An Interview With:
GRAHAM RAHAL, driver, No. 15 Rousseau Metal Honda
CHARLIE JOHNSTONE, president and general manager, Honda Indy Toronto
Q: Graham Rahal is driving the No. 15 Rousseau Metal Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing this weekend. Graham, it’s a new primary sponsor with Rousseau Metal. Tell us how that came about.
GRAHAM RAHAL: They’ve been with our team for quite some time now. They’re a big partner and supplier to our dealership group, the Bobby Rahal Automotive Group, and all the cabinetry and stuff we do in all the different stores. They’ve been working with us for a long, long time. It’s just that they’ve stepped up in a bigger way to sponsor and support us this weekend. They’re from Quebec so it’s as close as we get to them, I suppose. To have them step up is great for us and big for this team.
Obviously we’ve been through the wringer a little bit on sponsorship this year – Steak ‘n Shake carrying the primary at most races. This was definitely an empty one so it’s great to have Rousseau on board.
Q: Toronto is kind of a feast-or-famine circuit for you. We’re talking 2010, your best finish with Newman/Haas, a fifth-place finish. Last year in race No. 1, a sixth-place finish and you were running fantastic in race No. 2 and you had gearbox issues. What makes this place so difficult?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I think we’ve always been pretty quick here. In 2009 we started up front, I think we started third, got hit by (Will) Power. He got some oversteer coming to the green flag and unfortunately didn’t leave any room to the wall and (I) lost the front wing there before the race even started. In 2012, running up front and I made a mistake, took myself out of contention.
We’ve had some really good years, some really bad ones. That’s kind of the way this place is. The one thing I know about this track is there’s zero margin for error. If you do make a mistake, those concrete walls seem to be pretty darn close every time. There’s no margin at all out there, and that’s what’s kind of fun about it and what’s challenging. It separates the men from the boys a little bit come race day. With the season that we’ve had, coming off three podiums in the last four road-course races, I'm looking forward to the challenges ahead for us this weekend. Hopefully we can get another Rahal victory here.
Q: Your dad (Bobby Rahal), of course, a hall of famer, you mentioned he was victorious here in Toronto (1986), noticeably absent in the pit box this year, and oddly enough, I think this has been your best year since you've come back to the Verizon IndyCar Series. Any correlation with Dad stepping out of the pit box and you doing so well?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, a lot of people kind of assume that and everybody thinks that Dad taking somewhat of a backseat approach to the season has been a good thing.
[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]One of our keys this year was to kind of keep the emotions aside. I can certainly get pretty fired up in the car at times, and when I was getting fired up and then he was just firing right back at me in the pit stand, it didn't work out too well sometimes.
We decided this would be the best way forward. I think the bigger part of success comes from the team that's around us versus Dad and me, but at Detroit he was on the radio for both races, spotting for me, but still, he had full radio communication. He was talking quite a lot throughout the race, and there were never any concerns or any worries or anything like that.
So I think, really the primary factor to the success of the team this season is the engineering staff and the mechanics behind the scenes because those guys are really what make this possible, particularly right now. As you guys all know, everybody is pretty worn out coming up here because it's been a long string of, what, 10 or 11 weeks, whatever it's been in a row. Our guys are all sleepwalking by this point. But these guys have done an excellent job this year and really are what made the team turn around.
Q: Moments working with your dad since you came over and joined the team, are there any moments that you can reflect on when either he's on the radio or â€'â€' you're both very competitive individuals where you just kind of smile and go, oh, Dad. Anything like that?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, yeah, there's always something. I think the hardest thing is always the most obnoxious things to hear are when he'd be sitting there in the pit stand, ‘Well, we really need you to pass that guy,’ and it's like, are you freaking kidding me? Not like I'm out here cruising around not trying to pass him. Those are the sorts of things that get you pretty ticked off, when you're trying extremely hard but you just can't make any headway, and then they come on the radio and start telling you that you need to try harder, and it's just like, man.
But we haven't had that this year, and fortunately we've had some really good runs of things so far.
