This weekend marks the kick-off weekend for the 2014 Verizon IndyCar season as all the drivers will look to claim the first victory of the year at St. Petersburg. One of those drivers will be Graham Rahal, who enters this year with a new sponsors on his IndyCar – the National Guard.
“St. Pete has always been good to me,” Rahal commented Tuesday. “It’s obviously a track I like, getting my first win there, my first pole there. Always been good vibes around St. Pete for whatever reason.
“I’m definitely excited to get back racing, number one, and number two there at St. Pete. Of all of our races throughout the year, I wish we had more identical to St. Pete. Great place, great atmosphere.”
Rahal picked up his first career IndyCar win in 2008, and backed it up with a pair of top 10s at St. Petersburg. However, in recent years, the second generation driver hasn’t had much success with no top 10s in his last three starts at the Florida track.
“I can’t remember 2011 what happened. 2012 we had some issues. 2013, last year, I had a great car, great chance to win, an electronic issue, the car just shut off. It’s basically been a dose of bad luck,” Rahal commented. “But we can get through all this stuff. The engineering staff that we have, they’re great guys, they’re great people. I think they’re committed to making this team one of the best.
“I’m excited for what’s to come. I think at the end of the day we have a great opportunity ahead of us with the National Guard. Everybody knows the funding we have, the ability that we now have to develop, and we have to make the most of it.”
To be successful this weekend, Rahal will look to put his off-season work to good use, while mastering the track as he says St. Petersburg can be extremely difficult simply due to the fact that there’s no margin for error on the back half of hte course.
“I think that’s extremely, extremely difficult,” Rahal added. “Makes it very difficult. 110 laps there is a long time. It gives you an opportunity to make a lot of mistakes.”
With having a new sponsor on board, there’s certainly pressure for the success to come early and Rahal says with the changes they’ve made from last year to this year, they should be more competitive this year. Though beyond being just more competitive, it’s about putting the pieces together.
“I look at it, and obviously I’ve had chances to win,” Rahal commented. “I think I finished second like 10 times or something. In my trophy room in my house it’s all second-place trophies. I’ve had opportunity to win from time to time, unfortunately it didn’t just come together. This year we need to focus on doing all those things.”
One of the things that Rahal says that they need to focus on, to start, is qualifying better.
“We race very well, but when you’re qualifying 14th, 15th on some of these streetcourses, it’s hard to make up that gap,” Rahal commented. “I think we have a good opportunity this year. I feel with National Guard it helps take our team to a whole new level. Of course, with Bill Pappas, John Dick, all the guys we brought onboard, that’s going to help a lot.
“But there’s always more work to be done. We’re going to see this weekend where we stand. At this point I couldn’t tell you. From our Sebring test, we were quickest there two of the three days we tested there, so I feel like we’re in the hunt when it comes to the street course package. We’re going to have to see what happens coming up this Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Weather might be a part of it, but we’ll just have to see.”
Rahal feels that they’re going to be stronger, from a qualifying standpoint, as they’re going about it with a smarter approach with bringing Bill Pappas on board as lead engineer.
“Last year with the engineering staff that we had, there was no common sensical thing,” Rahal explained. “Everything became a project. I think we have to get back to the days where at the end of the day it’s still a racecar and we’re trying to make it go fast. We have to think about the things that have worked the last 30 years to do so.
“I think Bill is that guy. We went and tested down in Sebring. Over the lunch break one day, he didn’t even open up his computer. I can’t tell you how refreshing that was.”
With the pieces beginning to come together, there’s no doubt that Rahal wants to win, especially with his sponsor on board. However, he says that you can’t put too much pressure on yourself or that’s when you start to fail.
“We want to do the best that we can. But I can tell you something, there have been guys winning races last year that I know I can beat,” Rahal explained. “I don’t look at myself and say, There’s no way that I can win because there’s guys that are winning that I’ve always been able to beat. There is some frustration in that.
“But we as a team just have to do a better job. When an opportunity presents itself to us, we have to take the opportunity, can’t be making mistakes. I think we’ll do a better job of that this year for sure.”
Unfortunately, Rahal’s team isn’t off to the best start as the transporter caught fire on Monday night.
“I think the fire started up in the engineering lounge, so luckily I think the cars were fine,” Rahal commented. “But it smoked everything out. We have to thank all the dry cleaners in Indianapolis because I think they’re putting everybody else’s stuff on hold today.
“It’s not ideal. Everybody knows that. I just got a text from one of my guys, What do we have to do to change our luck? It’s literally like somebody doesn’t like us. Hopefully this is the last bit of bad luck we’ll have this year.”