Familiarity with course could push Rahal

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Detroit — Graham Rahal will be making his way to Belle Isle this weekend with scarlet and gray in his blood, looking for a win in the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix after coming close the past couple of years.

Why the scarlet and gray? Well, Rahal was born in Columbus and is a die-hard Ohio State fan, attending as many football games during the fall as his busy schedule allows.

And the 27-year-old Rahal has a lot to be happy about since Urban Meyer has come on board at Ohio State, where the Buckeyes are 50-4 during his four years, won the national championship in 2014 and have just one regular season Big Ten loss in 32 games

Oh, and Rahal is impressed with what Jim Harbaugh has done in his short time at Michigan.

“Obviously, they haven’t won the championship in the last couple of years, but if you look at Harbaugh one year in, for sure that program has gone a long way,” said Rahal of Harbaugh, who guided the Wolverines to a 10-3 record in Year 1.

It would be safe to say Rahal knows Belle Isle more than any other driver in the series since he’s traveled to the track for most of his life, watching his father, Bobby Rahal — the 1986 Indy 500 champion — win on the street course back in 1992.

Graham Rahal enjoyed his best season in IndyCar last year, winning two races and finishing fourth in points in a Honda for his father’s team, Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing.

“First of all, it’s always cool to come to Detroit, and I hope we have a great crowd there this weekend and Mother Nature will take care us,” Rahal said. “For me, it goes back many, many years since I was a little kid going to the track and enjoying it.

“We’ve had some chances there in recent years, so I hope we can get this going. Our season has been quite incredible this year, having a podium (second) in Alabama, having a great result (fourth) in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, but obviously qualifying at Indy (500) wasn’t very good and the race at Indy was filled with a whole bunch of bad luck for our organization, so we need this one to go solidly for sure.”

Rahal talked of his day in the Indy 500.

“We had a great car on Sunday, but got caught out under the yellow, had the winglet on the back left rear of the car break on one of the first pit stops, which on our cars is one of the main ways we develop downforce on race day, so we lost 100 pounds of downforce, and that we can’t make up for during the race,” Rahal said.

“Now, we have two races this weekend, so it’s key to go and have a great race car to give yourself a good chance at success because we can make up points. We went from fifth to 12th in points during the month of May, which is unfortunate, but a lot of guys ahead of us I don’t think have been better than us, just luckier.”

Rahal has three top-five finishes in five races this season, but his struggles at The Brickyard on Sunday, a 14th place finish, pushed him from fifth to 12th in the standings, due to the double points handed out in the Indy 500.

Rahal will get the opportunity to get double points this weekend with the doubleheader on Belle Isle’s 13-turn, 2.3-mile street course — consecutive 70-lap races run Saturday and Sunday.

Rahal finished second in the first race and 21st in the second in 2014, then 23rd in the first and third in the second race a year ago.

Rahal loves coming to Detroit, especially with the improvements to the track, which have made for better passing.

“Well, it’s typical Detroit and typical Roger (Penske), he does a phenomenal job there, giving us a great facility to go race at,” said Rahal of Penske and his crew, which includes race chairman Bud Denker.

“They definitely made the race track better, definitely made it more racey, longer straights for more passing, so we’re headed in the right direction in recent years. We’ve had a couple of good runs the last two years, so it’s been a place I’ve enjoyed, and I’m looking forward to going back.

“All in all, it’s physically, extremely demanding. This will be probably the hardest weekend overall of the entire season. When you’ve got the doubleheader like this you get pretty beat up on Saturday and then you have to get right back on the horse and go after it on Sunday.

“Look, it’s a big weekend and I take this one very seriously. We’re coming up to the world of GM and Chevrolet, and obviously, driving for Honda, it’s a big weekend to perform for them.”

Sure, Rahal wants another podium finish, but he wants the ultimate prize this time around.

“I feel like we’re a team that excelled recently, a team that’s been in contention a lot, and it’s time we break through and get a couple of more wins,” he said. “If I look at last year, Race 1 I was kind of in championship mindset and got too conservative and ended up getting caught up in a mess that hurt us pretty bad.

“The year before, kind of the same; one race was good, the next wasn’t. We just need to have a solid weekend overall, get good points both days and go from there.”

Rahal got married to NHRA Funny Car driver Courtney Force last year. They communicate a lot by phone during race weekends and will this weekend when Force competes in New Hampshire.

“For sure, we text and talk a lot,” he said. “It’s a shame that that’s kind of what our relationship is in life in general, but we’re getting used to it and making the most of it.”

david.goricki@detroitnews.com

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Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix

When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Belle Isle

TV: The two Dual in Detroit IndyCar races (Saturday and Sunday, 3:30 p.m.) are on ABC.

Tickets and info: detroitgp.com

Friday highlights

7:30 a.m. — Gates open

10:45 a.m. — IndyCar practice

12:15 p.m. — Super Truck Series Race 1

2:40 p.m. — Trans Am qualifying

3:30 p.m. — IndyCar Dual I

qualifying

5:05 p.m. — SportsCar Championship qualifying

Saturday highlights

7:30 a.m. — Gates open

8:55 a.m. — Trans Am Race 1

10:05 a.m. — IndyCar practice

11:05 a.m. — Super Truck Series Race 2

11:20 a.m. — IndyCar drivers autograph session

12:40 p.m. — SportsCar

Championship race

3:30 p.m. — IndyCar Dual I, Chevrolet Dual in Detroit presented by Quicken Loans

Sunday highlights

8 a.m. — Gates open

10:45 a.m. — IndyCar Dual II qualifying

11:40 a.m. — Trans Am Race 2

2 p.m. — Super Truck Series Race 3

3:30 p.m. — IndyCar Dual II, Chevrolet Dual in Detroit presented by Quicken Loans