Q and A with new Ganassi driver Graham Rahal
Graham, thanks for taking the time to join us today.
This off-season has been pretty eventful for you. Obviously you signed with a new team, Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing, went out in January and won the Rolex 24 with Memo Rojas, Joey Hand and Scott Pruett. How excited are you to get the chance to get behind the wheel of a Ganassi car?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, it feels like it's a long time coming now. For me, since announcing it I guess in early December, knowing about the deal far before then, it feels like it's been a long time. There's a lot of anticipating, anxiety growing to get out in the car, get running for the first time.
Charlie has had a couple of tests. Our side of the team is up and running, so to speak. So I'm excited to get out in the car for the first time. I think it's been a really good start to the year for the whole Service Central group, the Ganassi group in general. So I'm looking forward to getting out there for the first time beginning of next week.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about the Barber test. How important is it for you to go out there and have a good test knowing you're going to be back at that track for a race in a few weeks?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, I think it's important for us to have a good test. But I think it's more important for us to have a good test because that's going to be our only test before the start of the season, and will be our only one. We haven't done any running yet.
Certainly before St. Petersburg we need to make sure all systems are go and the car's running well. Certainly not only do you focus on that, but we're going to be back at Barber only a couple weeks after that.
It's important for us to make sure that we have a really successful test because we need to dot a lot of Is, cross a lot of Ts, not only for the Barber race, but St. Pete, which is a week and a half afterwards.
There's a lot of stuff on our plate, a lot of stuff we need to get through. We've already looked over the test plan. It's going to be a busy couple of days for us. Actually, the testing time is fairly limited. It's only a few sets of tires a day. We can blow through those pretty quickly. So we need to be a little cautious.
Q. You mentioned having a busy couple days at the test. I know Service Central has been keeping you busy the last few weeks with some appearances. Talk a little bit about Service Central, their involvement with you. You're in Gainesville for the NHRA race, but you've been doing other appearances, as well.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Absolutely. First, it started off, Service Central sponsors a TV show called Beyond the Battlefield. In essence what we did is we went to a lodge in Dublin, Georgia, we took a couple of war veterans, one of which his convoy had been blown up in Iraq. He showed us a lot of videos, footage, stuff like that. Pretty intense what they'd gone through.
Both of the guys, Steve and Tracy, are both fantastic guys. We had a lot of fun. We went quail hunting, did some things I'd never done before. I've never hunted before. I can tell you, it was a lot of fun. We certainly hope they have us back on more shows because it was really good.
One of the cool things is that Service Central is based in West Palm, and right there is the Honda Classic every year, which is kind of fitting that Honda is also the sponsor of our series. I was fortunate enough to play in the ProAm. It was a lot of fun. I played with Nick Price. For those of you who know anything about golf, you know who Nick Price is. He was just an awesome guy. We won the ProAm, so that was a lot of fun. He was a great guy, extremely talkative, extremely friendly, very open about information. I mean, we just had a really good time overall playing with him.
Of course, winning was great. I have a nice trophy to show for it, so that was good fun.
Then we're here this weekend at the Gator Nationals which I think is really the start of our season as a team, as a Service Central racing team. They sponsor this event. Certainly with Johnny, Shane, Don, overall they've got their plate full on the NHRA side. As we just talked about, St. Pete is not too far from here, only a couple of weeks away. So it's really kind of kicking it all off this weekend, so it's an important event for them.
Q. You're actually working with Mitch Davis over on your side of the team. How has the dynamic been working with him? He's been around a while, has a lot of success in different places.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, it's great to have Mitch onboard. When we first sat down, Mike Hall and I, to talk about people, bouncing names off of each other, Mitch was the first guy on both of our lists the.
I worked with Mitch at Newman/Haas. I can tell you when he came into our team in 2008, he had an immediate effect on us. In fact, the first race weekend he was with us was Milwaukee, and we should have been on pole, but qualified second. Our previous best start before then was far worse than that, I can assure you.
Mitch helped us in a big, big way. Obviously, he's got a past experience with Ganassi. He was there for a long time before. But I think when you look at where Mitch has been, even when he went to Dale Coyne, he elevated that team on a shoestring budget. He's a great guy.
