Is Graham Rahal an Elite Driver?

I belong to several IndyCar-related Facebook groups. Some are really good and some – not so much. But I saw someone post an interesting question earlier this week; “Do you consider Graham Rahal an elite driver?”

As you can imagine, it provoked a wide range of responses and opinions.

Some swore the young Rahal was the second coming of Rick Mears or Alex Zanardi. Others said that if it wasn’t for his last name or the fact his father owned the team, he never would have gotten a sniff for an IndyCar ride.

While I don’t think anyone will mistake Graham Rahal for Mears or Zanardi, I might remind those in the latter camp that Rahal had rides with Newman/Haas and Chip Ganassi Racing before he went to his father’s team. Neither of those teams are lower tier teams, and he won as a nineteen year-old for Newman/Haas at St. Petersburg in 2008 – his first race under the new unified series. The year before in Champ Car, Rahal piloted his Newman/Haas Lola/Ford to a second place finish and three third-place finishes on his way to finishing fifth in points. He did that in a Champ Car field that included Paul Tracy, Sébastien Bourdais (his teammate), Oriol Servia, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Justin Wilson, Katherine Legge, Alex Tagliani and Bruno Junqueira.

While I wouldn’t consider Graham Rahal to be an elite driver, at least not yet anyway – I consider him to be very good. There is one aspect of Rahal’s game that holds him back to not being able to be considered elite, and that is his qualifying.

Race after race finds Rahal qualifying mid-pack or even further back. It is not unusual to see that Rahal advanced more spots than any other driver in the field. What would his race results look like if he had qualified more consistently in the first few rows?

Personally, I’ve always had more respect for racers than qualifiers. History is full of drivers that qualified well, but when the race started they dropped like a stone. They are simply known as qualifiers. Racers are the ones that shine when there are other cars to compete with. If I was a car owner, I would much prefer a racer over a qualifier in the cockpit of my car. Unfortunately, the elite drivers excel at both. Rick Mears has more Indianapolis 500 poles to his credit (six) than anyone else. He is also tied with more Indianapolis 500 wins (four) than anyone else. That’s why Mears is considered an elite driver. He’s one of the best.

Can Graham Rahal get there, or has he reached his ceiling. At age thirty-two, Rahal is running out of time. The image of that nineteen year-old kid standing in the cockpit of his car in the pouring rain, celebrating that win at St. Petersburg is still very clear in my memory. We all thought it was the first of many wins per season, on his way to a few championships. To listen to him on the radio, it was hard to tell the difference between Graham or his famous father. And what kid is that articulate and mature sounding at 19? Of course, at that time, we were still a few years away from meeting Josef Newgarden.

It looked like IndyCar had found its next “can’t miss” star. To make it even better, he was an American driver that seemed to have no aspirations of racing in Formula One. Graham grew up watching his dad, Bobby, win one CART championship after he was born. The other two championships and the Indianapolis 500 were already in the books by the time Graham was born in 1989. But he appreciated open-wheel racing in the US and had an organic love of the Indianapolis 500.

But Graham struggled mightily in that first IndyCar season after St. Petersburg. The best he could muster for the rest of the season were two eighth-place finishes at Watkins Glen and Sonoma, on his way to a seventeenth place finish in the championship. The 2009 season was much better as Rahal scored two podium finishes and three more Top-Fives, in finishing seventh in points. But Newman/Haas was struggling financially in 2010. They lost their McDonald’s sponsorship and Rahal had no ride. They had funding from Hideki Mutoh for only a one-car team. The once-proud team had become a shell of its former self.

Rahal found spot work where he could for the 2010 season. He drove a few races for Sarah Fisher, for his father’s team in the Indianapolis 500 and for Dreyer & Reinbold at Iowa before returning to Newman/Haas for six of the final seven races.

In 2011, Chip Ganassi Racing expanded from two to four cars in something of a satellite operation. Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball were the drivers. Rahal way outpaced his teammate, but was unspectacular in finishing ninth in 2011 and tenth in 2012.

It was 2013, when Graham Rahal went to his father’s team. The results were not pretty at first. In 2013, Rahal finished eighteenth in points, despite a second at Long Beach. It got worse the next season, when Rahal finished nineteenth. But in 2015, things turned around. I don’t know if it was the aerokit or what, but Rahal finished fourth in the championship, winning twice – at Mid-Ohio and in that wild race at Fontana.

At the end of the 2015 season, most of us thought Rahal had finally found his groove and was one of the favorites to contend for the 2016 IndyCar championship. He was good, but not great. He had four podium finishes, including a late season win at the Texas race that was rained out and resumed a couple of months later. But Rahal was never considered a contender throughout most of the season, and finished fifth.

The next season Rahal finished sixth in the 2017 championship. He was impressive in sweeping the double-header at Belle Isle. As it turns out, that was the last time that Graham Rahal visited Victory Lane in IndyCar. His last four seasons have seen Rahal go winless and finish eighth, tenth, sixth and seventh in 2021.

After thirteen fulltime seasons and one part-time season in IndyCar (plus one season in Champ Car); Graham Rahal has amassed six IndyCar wins and three poles, with no wins in the past four seasons. Those results do not shout elite driver.

I have no tangible reason to say this, but I think Graham Rahal is a better driver than what his results show. Quite honestly, I think he may have fared better had he not chosen to drive for his father’s team. He started out in Champ Car, which was the competing series that his father’s team was in. After reunification happened in 2008, he remained with Newman/Haas until the money dried up. Except for that one appearance with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the 2010 Indianapolis 500; Graham Rahal drove for four different teams before opting to go with his father’s two-car effort in 2013, teaming with James Jakes.

