IndyCar's Rahal on Harbaugh: 'Nice, but a strange duck'

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Graham Rahal

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 a national championship in 2014 and 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 No. 1.

“I think in many respects, Urban had a better starting position, coming right after (Jim) Tressel, yes that one year (before Meyer) when Coach (Luke) Fickell was in charge they struggled (6-7), but if you look at the talent Urban had coming in, it was pretty stout.

“Now, you take a look at Michigan State, they have a good program too with Coach Dantonio so I think it’s going to be a hard-fought year and I’m looking forward to it. Everybody who is a Buckeye feels that, 'I hate Michigan', but the truth of the matter is we need Michigan to be good. We need them to be good for our conference and everything else so it’s nice to see them be revitalized.

“I met Coach Harbaugh a couple of years ago at Indy, he owned part of an IndyCar team for a long time. I’ll tell you this, he was a phenomenal guy, a great guy to sit and talk to. Really, really nice, but he’s a strange duck.”

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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.

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/Lettermen/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.”

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Rahal has three top-5 finishes in five races this season, but his struggles at The Brickyard 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 Race No. 1 and third in Race No. 2 a year ago.

Rahal loves coming to Detroit, especially with the improvements to the track which has made it 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.”

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

“Courtney and I are always on the phone back and forth, a lot face timing and that sort of stuff,” noted Rahal. “You know this weekend I hope my cell phone doesn’t click over thinking I’m in Windsor because that would be a big bill. For sure, we text and talk a lot. 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."

And, on his Buckeyes? It would look like they will have to rebuild after having lost five first-round draft picks, including offensive tackle Taylor Decker to the Lions. Not so, says Rahal.

“I think the thing about Ohio State is this, the recruiting classes have been so unbelievable, back to back to back and ranked No. 1 in 2017," pointed out Rahal. "It’s ridiculous if you look at the talent that’s going through those doors. If you look at the draft class from last year, that just shows all these young guys why you want to play for Urban Meyer. What, 11 guys drafted, that’s ridiculous.

“I think they will be just as good. I think with J.T. Barrett in charge they could be better than last year because they will have the motivation. Last year, that team should have won the championship, but they lacked the fire inside after winning the year before. No. 2, after Tom Herman left (to become head coach at Houston), I don’t think the offensive coordinator did a great job for a while, then they had the confusion of Cardale (quarterback Jones) versus J.T. and everything else. I think this team could be better because they’re just more focused and have direction earlier in the year. It should be good. I love it and it’s a big part of my life.”

It’s a bet Rahal shouldn’t anticipate getting much of a cheering section from Michigan fans this weekend.