2021 IndyCar preview: Graham Rahal searches for next gear

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Entering 15th season, Columbus area native craves victory lane, title hunt

2021 IndyCar preview RAHAL

IndyCar driver Graham Rahal during preseason testing at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., on Feb. 23, 2021. (Photo by Joe Skibinski/IndyCar; Illustration by Ben Orner/NBC4)

The 2021 IndyCar season begins Sunday with the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at 3 p.m. on NBC4. Navigate to other previews with the menu below. Beneath the menu, find a preview of Graham Rahal’s year ahead.

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Graham Rahal is hungry.

The last time the veteran racer from New Albany won an IndyCar race was more than 1,400 days ago when he swept a doubleheader on Detroit’s Belle Isle street course in June 2017.

Despite four straight top-10 finishes in the points standings, none of Rahal’s 57 races since have ended with him atop the podium.

Graham Rahal Detroit 2017
Graham Rahal holds the trophies from the IndyCar Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader on Belle Isle, Sunday, June 4, 2017, in Detroit, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

“We’re pretty hungry, it’s been too long,” Rahal told NBC4 in a phone interview Tuesday. “Three years without a win is the second longest streak of my career, and that’s not something we’re proud of. We know we can win, though, and that’s the thing.”

Rahal holds the IndyCar record for races between victories: 124 between his first career win (in his first career race) in 2008 and his second career win in 2015.

Last year was a good year, Rahal said, just not a great one, as a combination of bad luck, self-inflicted wounds and not completing performances kept his No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team from challenging for a championship.

An inopportune yellow flag at the first Indianapolis road course race foiled a winning strategy; a poor tire decision during the final pit stop cost them a chance at winning the Indianapolis 500; and a napkin flew into a cooling duct on the car and ruined a race in St. Louis.

“We’ve been contenders a lot, we’ve not had the luck. And I think that that’s a true statement,” Rahal said. “I think in racing that’s a big part of this. It’s a combination of doing all the right things and having good strategy and having a fast race car, but it never hurts to have lady luck on your side.”

Rahal has been “relatively” in the championship hunt most of the past six seasons, finishing sixth or better in four of them. But he said his team needs to get back to a spot where they still have a chance to win the title going into the final race, like in 2015 when Rahal finished a career-best fourth in points.

Rahal was just 19 points from cracking the top five in last year’s pandemic-shortened, 14-race season. It was his best performance since his two-win 2017, and the first time since that year he had three podium finishes.

2020 NTT IndyCar Series standings
Pos. Driver Behind 1st
1. Scott Dixon
2. Josef Newgarden -16
3. Colton Herta -116
4. Pato O’Ward -121
5. Will Power -141
6. Graham Rahal -160

“I do expect us to win several races this year,” he said, “I do expect us to be one of the lead contenders for the Indy 500. And I do expect us to be in the championship hunt.”

Rahal said he and his team are more consistent after the offseason, and everyone from the engineers to the mechanics to the pit crew have “put their heads down this winter” and improved.

The X-factors he said the team can improve on – if even slightly – are qualifying, race strategy and pit stops, as well as physical fitness and stamina for himself.

“If you look at Penske and teams that we race against, that’s what they’re very good at,” he said. “We just have to make sure that we’re dotting all the I’s, crossing all the T’s in those departments and doing a good job.”

Entering his 15th season in IndyCar/Champ Car (and ninth straight driving for his father Bobby’s team), the 32-year-old said he doesn’t feel more pressure this year than in those prior to perform at a higher level.

“I put pressure on myself and try to push myself to be at my best, but I don’t necessarily feel pressure from any outside source (or) anything else to perform,” he said.

The Rahal name is one of racing’s most famous in Ohio. RLL Racing co-owner Bobby Rahal, a Medina native, won 24 Champ Car races in the 1980s and ’90s, three championships and the 1986 Indianapolis 500, many of which while driving for now-defunct Truesports in Hilliard.

With Pike County native Zach Veach moving from IndyCar to IMSA sports cars this year, Graham Rahal is now the only Ohio-born driver on the grid. And he doesn’t discount that representation of the Buckeye State.

“I don’t take that lightly, I just don’t,” he said, “I really, really, really want to do well for the people of Ohio and our family always has. It’s been a big deal to my dad over the years and it’s a massive deal for me.”

Rahal often shows his support of local sports teams on Twitter, and last year he wore an Ohio flag themed helmet for IndyCar’s September doubleheader at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

“I take considerable pride in being from Columbus and supporting my local teams and everything else,” he said, “And it’s important to go out there and be successful and do well for the city, for the state, for all of our fans.” 🏁 (Return to menu)

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