“I have been asked when I was going to drive for my dad’s team my whole life,” Graham Rahal says.
Today, he has a concrete response.
The second-generation racer, who turns 24 on Jan. 4, will drive for the team co-owned by his father Bob – the 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART champion -- David Letterman and Mike Lanigan for at least the next three seasons. The team and primary sponsor, TBC Retail Group, officially announced the program at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Valvoline will be a major associate sponsor.
Rahal spent the past two seasons with Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing, where he posted seven top-five finishes in 32 races (high of second three times). He placed ninth and 10th in the championship standings. He also has driven for Sarah Fisher Racing, Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing and a one-off with his father's team in the 2010 Indianapolis 500 (finished 12th), totaling 76 starts in five seasons.
After making it known in early August that he wouldn’t return to the Ganassi stable in 2013, the time was right to form a family plan.
“As I said all along, I felt it was better for him to get his experience with different teams and I think it’s paid off for him," Bob Rahal said. "I think he’s a much better driver because of it. It has matured him because he was not dealing with family. He was dealing with professionals and people who had expectations. I think now is the right time; he’s proven he belongs and has the respect of his peers and that was the most important thing for me. I think now is the time to realize all the tremendous potential he has.”
Added Graham: "We thought now was the right time most importantly because I've raced for other teams for a long time, I've been a part of different organizations and I've built my own name in the sport. But I needed to take it to the next level and Dad's team has that uncanny ability to do that and that's what I'm looking forward to. This also is what our sponsors wanted to go with this team that they think is a marketing and media powerhouse for them.
“Dad brought it up by saying ‘You just need to come drive for me.’ A lot of people don’t know but in 2011 when Service Central signed with Ganassi it was between Rahal Letterman Lanigan and Ganassi, so this process started then but really took effect when my option was up August 1.
“That’s when we sat down and said, ‘Hey, this really does make the most sense.’ For us to be together not only does it erase all questions in my mind about knowing where I stand in terms of the pecking order and level of commitment from a team, but also the marketing and media side of it between Dad and I working together with Dave (Letterman) and Mike (Lanigan) and our sponsors has huge potential.
"Everyone on the team is not going to put me in a position where I can’t succeed -- particularly my dad. He is going to do everything he can to give me a 100 percent effort and that gives me a lot of confidence. Dad and I work well together and, quite frankly, I’ve always relied on him heavily no matter what team I have been on.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing re-entered the IZOD IndyCar Series full time in 2012 with driver Takuma Sato, who recorded five top-10 finishes in 15 races.
Rahal will test for the first time in the No. 15 Honda-powered car Nov. 27 at Barber Motorsports Park and also is scheduled to put on miles Dec. 12 at Sebring International. Gerry Hughes, who came on board in early March as race engineer for Sato, will remain that capacity for the younger Rahal and Bob Rahal will be the race strategist. A second full-season entry is still being explored.
“We have three days that we’re allowed to test before the end of the year so we don’t want to miss the curve at all,” said Rahal, who earned his first victory in 2008 at St. Petersburg, Fla., in his inaugural race in the series after making 14 starts in Champ Car the previous year. “Gerry came from Formula One last year, which is how my dad knew him, and he brought a fresh approach to engineering the car that I think worked really well for them.”
The team, which was formed in 1992 by Bob Rahal and Carl Hogan (Rahal Hogan Racing), won the 2004 Indianapolis 500 with Buddy Rice (also a Valvoline-sponsored entry) and almost won the exciting race this past May when Sato challenged Dario Franchitti for the lead in Turn 1 of the final lap before losing control of the car and crashing.The Rahal-led team has made 602 Indy car starts.
“When we first sat down and discussed this as a possibility it just made the most sense for us to work together to get RLL back to where the team was in their glory days, and there is no doubt that we can get there,” Rahal added. “This is probably the most excited I have been to join any team because I see the potential behind what my dad and the rest of the team have been able to accomplish over the last year with Takuma. And knowing the development and other things that the team will now have the time to do to prepare for the season makes me more than thrilled to be here.”
In 2008, the last full season for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing before this year, Ryan Hunter-Reay produced one victory and nine other top-10 finishes in 17 races. The team began full-time IZOD IndyCar Series competition in 2003 with driver Kenny Brack (eight top-10s in 16 races) and raced cars for Rice and Vitor Meira the next season. Danica Patrick joined in 2005 for a three-car team, and Jeff Simmons replaced Meira in ’06. Scott Sharp competed in every race in 2007, while Hunter-Reay replaced Simmons after 11 races in the other car.
Rahal joins Marco Andretti in driving for teams owned by their fathers. The season begins March 24 on the streets of St. Petersburg.
“I think this is a great moment for our family, for the team and for the sport,” Bob Rahal said. “I think that having a family working together also as a team creates a lot of positive dynamics for everyone. Of course, for me, the pressure is really on us to deliver the goods so that Graham can realize all the potential he has. I think we can create an environment that will allow him to fulfill that potential.
“The last time Graham was the leader of the team was when he was with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing in 2009. For only a 20-year-old kid, he won a couple of poles, had a number of very good races, was very competitive and finished seventh in the championship. If we give him that level of focus, I think he can do even better than that so I am quite excited about the potential although, as I said, the sense of commitment that we now have to make sure we deliver the goods has probably never been higher."
TBC Retail Group operates, which has been a sponsor of Graham Rahal since 2010, more than 2,700 franchised and company-operated tire and automotive service centers under multiple brands. Valvoline, a brand of Ashland Inc., is a worldwide producer and distributor of premium-branded automotive, commercial and industrial lubricants and car-care products.
“He is an exceptional ambassador for our brands,” said Orland Wolford, CEO TBC Retail Group, Service Central. "Not to mention, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has the equipment and expertise to keep him running in the front of the pack.”