Like I said, Toronto is one of my favorite cities to go to every year to race, and so I'm excited to be back here. Hopefully we can have a good weekend.
Q: Charlie, obviously a doubleheader here these last few years, back to the single race due to scheduling and things of that nature, still a threeâ€'day weekend, but many other series will be running with the Verizon IndyCar Series this weekend. How does this weekend lay out in comparison to last year and years past in terms of formats and series that will be competing along with Verizon IndyCar Series?
CHARLIE JOHNSTONE: Well, and I think that's the excitement of the weekend. It's not just about one series. It's the Super Trucks, it's Porsche, it's the Canadian Touring Car Series, it's the whole Road to Indy that we've got. Of course, it starts on Friday with Fan Friday so we open up our gates tomorrow for free, and we just ask for a donation to Makeâ€'aâ€'Wish Foundation. From there, the Honda Dealers Association and Honda match that, so we raise a lot of money for a really great cause. It's really about the whole festival atmosphere. It's getting people down to the site that maybe haven't been here before to really see and hear the sounds of Indy cars and see the drivers and get up close. That's what creates that energy and excitement.
The more we can do that to get people down onâ€'site, I think that continues for the next race. It helps the broadcast, people get engaged, they see it, they feel it, they smell it, and they come back next year, so that's what we'll continue to build on.
Q: Graham, you've been pretty much the Honda guy so far this season. It's been a big hill to climb — nine races, seven wins by Chevrolet and the two Honda wins were really weather related. You as a driver and a team, is there pressure being put on Honda to maybe step up a little?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, for sure. Everybody is pushing to the max and without a doubt we've been on the guys at Honda from day one about what we felt needed to be improved. They're working really hard. There's really two entities to it. There's Wirth Research, which designed the aero kit, and then there's Honda HPD, which makes the engines and everything. I think on both fronts they've been working extremely hard this year.
[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]We're already halfway through this thing, so how much more progress can be made for this season? Probably not a lot, just due to time. We only have a couple months before the season is over. But we're on it pretty hard and I say, though, all the time, a lot of people look at me and a lot of people in racing and say, well, if you had a Chevy you would have won at least two races this year. Well, that's not necessarily true. We've put ourselves in a pretty good position with the package that we have. We've done a really good job as a team, I think, with pit stops, with everything else, and put ourselves in a place to succeed with what we have, and that's our focus from here on out.
You can only control so much, and we just try to take control of what we've been given and make the most of it. I think on a weekend like last weekend in Texas, being a singleâ€'car team hurt us because come race day we just didn't put enough downforce on. Had we had more teammates to be running around learning as well, we probably would have made the right call, but we didn't. We're a single car.
Ultimately the team's focus is on making the most of the opportunities and the package that we have.
We're going to work as hard as we can with Honda. We have worked as hard as we can with them to try to improve the aero kit and everything else going forward for next year. We're not Honda's factory team, obviously that's Andretti, but we'd like to think maybe we can step into that role, and I think we're doing a pretty good job right now leading the charge.
Q: That said, Graham, improvements have been made by Honda, but so, too, Chevrolet continues to make improvements as well, so any gains you get are sometimes counterbalanced by Chevy's improvements.
GRAHAM RAHAL: We're doing the best that we can with the time frame that we have. As I said, the time frame is fairly tight right now. I know Honda has got some things in the works, or I believe that they do, that could help. One of the things about the Honda kit is it's extremely overweight compared to the Chevy, so we need to try to reduce some of the packaging weight, the parts weights to help us and stuff, and I think those sorts of things, because you're not changing any of the aerodynamic side of it, hopefully for safety reasons, those sorts of things can be implemented here soon.
But again, you're talking about manufacturing, and all this stuff takes time. So it hasn't happened too, too quickly. Like you said, Chevy is going to constantly be evolving and trying to make their package and their engine and everything else better, but I think Honda has shown its strengths. Certainly (Honda’s) fuel mileage has been really, really good in the races. Even if I look at the Grand Prix of Indy, I could have gone like five laps longer than (Will) Power on fuel, and that's a lot in this sort of racing. We didn't end up going that much longer because we were afraid of getting caught out with a yellow, but I think there's certain strengths that we have that have helped us this year, and there's certain things that haven't. But that's kind of the way it goes.