I think what Mitch is so good for that a lot of people don't see is that his dedication and his desire to work and to work hard is unmatched in this paddock. I can promise anybody that. He's not afraid, even as a team manager, to get arms deep working on the cars, doing whatever is necessary to make sure that we're competitive and to make sure we're safe and got good equipment.
I think that's the key. That funnels down from him to everybody else in the organization. He's done a great job and continues to do so. I'm sure he'll keep us all excited and positive throughout the season. He'll be a lot of fun.
Like I said, I've had really good experiences with him in the past and I think he's a really good guy to have onboard.
Q. I know nobody probably pushes you harder than yourself. When you flash back to the instant success you had in the series, how long ago that seems, talk about the motivation you have within yourself to really make this the breakout season for you.
GRAHAM RAHAL: It has to be. It has to be. I felt like 2009 was a breakout year for me. A lot of people have overlooked that. In 2009 it was very rare that we weren't in the top six in qualifying, very rare that we weren't right towards the front, right behind Ganassi and Penske during all the races.
When I look at that, I certainly feel like we've got a better chance and opportunity this year. We've got better equipment, better personnel. My engineer, Martin Pare, is the same guy that will be with me now. He was with me in '09, as well.
I think St. Pete '08 was a long time ago, no doubt about that. Like you said, I don't think anybody wants to win in this organization as badly as I do. St. Pete has been a good place for me. I'm going to hope that we kick it off correctly. Got my first win there, my first pole there. I think it would be a great way to start this year, by us having a very competitive showing there. Certainly Barber is a great place and Long Beach has been a great place for me in the past.
I think we have to have a breakout season. I think we have to win races. We've got to be right up there with the Target cars and the Penske cars all year. If we're not, I think I'd be very disappointed, but also pretty surprised.
Q. Graham, starting last season and growing especially in this off-season, has been a trend amongst IndyCar personalities, those related to the sport on Twitter with disagreements. Tomas Scheckter went large going after you and people closely connected to you. What was the reaction from your media relations group at Ganassi over the event?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I mean, that doesn't need to be discussed. There wasn't a reaction. Things over the Internet have gotten far out of control. It's something in the past. It's not something that needs to be discussed now.
I think right now really my focus is on St. Pete and the Barber test and that type of stuff, not necessarily what happened between anybody on Twitter.
Q. I know in some sports coaches have gone as far as asking players not to post too many things on the Internet the day of the event. Has there been any of that going on?
GRAHAM RAHAL: No, there hasn't. Let's be honest. Facebook, Twitter, those things are very important these days. It's a very easy way to get your brand, my sponsor, Service Central, they're on there, to get the message across. It's also a very easy way to get the wrong message across. It's a very easy way for people to voice opinions that don't really matter.
It's something that we need to be involved in, but certainly be a little more cautious. There's certain people out there that can say whatever they want and they've got nothing to lose. Like I said, it's important for us that we use it as more of a branding tool than anything else.
Q. You mentioned Martin Pare. When you were bouncing from team to team last year, you were working with a new team almost every event. Having Martin onboard, how does that help with a new team's learning curve?
GRAHAM RAHAL: You know, Martin and I, we immediately hit it off in 2009. We got along extremely well. We had pretty good success right away. In fact, really good. We qualified on pole in two of our first three races together.
Martin is a fantastic guy. Very levelheaded. Throughout all last year, we stayed in touch. Certainly I got to work with him for a few races there at the end of the season. Our car, I think we only finished out of the top 10 once for seven races or whatever it was last year.
So that was a pretty strong showing. We had a good run.
We certainly both have high expectations for this year. We know each other. We can read each other. We know what each other is thinking. I think that for us it's a very easy transition to come to Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing and I hope that we can have some success together because this will be going on our third year of somewhat working together. I think for both of us, it could be a breakthrough season, so we're looking forward to it.
Q. Graham, as a satellite team with the Ganassi organization, do you feel like you're a teammate to Dario and Scott Dixon, that you have equal access to their information also?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I mean, I wouldn't use the term 'satellite team,' because we're really not. It's one big team. While we're not in the same shop, that doesn't mean that we're not one four-car team. I think that we will all share data. We will all be open to what's going on with one another.
