Celebrity Drive: Graham Rahal, IndyCar Driver
CART Champion's Son Has Cars in his Blood
During his rookie year in the IZOD IndyCar series, Graham Rahal became the youngest driver to win a race in the series' history. This impressive accomplishment fits neatly into Rahal's lineage. Not only is he the son of three-time CART champion Bobby Rahal, but he was one of the last people to drive for legendary actor Paul Newman at Newman/Haas Racing, a fact he doesn't take lightly.
Rahal was just a senior in high school when he signed with Newman/Haas for the 2007 Champ Car World Series season. Though he didn't get to spend too much time with Newman, who passed away in September of 2008, he will always remember the experience and seek to emulate the late actor.
"He was a great boss because he just let you do what you want. I told people all the time, he was more of a friend than he was a boss. In many, many, many ways. I actually love the guy, wished like hell that he was still here. He was awesome. He loved racing, that's for sure," Rahal says.
Today, Rahal races for his dad as well as another entertainment icon: late-night talk show host David Letterman. The two co-own Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, along with businessman Mike Lanigan, with the younger Rahal joining for 2013 after spending two years with Chip Ganassi. With a second-place finish in Long Beach -- his first podium with his new team -- Rahal is ranked 14th in the overall driver standings heading into the 2013 Indy 500, which runs on May 26.
We spoke to Rahal at the start of the season to talk about some of the cars in his eclectic and ever-rotating collection. At the time, he had an automatic Carmine Red 2013 Porsche Cayenne GTS he rated a 9, but he's since sold it. "I like things that stand out a little, not because they stand out. If I had a Honda Civic, then I'd want a Civic that's orange, or something that's different from every other one," he says.
Being noticed is par for the course for Rahal. "In Indy I think I get recognized quite a lot, but Indy is obviously IndyCar crazy. But everything I have, I just like it to be fun and entertaining, to where I look at it -- it's appealing to me," he says. "There are so many cars that are so bland -- you get it in white, black, silver. Those colors just don't do anything for me personally. But the red GTS really does. I think the thing looks really sporty. Every time I look at it, every time I drive it it's very rewarding. Even at a street car speed, it's just fun to drive."
2013 Audi S8 Rating: 9
Rahal just bought his Audi S8. "I got it because I was looking for something that was really good for long-range cruising, something I could drive to a lot of races in that was pretty comfortable," he says. "I loved the fact that with Audi Connect, you have WiFi in the car for passengers, Google maps, and all that kind of stuff."
He rates the new ride a 9 out of 10. "I think that comfort-wise, there is nothing better. Rear seat space isn't quite as big as it is with the L or the long wheelbase. Power-wise, it's tremendous. The only thing I've found that kind of bothers me a little bit is that when you go to throttle, at tip-in, there is a little bit of throttle turbo lag that can be kind of annoying at times. Otherwise, I think the car is magnificent."
2013 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor by Roush Rating: 7
This supercharged Roush Raptor is also in the regular rotation. "I drive that quite a lot too," he says. "They found a great combination of road, street use, but of course if you're going to daily drive it, 12 miles a gallon is just not that fun."
2011 Ferrari 599 GTO Rating: 10
Rahal's favorite car in his garage is the two-tone white Ferrari 599 GTO. While he changes the cars in his collection often, this is one ride he will not be selling.
"Lately, I've been trying to look at more vehicles that I think have long-term collectible value, and I think a Carrera GT does. And there's not that many modern cars that do," he says. "So that's a tricky one -- to find a modern car that I personally enjoy that I also think will have a good long term investment value to it. However, a GTO is a GTO. That's three letters that I think, investment-wise, are pretty good."
For Rahal, the thing that makes the GTO so special is that it's a supercar that is "obviously out-of-control quick" that can be a daily driver. In the summer, he daily drives the GTO because it's comfortable and roomy. "That's something that you don't get out of many supercars. Rarely would you ever find that. That's what I really enjoy about that," he says.
The Ferrari gets a perfect 10. "All day long, that car's a 10. That's a controversial number because people would say that it's a big car, it's challenging to drive, it maybe doesn't have all the carpeting. Of course, the GTO being so raw, for the average person, if you're going to buy a 599 Ferrari you're probably going to go buy the normal one even if you could afford the GTO, because if you're going to drive it a lot, it's quieter, it's just a little bit more of a well-rounded package."
Of all the road cars he's driven, the GTO is the most rewarding since the Porsche Carrera GT he once owned, but he points out that the two are very different cars.
"With the GTO, the noise, the shifts, the fact that it's still evolving, with the dual-clutch gearboxes these days, you don't even feel it shift. I'm not really a fan of that," he says. "I like to feel that you're interacting with the car. This one still has the old style, so you can feel it shift. That's what I personally enjoy about it, whereas a lot of the new cars you can't feel it at all. To me it becomes more like you're driving a computer than driving a car."
The Carrera GT is harder to drive, he says. "The carbon clutch, things like that are a challenge, whereas the 599 you hop in, off you go. It's pretty simple," he says. "But if I was insanely wealthy and could have 10 supercars, a Carrera GT would be one I would have to be somewhat of a garage queen because long-term, I think that is a fantastic investment. I think that the Porsche collectors would agree. But for me, to have one vehicle that's like that, it just didn't really fit."
Rahal loved taking the GTO on a road trip in Vermont, weaving through winding roads there. "I don't know that I felt a vehicle on those twisty roads that gives you such a rewarding feeling back, to the level of confidence that I had driving the car versus any other supercar I've ever been it, because of the amount of power it has, you can have fun without going that fast," he says. "Some of these cars don't have enough power and they handle so well that you've really got to be going quick to enjoy it."