Q: I'm wondering what your thoughts are about only running one race this weekend instead of two.
GRAHAM RAHAL: The twoâ€'race format, I think it's good for the fans, get your bang for the buck. But I can tell you on the teams, it's pretty difficult, it's pretty hard. It's extremely draining, particularly this year Detroit was just absolutely brutal, which is unfortunately kind of what we experienced here last year with the rain. Detroit was the longest weekend of anybody's lives, I think, with the constant rain.
That's the worst case, right, and so unfortunately when you get put in that position, the last thing you want to do is two races. However, I do see it from a fan side of things, and frankly I liked the way it worked here last year of doing two races on Sunday. Or doing maybe two shorter but more condensed and kind of getting it in. I thought it could work well versus doing two over two days. The thing is we don't get a lot of practice time anyway, and then when you're trying to throw two qualifying sessions and practice and two full races in, it really beats everybody up. But who knows where this can go in the future.
Obviously with everything going on here in the city this year, it is difficult, but I'd like to see â€'â€' I didn't mind the two (races) format. Particularly you get rid of the standing starts. We didn't really need any of that stuff, and we just focus on putting on a good race, I think we can do that.
Q: Just a question for Mr. Johnstone. How easy of a decision was it to have James Hinchcliffe be the grand marshal for the race?
CHARLIE JOHNSTONE: One of the easiest I've had to make recently. James is a great friend of the race. He's our hometown hero. To have him actually onâ€'site, we're blessed that his recovery has gone as well as he can. He's been cleared to join us in Toronto. I think that's a huge testament to him wanting to be here with his team, with his fellow drivers, and his INDYCAR family, but it's also what he wants to do for the community, his hometown race. So to embrace that and have him here as our grand marshal, absolutely.
Q: An amazing recovery story, the fact that he is as far along as he is. When did discussions start to happen and when did you talk to James?
CHARLIE JOHNSTONE: I think my first text to James and his dad obviously was, hey, our thoughts and prayers are with you, and we just left it like that. Kind of like everybody, more concerned about his wellâ€'being and how that was going to play out. And so we stood down, and once the official reports were coming out that the recovery was so well, then we talked to him directly and said, hey, would this be a consideration? (He responded) ‘Yeah, I'd love to do it.’ Obviously his health being of paramount concern, and then earlier on this week it came up that, yeah, this is what we should do.
So we agreed on it, I think, earlier this week and agreed to release it this morning. We're thrilled to have him.
Q: Graham, you were recently engaged. Again, congratulations. Is your fiancée with you this weekend and does she like to shop, because there's a lot of good places to shop here in Toronto?
GRAHAM RAHAL: No, she's not, luckily. But I think she's racing not too far from here, down in New Hampshire. Hoping she can have a good weekend. She's had a tough year this year. We're kind of role reversal from last year where I had a tough one, she had a good one, and this year I'm having a good one, she's on a bad side, but hopefully they can get things turned around.
Of course she likes to shop; she's a female. But I think I spent like all day Tuesday doing that. I feel like my days are spent wedding planning or shopping, so it's pretty awesome right now.
Q: If you're unaware, (drag racer) Courtney Force and Graham are engaged, and I know your father and (Courtney’s father) John Force had an initial phone conversation and your dad was pretty hard on John, saying we'd better spend some big dollars, this is my boy.
[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]GRAHAM RAHAL: Our shop (in Brownsburg, Ind.) is owned by John, so we rent from him. As you can probably imagine, the shop, the rental bill is quite high every year, so Dad said that he expects that at least that John’s going to spend what the rental agreement for three years is on the one wedding, and it freaked John out. I think John didn't really know Dad too well at that point, and I think it made him pretty nervous.
It's all good. John is figuring out that Dad and I have a strange sense of humor and we're both pretty hard on him in different ways, so he's kind of getting used to us by now.