To beat the best, you must be the best. One way to get there is to learn from the best.
Graham Rahal, who drives in the Verizon IndyCar Series for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, did some of that over the weekend when he joined Team Penske for its sports car effort in the Rolex 24 At Daytona. While it came in a different racing discipline, Rahal may benefit from his peek behind the curtain of the team that has won more Indy car championships (15) and Indianapolis 500s (16) than any in history – helping him and his team elevate their INDYCAR game.
“The team’s got tremendous history and, no matter what they do, they succeed and from that perspective it’s great,” Rahal said of Team Penske. “It’s awesome to be competing with them and with Acura, it’s special to me. My whole career’s been with Honda and Acura and so it’s great to be here. It’s an excellent team, we all know that.”
Rahal teamed with three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves – making the full-time shift to Team Penske’s new sports car program after racing Indy cars the past 20 years – and Ricky Taylor in the 24-hour event at Daytona International Speedway. Combined, they led 106 laps (with Rahal at the wheel for 20 of them) before contact with another car sent the No. 7 Team Penske Acura DPi to the garage for lengthy repairs and it finished ninth in the Prototype class.
The No. 6 Team Penske Acura co-driven by 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud, two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron finished 10th in class.
Rahal is also scheduled to co-drive the No. 7 car in the remaining two endurance events on the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship schedule – the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on March 17 and the Motul Petit Le Mans on Oct. 13.
After seeing Team Penske from the inside, Rahal has a better perception of its strength.
“It’s got great depth to the whole program and a lot of great people,” the 29-year-old Ohioan said. “Ultimately that’s what makes championships. It’s not just dollar bills and all the other things that people want to believe it is. It’s people and they’ve got a great group, as do we at Rahal Letterman Lanigan.
“So I think on the INDYCAR side, we’ll be very competitive this year.”
Pagenaud took notice of Rahal's performance and approach from a unique perspective, having competed against him since 2006 in Formula Atlantics before both joined the Champ Car World Series the following year.
“You get to see how the guy is actually approaching the sport and you always learn from that,” said Pagenaud. “I’ve had the chance to see a lot of my competition that way by doing sports cars, and I think you learn a lot in these situations.
“He’s a great guy, I’m learning to know him better. He’s a great character, fun to be around, but also a very professional driver. He’s a serious talent so it’s great to see his strengths and utilize that.”
For his part, Rahal said he isn’t trying to spy on Team Penske to gain an unwarranted advantage.
“I’m not trying to be that guy,” he said. “I come in here, I do my job, I don’t snoop around the shop too much or anything like that, but I try to do it to the best of my ability.”
While Team Penske houses its INDYCAR and sports car programs under one roof in North Carolina, a wall separates the two so transferring information from one to another doesn’t happen. It’s an important consideration since Acura’s parent company, Honda, competes directly with Penske’s Verizon IndyCar Series engine supplier, Chevrolet.
“The team is very well organized in making sure that both manufacturers are getting what they need and are not overlapping,” said Pagenaud. “That’s why Team Penske manages to work so well with manufacturers in general.”
Rahal, Pagenaud and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers start their 2018 season with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11 (12:30 p.m. ET, ABC and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).