Graham Rahal and Aly Raisman

It wasn’t the Indianapolis 500, but Verizon IndyCar Series driver Graham Rahal was just as excited to attend another major sporting event Monday – the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic in St. Louis.

Rahal was a guest of INDYCAR partners Firestone and Honda for the annual outdoor hockey game, conducted this year at Busch Stadium – normally home of baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals – and pitting the St. Louis Blues against their rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks.

Graham RahalRahal, an Ohio native and admitted Columbus Blue Jackets fan, absorbed all the hockey he could, attending a question-and-answer session with NHL greats Bobby Hull and Tony Esposito, having his photo taken with the Stanley Cup and joining Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman at the temporary ice rink for the contest (photo above).

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver also used the opportunity to talk about INDYCAR’s return this year to the St. Louis area, with the 15th race of the season scheduled under the lights on Aug. 26 at Gateway Motorsports Park in nearby Madison, Ill.

“With the race here later this year in St. Louis, it’s cool to connect those dots,” Rahal said.

Indy cars raced at Gateway’s 1.25-mile oval from 1997-2003. While he hasn’t competed at the track yet, Rahal has been to its adjacent drag strip to watch wife Courtney Force race – and came away impressed.

“The owner of the track, Curtis Francois, he’s a great guy,” Rahal said. “When I met him a few years ago – I was out here at Gateway for one of Courtney’s races – I could just tell that he was the right kind of guy to be running this thing and to be partnered with for INDYCAR. He understands what it’s going to take to be successful. To have Indy car racing back in St. Louis is great and it’s a great market for us to be in.”

But for the moment, Rahal was savoring his up-close look at the Winter Classic. He said he knows a couple players for the Blues, who wound up 4-1 winners over the Blackhawks.

“I’ve been lucky to go to a lot of cool sporting events in my time,” he said. “Obviously you’ve got the Indy 500 – to me, that’s the greatest – the Super Bowl, national championship football games, World Series. This is one of those events that’s extremely cool and ultimately will become an iconic event. It’s a great experience for me to be here.”