COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – This weekend’s NTT IndyCar Series doubleheader at Mid-Ohio is a home game for two teams on the grid.
New Albany native Graham Rahal will try to win his second career Honda Indy 200, while Pataskala’s Meyer Shank Racing is looking to notch its first IndyCar victory. But the doubleheader at one of IndyCar’s toughest tracks will test both drivers and teams like few destinations on the schedule.
“The car, it’s challenging to drive there. There’s a variety of elevations,” Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, told reporters Thursday. “It’s a great track, I love it.”
Rahal’s father and team owner, Medina native Bobby Rahal, is a 3-time IndyCar champion and won Mid-Ohio in 1985 and 1986 driving for former Hilliard-based team Truesports.
If the “Rahal” name is racing royalty in Ohio, then the annual Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio is a crown jewel.
“I’m just really pleased that we’re going there,” Bobby Rahal said. “Two races is going to be a heck of a show for the fans that are going to be able to be there – and tough on drivers.”
Also trying to capture the checkered flag at the 2.2-mile Morrow County road course Saturday and Sunday will be British driver Jack Harvey, piloting the No. 60 Honda for Meyer Shank Racing.
Columbus native Michael Shank, partnered with SiriusXM CEO Jim Meyer, are in their first full season fielding an Indy car after running the Indianapolis 500 with Harvey in 2017, eight races in 2018 and nine last year.
“We’ve had, we feel, is a pretty decent year this year. We just haven’t been able to finish like we think we deserve, and Mid-Ohio would be my premium place to do it,” said Shank, who has been around the track he was a little kid.
“From the first day I ever was around a racecar, IndyCar at Mid-Ohio is what I strived for,” he said, “and it took a long time to get there.”
“I love Mid-Ohio, it’s where I got my first win,” said the 27-year-old Harvey, eluding to his sweep of a 2014 Mid-Ohio doubleheader driving in Indy Lights, IndyCar’s feeder series.
Test of endurance
Both drivers, Rahal and Harvey, remarked how difficult of a course Mid-Ohio is.
“Mid Ohio is the most physical track we go to,” Rahal said, “so to have a doubleheader there of all places is going to be one heck of a workout.
For the first time in the 35-race history of the Honda Indy 200, drivers will compete in a pair of 75-lap shootouts instead of the usual 90-lapper. The combined 150 laps around Mid-Ohio’s grueling 13 turns (that’s a total of 1,950 turns over essentially a 24-hour period) will be a challenge of endurance for car and driver.
“It challenges you in every corner in a different way,” Rahal said, which puts more pressure on drivers not to make mistakes. Physical endurance will “separate the men from the boys,” especially Sunday, Rahal added.
During IndyCar’s last road course doubleheader, Wisconsin’s Road America in July, Rahal said he lost 4.5 to 5 pounds after the first race. However, with sweeping turns and long straightaways, Road America is “not a physical track” like the tight Mid-Ohio, he said.
“I think that you’re going to be looking for a 12-pound-loss weekend,” Rahal said.
Harvey said his strategy for the weekend is simple: “It’s going to be hydrate, replenish, stretch, go again.”
“If this was the first time we were doing a doubleheader on a weekend, you might be a little bit nervous, but I feel like everybody’s bodies are pretty prepped and ready for this now,” he said.
Mixed opinions on doubleheaders
This weekend’s doubleheader will be IndyCar’s fourth this season, which like all sports has had its schedule jumbled by the coronavirus pandemic. Six of the series’ nine races in 2020 have been on doubleheader weekends to make up for lost time. And after Mid-Ohio, teams will have a pair of races waiting for them Oct. 2-3 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course.
Team owners Shank and Bobby Rahal have opposite views of doubleheader weekends.
“I’m not a fan of the double race weekends, period,” Rahal said.
“It’s grueling on everybody, the driver, the team, the mechanics, everybody,” he added. “One little blip and you’re really hurt by it.”
Graham Rahal’s team will be extra busy Saturday night, Bobby Rahal said, because the No. 15 car’s livery (or paint scheme, for NASCAR fans) will need to be changed. United Rentals will be Graham’s main sponsor during Saturday’s race and Fifth Third Bank on Sunday.
