2017 Detroit Grand Prix winner Graham Rahal talks about racing on Belle Isle. Todd McInturf, The Detroit News
Detroit – Graham Rahal enters this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader as the defending champion – and we’re talking both races.
Rahal, 29, had the weekend of his career a year ago on the 13-turn, 2.3-mile street course on Belle Isle, leading 96 of the 140 laps while earning wins in both of the 70-lap races, which again will be run on Saturday and Sunday.
Rahal showed just how much a successful weekend can do for a driver with double points available. He arrived on the island last year in 15th place in the points, still looking for his first top-five finish. He left sixth in points.
“There’s no doubt that Detroit last year was a dream scenario for us and certainly hopeful that we can make that magic happen again here this year,” said Rahal, who duplicated Scott Dixon’s accomplishment of sweeping both races at Toronto in 2013. “It’s a place that over the years I’ve had a lot of success at, couldn’t tell you exactly why necessarily, but it’s been good to me. It’s one of the places I definitely look forward to going back to the most.
“I just think it suits my driving style. It’s been one that we’ve adapted very well to. I also think in many ways that our street course car is our strongest package right now, so I think it’s going to be a great weekend again.”
Rahal, who drives the No. 15 United Rentals Honda for his father Bobby Rahal, former talk show host David Letterman and businessman Mike Lanigan, finished 10th in the Indy 500, after starting 30th, and is sixth in points with a season-best finish of second in the season-opener at St. Petersburg, Fla., along with a fifth-place showing in the street course at Long Beach.
Prior to the sweep last year, Rahal had a second in 2014, a third in ’15 and a fourth in ’16 on the street course on Belle Isle.
“It’s very unique, very bumpy, and that’s one of the biggest things we face when we go race there – how to work with the bumps to the best of our abilities,” Rahal said. “The car is never going to enjoy the bumps, but how to make it accept it as much as we can – that’s been one of our strengths over the last couple of years and we’re going to try to continue to try to make that the case this year.”
Rahal and his competitors will have to see how the cars work with the new aero kit, which has resulted in faster straightaway speeds and slower speeds heading into the turns due to less downforce, which will have drivers sliding into the corners.
“I feel like we need to qualify better,” Rahal said. “I certainly haven’t made my life easy when it comes to qualifying every weekend, so I need to step up my game there, particularly on road and street courses. On ovals it’s so different because the car either has the speed or it doesn’t. But on a road course you need to be able to carry it along a little bit better, get a little more pace out of it.”
What made Rahal’s performance last year even more impressive was that his mind was also on the health of his wife, Courtney Force.
Force, one of the top drivers in the NHRA Funny Car class, was involved in a major explosion while competing at New England last June – on the day of Rahal’s first win on Belle Isle. She walked away from the accident unharmed.
“While Detroit was a great memory for me last year, it certainly wasn’t a great weekend for her so hopefully we don’t have to experience that again,” said Rahal, noting that his wife will be competing near Chicago this weekend.
No doubt, Rahal and Force are the power couple in motor sports. She attended the Indy 500 during an off-weekend in NHRA this past weekend, and Rahal said he attends about half of the 24 NHRA events each year while the IndyCar series is idle.
Force is No. 1 in the Funny Car standings this year after finishing third in 2017.
“Courtney’s had an amazing year this year and it’s been awesome to watch,” Rahal said.
DETROIT GRAND PRIX
Where: Belle Isle
IndyCar: Dual IndyCar races on Saturday and Sunday, 3:30 p.m.; each day, 70 laps each
Saturday — TransAm Challenge Race, 8:45 a.m.; Super Truck Series Race 1, 10:05 a.m.; IMSA SportsCar Championship, 12:30 p.m.
Sunday — TransAm Dash Race, 11:45 a.m.; Super Truck Series Race 2, 2:05 p.m.