When he was a boy, Graham Rahal was obsessed with two things – fast cars and fast planes. So intense was his fascination with military aircraft, he considered joining the Navy to become a fighter pilot. Racing eventually pushed aside that plan, but he remains fascinated by all things military.
“I can’t tell you how close I was to going into the Navy to try to be a fighter pilot,” Rahal said. “For years, the two things I loved most were Indy car racing and being a fighter pilot. Those were the things I wanted to do more than anything else. It’s something I’ve always been crazy passionate about. My grandfather has to be the root of all of that.”
Michael Rahal, who died in May at 93, was chief torpedo man aboard the USS Macdonough in the Pacific during World War II. Last month, he was interred at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. As Veterans Day approaches Saturday, the Rahal family prepares to honor its patriarch.
“I was always proud of my father, but you kind of revisit what he did from time to time,” Bobby Rahal said. “My dad didn’t speak too much about his service. Having him buried at Arlington was a great way to thank him for that but also to recognize the difficulties of it and what he sacrificed.”
Mike Rahal returned from the war, went to college and started what became a successful wholesale food distributorship in Chicago. He became involved in racing and his son followed. Bobby Rahal eventually competed in Formula One, CART, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, IROC and NASCAR, winning three Indy car championships and 27 races, including the 1986 Indianapolis 500.
His dad, whose interest in sports cars led to a class victory at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1970, later became interested in vintage racing. "Bobby worries about me," Mike Rahal told the Chicago Tribune in the 1980s. "I belong to the crash-and-burn school of motor racing."
As co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Bobby Rahal and son Graham, who drives for the Verizon IndyCar Series team, have made a point to support military and veterans’ causes. One of its sponsors, United Rentals, donates $50 for each lap the team completes -- $100 per lap at Indianapolis – through Turns for Troops to SoldierStrong, which helps veterans overcome disabilities and major injuries through therapy and rehabilitation. The team’s goal is to raise enough money to purchase an exoskeleton suit, which allows paralyzed veterans to stand and walk, and donate it to a Veterans Administration hospital.
Army Sgt. Dan Rose, who was paralyzed in 2011 when an improvised explosive device exploded in Afghanistan, is helping the team, United Rentals and SoldierStrong raise the money to buy the suit, which Graham Rahal estimates will cost $200,000.
“Our goal is to get Sgt. Dan on his feet,” Graham Rahal said. “As Dan will tell you, it’s more than just getting up and moving around. It’s about morale. They want to stand tall again.”
Shortly before the Rahals made the trip to Arlington for the ceremony, Graham Rahal tweeted, “I feel a great sense of sadness, but also of pride. Miss u MGR.” During the solemn ceremony, his 4-year-old nephew, normally rambunctious and boisterous, stood still and silent.
“It was humbling, to say the least,” Bobby Rahal said. “You see the sacrifices that so many people have made over so many years on behalf of this country. … The feeling you get when you walk in there is immense. It was amazing. I was so happy that we were able to do that for him.”
The foundation of racing, family and charity is, for the Rahals, found in the resolute bravery of one man on a destroyer during a war that altered history. The family proudly displays Michael Rahal’s Navy uniform, photos and the flag that draped his casket. They carry his legacy forward by honoring other veterans.
“He was such a charismatic guy,” Graham Rahal said. “Everybody around the racetrack knew Mike Rahal. He loved being there and being a part of it. It was a big family to him. For our family, a generation has certainly passed.”
MilitaryToMotorsports.com car from Andretti to ride in NYC Veterans Day parade
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing isn’t the only Verizon IndyCar Series team honoring and assisting veterans. Andretti Autosport announced in August the debut of MilitaryToMotorsports.com, an initiative to help veterans transition from military careers to motorsports careers. With an assist from retired Navy SEAL David Tilton, the initiative helps retired military personnel find jobs with Andretti Autosport.
“I firmly believe that we’ve built crews of the best in the business, and I am honored to welcome retired military members into our organization,” team CEO Michael Andretti said in a statement. “The dedication and skill sets of our veterans will make for a perfect fit in the motorsport world.”
Tilton, who is a chassis owner with Andretti Autosport and serves as chairman of MilitaryToMotorsports.com, was in New York today with Marissa Andretti, Michael’s daughter who works on the business side of the team. They were showing off the Alexander Rossi show car with MilitaryToMotorsports.com signage that will ride on a float in the city’s Veterans Day parade on Saturday. Tilton and Marissa Andretti were guests this morning on NBC’s “TODAY” and FOX News’ “FOX and Friends” to promote the initiative and the show car’s parade appearance.
Watch the "FOX and Friends" segment here: