as anybody.
Comfort‑wise, I don’t think it’s an issue anymore. If I’m not stretched and loose, I can definitely cramp up a lot easier than a little guy that can move around, because I’m pretty locked in. Like Justin Wilson, another big guy. He and I were teammates one year and we always talked about it. After a while, it’s the norm, and when I get in a sports car or something where I have a lot of room, it almost feels uncomfortable, because you’re so used to being jammed in.
THE MODERATOR: Let’s talk the different levels of pressure. Do you feel more at ease or more pressure driving for your dad? And based on what you’ve seen what is your dad’s feelings about that? Does he feel more pressure, do you think, for the team to produce because it’s his son in the car, or is it no different?
GRAHAM RAHAL: You could classify pressure in so many different ways; pressure from whom is all those sorts of things. I’m sure Dad, and I can tell you that, because I know the amount of personal money he, Dave (Letterman) and Mike (Lanigan) have put into the team over the past six months, they want to win. They have always wanted to win.
I drove for Mike when he owned Newman/Haas, it was called Newman/Haas Lanigan for a while and I also drove for him in Formula Atlantic. Mike is like a second dad to me in many ways. So I’m sure they all feel the pressure to make sure there’s nothing as an owner that they are doing that will limit us, whether it be financially or anything, from having success.
That said, should I feel more pressure or should Dad feel more pressure? At the end of the day, our goals are the same — to go win. And I think that’s what we are focused on doing.
Maybe when Dad is making those strategy calls he’ll feel a little bit more heat than in the past, but at the end of the day we’re all here to accomplish the same goals. And whether I’m driving for my dad, whether I’m driving for Chip, Sarah Fisher, whoever I’ve driven for in the past; I want to do the best that I can and achieve the maximum amount of success for them that’s possible.
Q. Talking about the way the car was set up at Ganassi was different from what you had had at Newman/Haas, and I’m thinking you’re more ‑‑ you’re getting it more to the setup that you like at Rahal Letterman. What basically are talking about there from the standpoint of what ‑‑ is it the way they expected you to drive or the setup was something that you had to get used to?
GRAHAM RAHAL: It’s adapting to a different style, spring rates, suspension, the things different teams do. Obviously at Ganassi, the way Dario (Franchitti) liked the car was very different from the way Scott (Dixon) did or myself. Sometimes I tended to get along better with Dario’s cars; sometimes I tend to get along better with Scott; sometimes they swayed in our direction.
We brought things ‑‑ my engineer, Martin Pare from last year; he was with me at Newman/Haas, as well. In 2011 on the short ovals and stuff, we brought some things over from Newman/Haas that really helped the team that year. It’s just different, a different mentality. All of these teams have been around a long time. Newman/Haas, they run whatever set ups and they have run that same setup, say, a differential setup, they probably have run it for 20 years. I know that’s how Ganassi was, and here at RLL, if you look back, heck, we still look back to the mid-90s and look at setup sheets you and look at the tracks, we still race on many of the same circuits or same type of circuits, and so you can learn from that.
You don’t try to reinvent the wheel. A team kind of gets used to what they have done in the past and they like to stick with it. So I think that’s what you see.
Q. You tested at Sebring and you get this test at Barber next week; do you get enough time behind the wheel to get acclimated to your new car, so to speak, from year to year? How tough is it to get up to speed? It’s like spring training lasts a month and a half or more, and this is basically a limited time of driving the real deal at speed. How difficult is it getting up to speed, and do you do anything ‑‑ do you do video games and things like that to kind of help?
GRAHAM RAHAL: It was actually a topic of conversation here at the team was what should we do about simulations and things like that. Should we look into it; should we not, and at the end of the day I don’t think that we are going to. So it is very difficult to get up to speed in a hurry. Quite frankly, that’s why I think IndyCar drivers are some of the best of the best, because really, compared to any other series, there is zero testing.
If you look at NASCAR, they have got the Speed Weeks leading up and all the tests in January before the Daytona 500. OK, we have that for Indy, but nothing else. If you look at the start of this year, I’ll only have three days in the car total and then go racing. I think total throughout the entire year it’s six test days. That’s nothing. Back in Dad’s day, they would do six days every couple weeks.
Of course, everything is budget, keeping the budget in mind, but it’s the same challenge for everybody and some of us use simulators to try to learn tracks or get up to speed.
I’m personally not a believer. I don’t think that it’s extremely realistic. I think in a simulator you always miss the danger side of it. It’s very easy to press a reset button when you’re playing a video game. Not so easy in real life.
