Take a 6-year-old to a business function and you might as well invite the kid to pull on your sleeve for the next three hours asking, “When can we leave? How much longer?”
But that wasn’t Bobby Rahal’s boy.
Cute as a button dressed in a sport coat and tie just like his famous racing father, little Graham Rahal not only paid attention, he grasped the moment like he was more interested in it than his toys at home. Graham observed and absorbed because, someday, that would be him shaking hands, making friends and striking deals that would become vital to his own racing and business career.
“I never hesitated taking him anywhere, to any kind of a dinner or anything, at a young age because he would sit there and go along with it,” Bobby Rahal said. “When he got tired he would put his head in my lap and go to sleep.”
Rahal cherishes a photo of himself and Graham, then 6, at a sponsor dinner, a reminder not only of how it was 24 years ago but also of what the future would become. Graham loved racing and being close to every aspect of the sport.
Bobby has another photo of a young Graham hanging around the team after a race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
“He’s standing on the cart with the tires that had come off the IndyCar, and he’s just covered in tire dust and brake dust, with a huge smile,” Bobby said. “That’s Graham.”
Today, that little boy has grown into much more than a 13-year veteran driver for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series. Graham has built a solid business resume that not only helps sustain the racing program, he’s also involved heavily in charitable endeavors, owns an award-winning Jaguar Land Rover dealership in Pennsylvania with wife Courtney and is a partner in his father’s dealership group. Two years ago he started a new performance automotive business in the Indianapolis area.
He and his wife established the Graham & Courtney Rahal Foundation, which has raised about $1.5 million to benefit children with medical conditions. He is involved with One Cure of Colorado State University to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer in pets, and his Turns for Troops project raises money for the SoldierStrong program to aid men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
The auto dealerships have been rated among the best in the nation, and Graham is determined to guide his performance company – Graham Rahal Performance – along that same path.
It’s been an impressive journey for that little kid who just wanted to be a racer.
“If you knew Graham back then, where he is today would not surprise you,” Bobby said. “He started all of this stuff by himself. He never came asking for money to help start a business. I’m very proud of what he is achieving both on and off the track.”
None if it happens without effort, and if it seems Graham is going 220 mph even outside the IndyCar, he pretty much is.
“I spend too much time working,” he said. “I go to bed every night sending texts, sending emails at 1 a.m. about business, trying to complete a sale, making sure this client’s car is taken care of, working on the Jag-Land Rover store -- when’s it going to open, when the grand opening will be. I like to think family comes first, and racing’s right there, and the rest of these things come next. But when you’ve got a lot of skin in the game on the rest of this stuff, it’s a bug in your ear. You’ve got to make it survive.”
Through his father, Graham saw how the world worked at the top level of racing, that there’s so much more to a successful career than tuning a car to go fast and hitting an apex just right. But while Dad’s influence was his example, Bobby was always careful not to spoon-feed Graham the necessities to go racing early in his career. Tempting as that might have been, he knew Graham needed to strike his own deals and find his own way.
“My dad is a guy who not only lived the driving side and the family side, but who also understood the work ethic it takes to find sponsors, to work hard for the sponsors, to get their (return on investment), to do all those things,” he said. “That’s the biggest advantage I had over anybody else here. Early on, I recognized the value all of that had.”
Now as deeply embedded into the financial side of racing as the driving, Graham has done it without a formal business education. The lessons learned from his father and firsthand experience early in his racing career set him on this path and sometimes it wasn’t a smooth one. Like racing, business can be a tough world that measures a person in how he comes back from tough hits.
The biggest setback, and maybe most defining, of Graham’s career happened before the 2010 season when seemed ready to return with Newman/Haas Racing. He had agreed on a contract but, with funding still not firmly lined up, he got a phone call before the season from the team and was told, “We’re not going racing.”
“Actually, it was, ‘You’re not going racing,’ ” he said.
Hideki Mutoh would drive that car instead, and Rahal stared at a crossroads in his career. Now what? Sit around and feel sorry for himself? Wait for somebody to call?
“Or,” he said, “do you get on the horse and try to figure out how to make something happen?”
His horse was his Toyota 4Runner.
“That year I drove about 30,000 miles legitimately trying to find sponsorship,” he said. “I met with a lot of big companies, a lot of CEOs.”
He pulled together funding to make 12 of the 17 races with four different teams in 2010, including a deal with TBC Retail Group that ultimately helped him land a lucrative ride with Chip Ganassi Racing for the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
“In the end, it was the deal that put my career back on track,” he said.
It impressed his dad, who had gone through a few of those moments himself in his driving days.
“You don’t like seeing it, but at the same token it teaches life lessons,” Bobby said. “He just went out and made it happen instead of giving the old woe-is-me, or feeling sorry for himself, or pointing fingers.”