The car he traded in for the GTO was his red 2005 Carrera GT, which Rahal says could be the greatest road car ever made, "simply because it is all driver." While some days he regrets selling it, he adds, "It says it has traction control, but that traction control on that car is not going to do a thing to save you. And that's what I love about it. Part of me is very happy about it and part of me regrets it. It was a great, great car."
He had the Carrera GT for about a year. "I get bored with cars pretty quickly," he says. "The Carrera GT is just harder to drive and I drive my cars a lot. Nothing that I have will not be used. Every car that I have will be driven a lot. I have two cars that are old that don't get used that often, but that is rare."
He has two fully restored "cute cars that are old" that will always be in his garage. One is the 1964 MINI Cooper S and the other is a 1974 BMW 2002 Turbo.
1964 Mini Cooper S Rating: 10
"It's a 10 in the fun department because it handles like a go-kart," he says. "But it's an older car, so it doesn't have the common creature comforts that people come to get used to. I think you have to rate it on two separate scales because I really enjoy that vehicle, but is it something you're going to drive all the time? No. It's a go-to-dinner-and-back car."
There's an interesting story behind this Mini Cooper S. It was meant to be a project car that father and son could work on together, although Rahal says he had more hours on the car than his dad. "I restored it as a high school senior school project," he says. "As a kid, my dad and I always said that we'd restore a car together and we went through the ringer of what would really work when this came up. I have at least 200 man-hours of my own time in this car. I'm attached to it; it's not something that I would sell for anything unless someone came by and offered me a stupid amount of money. It's special to me for so many reasons, beyond being just a car."
1974 BMW 2002 Turbo Rating: 7
Rahal gives the BMW 2002 Turbo a 7 out of 10 because it's cool, nostalgic, and "the fun factor is extremely high."
"It's an enjoyable little car to drive, but compared to the modern standard of what is a good car to drive -- drivability, everyday use -- that's not something you're going to go and say this is a 10."
He says when it comes to a car's cool factor, he judges things off his Instagram account, where he sometimes posts photos of random cars, some of which are his and others that aren't.
"I'm a car nut. I put a lot of pictures up there. I put a picture of the new McLaren P1 and I got 100 likes, but it took a day to get there," he says. "I put a picture up of my BMW turbo, and even people who have no clue what it is, that thing had about 150 likes in 10 minutes and I was going, 'You've got to be kidding me.' But people appreciated it. It's such a cool, rare, different automobile that I think people loved it. 2002 Turbos were really rare."
Rahal doesn't drive these cars every day, particularly the 2002 Turbo. "It's so over-the-top restored, it's so clean that you could eat off the engine. Going out and driving it through the rain just ruins my restoration."
Car he learned to drive in and manual transmissions
Rahal's dad taught him to drive in a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle convertible in New Albany, Ohio, where he grew up.
"Of all the cars that you would think my dad would drive or own, he still owns that stupid thing," he says. "We lived in a gated community so maybe we drove when we were a little younger than we were supposed to. Dad always, of course, firmly believed that we all needed to know how to drive a manual transmission, which unfortunately is a dying breed. I appreciated it and I still love to drive a manual. You really should learn and appreciate how to drive a good old manual transmission."
While Rahal prefers cars with manual transmissions, it's not always an option in today's market. "Trust me, if I could buy everything in a manual transmission I would," he says. "Unfortunately, nowadays that's a harder thing to buy," he says.
Rahal can't recall what those early driving lessons with his dad were like, although he thinks he took to it pretty easily. "I do know that he and I are very similar and I don't have a heck of a lot of patience so I know that he doesn't, so maybe it was pretty frustrating for him," he says.
Rahal's first car was a car his dad bought for him, a 2004 Subaru WRX STi. "As a kid growing up in a place where we got snow, that was pretty fun," he says.
First car bought and Newman/Haas Racing
The first car Rahal bought himself was a 2007 Chevrolet Corvette Z06. "When I got my first professional driving contract [with Newman/Haas], I was like, 'OK, I'm going to go buy something that's really cool, that is fast, and something I can drive everyday -- and I wanted it to be American," he says.
It came down to a Z06 or a Dodge Viper. "The reason I went with a Z06 was because the trunk was bigger. I used to drive that thing everywhere."
He acknowledges that Newman/Haas was a great place to start his professional racing career. At the time he was a senior in high school and while it was a lot of fun, he wasn't exactly a cool kid on campus. "I would say almost the opposite because I was never there," he laughs. "I was always on the road. I can't say that I was the most active friend."
Knowing Newman had a profound effect on Rahal. "I always consider myself extremely fortunate to know him because he's the type of guy that in so many ways influences your life," he says. "He was just a great guy. I can't say enough good about him. Throughout the rest of my life, so many things that I'll go through, you reflect back to him. Without a doubt he was as good as it gets. There's no doubt."
Favorite road trip
"My favorite trip that I've been on is Vermont," he says. "Vermont was beautiful. The roads up there were absolutely awesome."
Rahal also has a foundation, the Graham Rahal Foundation, that raises money to help kids. The foundation has a road rally that went through Colorado Springs and Las Vegas last year, and the year before that it went through Oregon and down the coast.
"We did most of it on the coast. We jogged inland to a couple of different little towns. The road rally is a mix of the 'Amazing Race' and a car rally," he says. "It's a lot of fun. So we jogged inland for a couple nights then came back out, but the majority was definitely on Highway 1 and it was just awesome."
Rahal's foundation works often with SeriousFun Networks, formerly known as the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps, which was founded by Newman as a place for terminally ill children.
"When Paul passed away, I decided to carry on his legacy and start the foundation. We also do Alex's Lemonade Stand, which is for cancer research. We try to do as much as we can to help make a difference in some of the kids' lives out there," Rahal says.
For more information, please visit www.GrahamRahal.com