So I think it misses that element, but I think it’s good for learning tracks or getting your eyes visually up to speed, and those are things that it takes a little while to do. I’m just looking forward to getting this team on track, because I think it’s going to be a great year.
Q. Is there something about growing up in an area where winning is sort of like part of the culture that drives you? Do you ever feel that at all?
GRAHAM RAHAL: As Ohio State sports fans, I think we are spoiled in so many ways. Heck, if we had lost one game in football last year, we would have all been suicidal. That’s the way we look at them. You look at the basketball team, coming off a great win last night.
And if you look just at the standpoint of they have lost only seven games, that’s not terrible. They are still one of the best teams in the country, but yet everybody has talked like this year is a failure. So certainly, whether it be my dad or just the environment that we’re in in Columbus (Ohio), I feel kind of blessed because it’s my expectation of myself or what I want to achieve is probably set ‑‑ the bar is set pretty high because of that.
But it’s also fun when we do have success and people in Columbus recognize it, because if they recognize it that means you’ve done something pretty great. So certainly I enjoy that challenge and it’s a great place to be from.
Q. A hypothetical; if you had won at Texas last year, would you still be with Ganassi do you think?
GRAHAM RAHAL: No. It’s kind of a long story, but the writing was on the wall pretty early in the year. It seemed like it just wasn’t going to ‑‑ and it wasn’t my choice necessarily. I’m just saying that the writing was on the wall that it didn’t seem promising, and unfortunately ‑‑ like I said I don’t want anybody to take it wrong.
I really enjoyed my time there. I really got to work with some great people. And Texas was great fun for me. For an oval, I’ve never driven so hard in my life on a road course, let alone an oval. I was hanging on to that thing and just lucky enough to have a chance to win it. And, of course, I wish that we would have. It would have been nice to get No. 2 and get that off my back, because now, until I get that chance again, I’ll never stop hearing that question about Texas, and hopefully it will happen soon.
Q. Is there something you look forward to: The starts, restarts, the race format, push‑to‑pass, any of those things coming up on the 2013 season?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I’m really looking forward to the doubleheaders. I think that’s a great thing for our sport. I think we should do it at every road course, because I think it’s great for the fans. They pay for their tickets to come out on Saturday and Sunday ‑‑ well, Friday, Saturday, Sunday in many cases. Might as well give them a show for all of those days.
The standing start thing I think is kind of funny. It’s a Formula 1 thing that for some reason it’s just not Indy car racing, to me. To me, Indy car racing is rolling starts. That’s what we have always done historically. But I’m not opposed to change, so we’ll try it and I think we’ll put on a good show.
I’m really looking forward to Pocono, I’m looking forward to Houston. I think that we have got a lot of great events on the schedule and I hope that there’s going to be some more. I saw a rumor the other day about some race at ‑‑ I thought it was Indy in the middle of September or something. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I think it would be great to add some more races to the schedule and keep going. It would be a lot of fun.
Q. I also saw a rumor about Italy ‑‑ is that something you would like to do, race outside the country, as well?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I definitely think it’s great, because our sport is so different than most other motorsports that your availability or the opportunity for you to get up close and personal with the cars, with the drivers and everything else, is so simple and it’s very different from Formula 1 for instance.
Every time we raced in Europe, and I only got to do it a few times in Champ Car, but the fans love it. They go crazy. So I think it would be great to get over to Europe, England, wherever, and do some racing.
THE MODERATOR: You’re a past winner at St. Pete, and we are heading there to race in about two and a half weeks; what do you like about that street circuit and what are the keys to success or victory on that track? What do you have to do there to win?
GRAHAM RAHAL: It’s a place that it’s easy to make mistakes and you have to be sharp and not put a wheel wrong. It’s very easy, like the last turn, get a little too much oversteer, brush the wall, which I’ve done a couple times.
It’s a very demanding track. It’s bumpy in certain areas, smooth in others. It’s hard to kind of get a handle on the car. You deal with a lot of painted surfaces, like on the runway and stuff that make it challenging, particularly if it’s wet or dry.
I’m very fortunate to have won that race and it’s a place that just holds a special place in my heart to be honest. Obviously, my win there, my first pole there, but it’s great town, and when I go there, I just feel relaxed. It’s a great environment.
And for fans, it’s got to be one of the premiere events in all of sports to go to if you want to have a pretty fan‑friendly environment, place that there’s a lot of good restaurants right down the street that you can walk to. St. Pete is a great one, and I’m looking forward to getting the season started there.