Time to Shine
In mid-December, Rahal’s long-rumoured move to Chip Ganassi’s organization was finally confirmed.
Although he’ll be on a new team with a new teammate (recent Indy Lights graduate and fellow American Charlie Kimball) that will operate separately from Ganassi’s Target operation (it will be housed in drag racing legend Don Prudhomme’s shop), Rahal is now surrounded by the best in the IndyCar paddock.
In addition to top-notch personnel and equipment, he’ll also have access to the wealth of knowledge that Ganassi’s Indy 500 and championship winning drivers (Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti) possess.
The bottom line is now that the things that have supposedly held Rahal back in recent years have been removed - the lack of elite level equipment and personnel - it’s time for his talent to shine through.
It had better, because now that he’s employed by Ganassi winning won’t be something to hope for, it will be expected.
This isn’t to say the other teams Rahal has driven for don’t care about winning and there hasn’t been pressure on him to perform over the past few seasons, but none have the same type of expectations year in and year out as Ganassi Racing. The only organization that compares on that score is Penske.
Rahal’s fortunes with Ganassi are also likely to have implications for IndyCar as a whole. Aside from team and driver, the ones most eager to see him succeed are those in IndyCar management, led by CEO Randy Bernard.
More American drivers in the series is definitely an important factor for the long term health of the sport, but what matters more is that those drivers are also able to win races and contend for championships.
With the 100th anniversary of the first Indy 500 coming up in May, what would be better than to have an American driver dousing him or herself in milk in victory lane?
That outcome would definitely be a shot in the arm for IndyCar’s sales and marketing efforts, as would having Americans in contention for the drivers’ championship, neither of which has happened since Sam Hornish won both in 2006.
Whether he chooses to acknowledge it or not, this is one of the biggest burdens Rahal will carry as a Ganassi driver.
Yes, there are other full-time American drivers in the series, including the trio at Andretti Autosport (two of whom haven’t won a race for several years) and rookie J.R. Hildebrand, who has signed on to drive for Panther Racing.
But none- not even Marco Andretti- have to navigate the perfect storm of expectations that Rahal faces: pedigree, nationality and team.
I think the weight of lofty expectations is responsible, in part, for Andretti’s struggles over the years and I wonder how similar circumstances will affect Rahal.
At the risk of overstatement, the next few years will go a long way in casting the 22 year-old’s legacy as a driver.
How he’ll perform under much greater scrutiny and pressure is hard to predict, but it will certainly be interesting to watch.
One thing is for certain – the game has definitely changed for Graham Rahal.