The senior Rahal said crews can be up until 2 or 3 a.m. on Saturday nights during doubleheaders changing the vinyl wraps on the cars.
“Clearly, I can’t wait till next year when we can go back to kind of what I would call a normal schedule,” Rahal said.
“I feel opposite of that. Probably completely opposite of that,” Shank said. “I like them for the fans a lot. I like them for the fact that it puts us in front of people more during the whole course of a weekend on TV and social channels.”
Shank did acknowledge, though, the extra work that goes into a doubleheader weekend, but said that just requires more preparation at the shop.
“The key is the stuff that we’ve done here this week,” he said. “So that means anything that needs replaced is already built and ready to go, just bolt directly on the car.”
Shank said an important part is preparing for worst-case scenarios by having extra parts on hand.
“We’re going up to Mid-Ohio with essentially two-and-a-half cars in the trailers, and we’re hoping we don’t use but one of them,” he said.
Rahal currently sits seventh in the championship standings following a disappointing doubleheader two weekends ago at World Wide Technology Raceway outside St. Louis. He finished 18th and 20th out of 23 cars.
The 18th-place finish, 76 laps behind the winner, came after a napkin flew into a cooling duct and overheated his car’s gearbox.
“St. Louis really, really killed us for sure,” Rahal said.
Rahal has six wins in his career, the last being a 2017 sweep of Detroit’s road course doubleheader. His best career points finish was fourth in 2015, the year he won Mid-Ohio.
“At this stage in the season,” he said, “I’m willing to take a little bit more risk to get a win.”
Rahal has performed well on road courses this season, nabbing second place at the Indianapolis road course, and seventh at the first doubleheader race at Road America.
Harvey, in his first full IndyCar season, currently sits 14th out of 33 drivers in the standings (though only 21 are racing the full schedule). He was championship runner-up in Indy Lights in 2014 and 2015.
Harvey’s 2020 season has seen mixed results. His best finish was seventh (twice at Iowa), and he has run near the front in several races. At St. Louis, Harvey was on the cusp of his first podium finish until an ill-timed caution upended his pit strategy.
“There’s nowhere we’ve been this year where we really have struggled or lacked a ton of pace, so naturally, we’re optimistic that this will be the weekend we really get the result that the potential has been,” Harvey said.
Every IndyCar driver, however, is chasing five-time champion Scott Dixon, who holds a commanding 96-point lead in the standings with five races to go. Dixon has won four races this season and only once finished outside the top five. He’s also the defending winner at Mid-Ohio.
Another Ohioan on the grid this weekend will be 25-year-old Zach Veach, driving in his third full-time season in the No. 26 Honda for Andretti Autosport. Veach, who was born in Stockdale (Pike County), scored a podium finish in 2014 at Mid-Ohio driving in Indy Lights.
Click card for driver’s Mid-Ohio stats
Hometown: New Albany, OH
Team: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Indiana)
Career at Mid-Ohio
Hometown: Stockdale, OH
Team: Andretti Autosport (Indiana)
Career at Mid-Ohio
Hometown: Bassingham, U.K.
Team: Meyer Shank Racing (Pataskala, OH)
Career at Mid-Ohio
Saturday, Sept. 12 (entry list)
10:45 a.m. – 12 p.m. NTT IndyCar Series practice, NBC Sports Gold
2-2:30 p.m. Qualifying for the NTT P1 Award – Race 1 (Two groups), NBC Sports Gold (Live)
4:30 p.m. NBC Sports Network on air
4:53 p.m. “Drivers, start your engines”
5 p.m. The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio – Race 1 (75 laps/169.35 miles), NBCSN (Live)
Sunday, Sept. 13 (entry list)
10:15 – 10:45 a.m. Qualifying for the NTT P1 Award – Race 2 (Two groups), NBC Sports Gold (Live)
12:58 p.m. “Drivers, start your engines”
1 p.m. NBC on air
1:05 p.m. Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio – Race 2 (75 laps/169.35 miles), NBC (Live)