By David Morgan, Associate Editor
INDIANAPOLIS – There are names that are synonymous with open wheel racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway: Andretti, Unser, Foyt…the list goes on and on. Heading into Sunday’s 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, Graham Rahal is looking to add his name to the list of drivers that have conquered the legendary speedway.
Should Rahal be able to come out on top, he will join his father as champion of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
The 30-year old Columbus, Ohio native has come close in the past, scoring a podium finish in 2011 and a top-five finish in 2015. Last season, Rahal led 12 laps before coming home 10th.
“I feel cautiously optimistic,” Rahal said of his chances. “The thing is, I’ve had years when I’ve felt better and I’ve had years that felt worse, but the one thing I just know is last year I felt a lot worse and when I went back and reviewed the tape, by lap 80, we were running seventh or eighth and we started 29th. A lot can happen here in a short period of time.
“It’s going to be tough though. It’s going to be tough. The track conditions are going to be a challenge. We’ve had a lot of wind this month. The heat up and down. I mean, the last time I looked it was 85 and today I looked at the weather and Sunday, it says 75. The chance of rain went down when I saw it. It’s just all over the place, so God knows what we’re going to get, but we’ll find out.”
The driver of the No. 15 United Rentals Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda has been racing at Indianapolis since 2008 and has seen the variations of racing change at the 2.5-mile track change over the years. How will things play out this year? Rahal noted the Firestone rubber the NTT IndyCar Series runs could play a key role.
“I don’t know that this race is about trimming out like it used to be,” he said. “We have those tools to do that if we need to, but I’m not sure that’s beneficial. Really, it is about keeping the tire underneath you and having the consistency to the very end. The tires, they do degrade a little bit…Look at qualifying, lap one was way easier than lap four. It’s a big difference over even that stretch.
“It’s a different game than it used to be, but that kind of plays into our strengths.”
Along with tire degradation factoring in to the 200-lap event, Rahal added that track position will also be important this year, especially given the strength of the field overall and the passing challenges presented by the aero kit the IndyCar Series runs.
“If you’re not in the right spot by lap 100, maybe even earlier than that, it’s going to be tough. First of all, the depth of the teams, there’s just not a bad team anymore. That was proven last weekend, right? The depth is pretty high, so it’s not like ‘Oh, I can just count that person out.’ There’s really not many you can count out anymore. When I started here, you could, so that’s changed a lot.
“It’s a lot of track position nowadays. It really is. You’ve got to have good stops. You’ve got to be in the front of the line. It makes life way easier.”
“The right spot is second, because if you’re first, the fuel mileage is literally twice as bad as being second or third. You don’t want to be the guy punching the hole in the air. Being up there is definitely going to be a lot easier, than being 15th or 20th in line.”
With more than a decade of experience at Indianapolis, Rahal knows that keeping a level head is key to success at the track and a sharp mental game could be the advantage he needs to finally break through and score a win in the biggest race on the IndyCar Series schedule.
Rolling off 17th, he will be in the middle of the madness when the green flag drops, but maybe, just maybe Sunday is his day to shine.
“You’ve got to be really smart here in how you race it,” Rahal said. “There is a lot of inexperience here, too. We’ve seen some interesting stuff in the last couple of days of practice, so you’ve got to kind of anticipate and stay out of everybody else’s trouble. My row is a good row. I’ve got (Tony Kanaan), I’ve got (Scott Dixon). I feel good about that, but still you’ve got to be pretty heads up about it.”