Graham also learned the value of establishing a business relationship and maintaining it. He had become friends with Orland Wolford, president of TBC Retail Group who had been involved in racing sponsorship through the company’s various brands, including Tire Kingdom and Midas.
“All that I really did, I played golf with these guys for a couple of days,” Graham said.
That’s another lesson he learned: Spend time with someone on the golf course and you’ll learn a lot about them – how they react to success, failure, bad breaks and good. Knowledge like that can pay in the business world.
“When I was a little kid my dad told me, ‘You need to learn to play golf.’ I asked him why, because I didn’t like golf. But he said someday it will benefit me in business and in life. Never would I have seen that, but here we were in my early 20s, and he was right. That was the best time, those 4½ hours. We didn’t even talk sponsorship; we just spent time together. I got that time with Orland and next thing you know, that discussion leads to (the ride with) Ganassi for a couple of years, then RLL with Midas. Orland became like a second dad to me, and I still talk with him monthly, if not weekly.”
Graham never thought about giving up, or that it wasn’t worth all the effort it took to go racing. All he ever wanted to do was drive a race car, even if it meant scouring the country for funding and patching together a schedule, which he did for 12 races in 2010 with Sarah Fisher Racing, Rahal Letterman Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Newman/Haas Racing.
“You find a way to make it work,” he said. “I drove for Sarah literally for nothing at all. Then I get to Indy and I’ll never forget the deal I made with my dad. If I finished the Indy 500 and we didn’t have any damage, he’d pay me $25 grand. And we had raised a lot of sponsor dollars. Then we get to the end of the month and he wouldn’t pay me! Everybody thinks that everything’s handed to me, but that’s a true story. Here I am at 21 years old trying to live off savings. I was young, and I didn’t have a lot.”
Bobby says he doesn’t remember the $25,000 deal.
“I think Graham is compensated quite well for his success,” Bobby said. “It’s industry compensation.”
Bobby will never forget, though, how hard Graham worked to pull together a program that re-launched his career.
“He created a relationship with Orland Wolford, and out of that he worked hard,” Bobby said. “He drove for two of the best teams in the history of the sport -- Newman/Haas and Ganassi -- so it’s not like people can say he got there because of me. He got there because of him.”
Nearly a decade later, Graham has become a case study in developing business relationships into support for his racing program, utilizing his platform for charitable causes and his name – along with considerable time -- to help drive his own automotive businesses.
“He’s probably more involved than most drivers in helping find funding for the team,” Bobby said. “He gets it that the more money we can bring into the team, the more things we can do to make the car more competitive, which allows him to run more races. A lot of drivers don’t quite understand that to the same level.”
Graham also knows that while he may be selling a product – whether it’s a performance package at GRP, a Jaguar at his dealership or a primary sponsor for an IndyCar race – the key to any successful transaction is treating people right. He learned at a young age never to make an enemy, that something as simple as a smile or a few encouraging words not only may make a person a fan, but a future partner.
“Everything in this industry is interconnected,” Graham said. “You never know when a person can be of greater assistant to you than you can be to them.’
Graham remembers meeting a group of people a few years ago in the garage area before a race at Auto Club Speedway. The hello-nice-to-meet-you moment became a mini meet-and-greet with Rahal, who answered their questions for more than 10 minutes even though had no idea who they were.
About a week later, he got an email from Kerry Doughty, CEO and president of Butterball, and a major backer of Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Indy car with Andretti Autosport.
“He said, ‘You don’t know me from Adam, but the way you treated my family blew my mind. And while we are committed to Andretti, I want to support your foundation,’” Rahal said. “I had no clue he was the CEO of Butterball. No clue. Kerry has become a great friend. Never a sponsor; I never even pitched him for a sponsorship because he sponsors a great friend of mine in Ryan.
“The point being, you never want to burn a bridge. You want to treat people with a great level of respect because you never know who that person may be or who that person may become. When you are in a moment of need, you don’t want to have to go to somebody you treated poorly before.”
Rahal’s passion for the sport and the business savvy he brings to the team lead to an obvious assumption: Having patterned so much of his career after his father’s, ownership in the team seems a natural.
“I think he has what it takes,” Bobby Rahal said. “I do own part of this company. I’m 66, and do I want to be doing this when I’m 76? For sure, he’s got the ability to be an owner if he wants to.”
IndyCar racing, the dealerships and the charities are Graham’s passion. He wants them all to grow, and he knows the best way for that to happen 10 years from now is to position himself as an owner vs. driver.
“I have to look forward. I want this to become for me what it is for my dad,” he said. “People don’t give my dad enough credit, not only for what he accomplished here but that our dealership group is almost a billion-dollar corporation now. It’s huge. What racing has become is an extension of his passion, of his love and of his desire to be out here to compete and to win. Every single dollar that comes into this place from a sponsor goes into making these cars faster. There aren’t many teams who can say that up and down here.
“I want my existence in racing to be that. Not because I have to do it, but because I want to do it. That is key for me.”