Certainly we look up to the Target cars. Those guys had a lot of success. They're our benchmark. I think they've been everybody's benchmark for the past several seasons. Really the Target cars, since the mid '90s, have been the benchmark of everybody.
We're fortunate, Charlie and I, that we have them to compare to right there. We can see what they're doing. We know what they're doing. We know if we can beat our teammates we're doing something pretty great.
I think it should be a lot of fun. We're one big team. We're working like that. We're operating in that fashion. Like I said, while we're not in the same shop, that doesn't mean too much. Nowadays, as everybody knows, information travels quickly. It's very easy for us to work on the same page.
Q. This may not be the same issue as it was a few years ago, but there's always been a need for an American to step up and carry the banner for the States in this open-wheel series. Do you still feel that need, there needs to be an American star to make this thing go to the next level?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I do. I do. I think there needs to be an American star. At the same time, putting Danica aside, I would say the most popular people are not Americans. I can see how people can say, That's because there haven't been that many Americans over the past several years. At the same time you look at the names that are most widely recognized in this sport, and really none of them are American.
I would say while it is important, we're going to see what happens this year. We've got a great field of American drivers, a really good group of people that can certainly succeed. We'll see how the fans take that, how they react to the fact that there's an American in the National Guard car, me obviously in the Service Central, Hunter-Reay, Danica, Marco. There's a long list of Americans to cheer for now. We'll see how it goes.
Q. Your thoughts on some of the rules changes that are going to be different this year, capping the field at 26, making 24 cars get in on speed, the others on provisionals. The green flag is going to come much later. What are some of your thoughts on that?
GRAHAM RAHAL: You know, the 26 cars is good. We're not NASCAR. We don't try to be NASCAR. We're not going to have 43 cars running around St. Petersburg. That's just not going to happen. I think 26 cars is great.
I'm not one for provisionals. I think you should always earn the right to be in the race. That's fine. Double-wide restarts, I'm glad they're starting at St. Pete and not the Indy 500 because that's not what we needed.
I think overall there's this rumor of this lucky dog thing. Mixed emotions about it, but I think it's a great idea. Really it gives you a great opportunity that if something goes wrong you can get your lap back fairly easily, get right back in the race and have a good shot at it. I think that's pretty exciting.
I think the moves that they're making are the right moves. I'm not the guy making the rules, so I'll certainly step aside. But I think that we're headed in the right direction.
Two-wide restarts, most of the places we run anyway, we end up being two-wide the minute we cross the start/finish line. I don't think that's going to make that big of a change. It's only how they handle lap traffic. You don't want a back marker up there taking out the leaders. That won't go over very well.
I think it's great. If we can have 26 cars at every event, I think that's showing a huge turn in momentum for our series. I think we're already seeing that. We're seeing a lot of sponsors get involved in the sport in a much bigger way. But I think they're doing the right things and I stand behind them. I always have. Whatever it takes to make the show a little more exciting, I'm perfectly fine with that.
Q. Also on the $5 million challenge, if you were to come up with your list of five drivers you would like to see try it, who would they be?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Honestly, if I had to say five drivers, I couldn't list you five right now. I'd prefer to see NASCAR guys come over because I think often the perception is if you're just the average fan people would probably tell you that NASCAR guys are the greatest drivers in the world. I think it would be interesting to have them there and compare. It would be a lot easier for them to go to Vegas and compare to us than going to St. Pete because the results wouldn't be very good.
I'd like to see five NASCAR guys give it a shot. If not, Formula One, it will never happen just because of the world that we live in now. But you could get some guys that are semi-retired, come out, give it a shot, probably do a great job. It will be interesting to see exactly who steps up.
Of the NASCAR guys, you can guarantee that Montoya and anybody that's had any sort of open-wheel experience, Tony Stewart, probably Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson is a great driver, those guys are all going to make the Chase so we're not going to see them, but those types of guys, it would be great to have them there and I think they'd do a great job.
THE MODERATOR: Seeing we have no more questions, we'll thank Graham for his time and wrap-up today's IZOD IndyCar Series teleconference. Graham, thanks for your time today. Thanks, everybody, for joining us.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Thank you.
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