At times, the team just wasn’t good. But Rahal sacrificed potentially better results, in order to lay a foundation for his father’s team for the future. Jakes moved on after the 2013 season and the team ran only Graham from 2014 to 2017. For four seasons, it was a one-car effort. The first three seasons of that span was the best three-year span of Rahal’s career.

Some say that Takuma Sato has outperformed Rahal during the last four seasons when they were teammates. That’s not fully true. In 2019, Sato won two races to Rahal’s none, and finished ninth to Rahal’s tenth. In 2020 Sato won the Indianapolis 500, but finished seventh to Rahal’s sixth in points. Three of their four years together, Rahal finished higher in the championship than Sato.

Graham Rahal is a good driver. In fact, I think he is a very good driver. He is not chopped liver, as some Facebook IndyCar groupies were saying earlier this week. But elite? Probably not. Had Newman/Haas not run out of funding and he had a fulltime 2010 with solid results, like he had in 2009 – I think his career would have taken a completely different turn. But every driver can point to different obstacles that prevented then from reaching their full potential.

Honestly, I think Graham Rahal will have his best results after he steps out of the cockpit and hangs his helmet up for good – assuming he takes over running his father’s team. He seems to have the mindset of a very successful owner in the NTT IndyCar Series. Again, there is nothing I can point to in order to back that up – it’s just a gut feeling.

When I see two extreme takes on a driver, like I saw in that Facebook post – I usually think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. That is certainly the case with Graham Rahal – a very good driver, but not elite.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Is Graham Rahal an Elite Driver?”

  1. I think you have called it correctly. A good above average driver but not elite. I also completely agree that he will be an excellent team owner and may well achieve more in that role if he follows that route.

  2. Davis Brewer Says:

    Graham is set up with his Ducati and exotic car dealership. Being on the box with his Father running the team will be sooner than later. Bobby is great about bringing the sponsor dollars to the team. The only thing Graham is lacking is a Indianapolis 500 win to hop out of the car and join Dad in the office . IMO

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Of course he isn’t an elite driver, and I say that as guy with a closet full of Rahal shirts. It is unfortunate that his mediocre qualifying pace has held him back in recent years, just as his racecraft has risen to be among the best in Indycar. Rahal makes lots of passes and is definitely fun to watch.

    Food for thought, Graham’s 4 podiums in his 2 seasons at Ganassi still ranks him 2nd among drivers who raced in their non-“Target” cars (the 9 & 10) behind Charlie Kimball, who took 6 podiums in 7 seasons at Ganassi. While I would not argue either Rahal’s seasons at Ganassi were better than what Marcus Ericsson did this season, Graham does still hold the edge in podiums over Ericsson at 4-3, both in two seasons. And Graham did it back when the non-9 & 10 cars were kept separate from the main team (which I believe was a factor in him leaving Ganassi).

    I think we all wanted and expected Graham to be his generation’s Bobby Rahal, and that is understandable, but he isn’t. He is more like his generation’s Wally Dallenbach… Handful of wins, plenty of podiums, spent most of his career in good-but-not-great equipment, contended at Indy a few times, contended for the championship a few times. Dallenbach is fondly remembered and with good reason, so too ought it be with Rahal.

  4. Have to respectfully disagree, Graham is far from an elite driver. And I too agree that if not for his father owning the team, he would not be in Indy Car. His problems go way beyond qualifying poorly. His decision making has always been suspect, he seems to be one of those drivers who thinks he will win the race on turn 1 of lap 1, or on a restart coming off a yellow flag, and it results in some calamity. And that calamity too often ends with Graham blaming someone else for what really is his fault. Worst example I can recall is in one of the races in Houston, when I think he ran over the rear of Helio’s car UNDER YELLOW. Totally unacceptable. He has made a good living, but he’ll never be a major winner or a series champion. And perhaps, doing this as long as he now has, I expect he’ll never win again.

    • billytheskink Says:

      The incident in Houston that I believe you are referring to was from the first of the 2014 Houston races, where he spun Tony Kanaan out of 4th place before the field was to take the green with 1 lap to go. He was appropriately penalized and appropriately apologetic about the incident afterwards.

      I would say that, Portland 2019 aside, he’s done well to avoid such incidents in recent years.

  5. Vic Lovisa Says:

    I view Graham as a good driver, not a great or elite driver. He’s not as good as his dad and there’s no shame in that. What stands out for me with Graham is this: every time my friends and I would hang around the paddock in Detroit well before the race, if you walked past the RLL paddock you would usually find Graham out there holding court with a group of people. I presume they were sponsors or family/friends of sponsors, and from what I could see it seemed like he was putting on a presentation for them of their garage area or something. Might seem like a little thing, but to me it showed how this guy gets it. He’s not just a dude who races the car. He understands what makes the whole thing go. I think he’ll do an excellent job transitioning into the family business when he hangs up the helmet.

  6. Shyam Cherupalla Says:

    I totally agree with you, I think his race record, meaning podiums or wins would really look different if he qualified better than his usual positions at somewhere between 6th to 14 or 15th. If you look at his finishes hes probably the driver that made up the most positions. Yes he’s a better racer. If you compare him to Rossi in the last 3 years Rahal has done better than him and Rossi is considered an elite racer. With another other team he could probably have done better too, there is something in RLL thats keeping him from not being in the top 6 overall.

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