Ten starts into the season, Graham Rahal is in solid position in the IndyCar pack. With six Top 10 finishes and four in the Top 5, he’s currently sitting fifth in the points standings, which would be his career best if the season ended today. But it doesn’t, it continues at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. for the MAVTV 500. Before he battles 500 oval miles in the scorching heat, we sat down with him to speak about the year, the new aero kits, and whether or not Honda is sticking around.
What’s your interpretation of the season so far?
I think it’s gone really, really well. I’m definitely pleased with the performance of the team and the car. I’ve obviously wanted to get a win by now, but we’ve battled up front with the best of ‘em and we’ve been one of the best all year, so I’ve been pleased overall. I want to get a win before the season is out, and we have a couple really good opportunities ahead of us, but I’m pleased with where we’re at.
What upcoming race gives you the best opportunity to win?
We’ve been strong at Iowa the past couple of years. Mid-Ohio and Sonoma are good ones. The biggest question marks for me right now are Fontana and Milwaukee. Milwaukee’s a place I always succeeded at earlier in my career, but ever since I came to this team, we’ve struggled to get a handle on it. I hope that we can make some changes next week or two weeks from now and do a better job there. This weekend is definitely an important one for us, as far as points are concerned.
Why do you think it’s been so different with this team?
The set up is quite different and it’s taken me some time to adapt to it. But this year, one of the guys that we brought back into the fold was my old engineer from Newman-Haas and Ganassi, and he came back and joined us here. He’s definitely played a big role in the performance this year.
What exactly is different so about the set up?
It’s so much. We could discuss it, but it’s so many different things: toes, cambers, everything. A lot of these things we do are what I’d call feel items, items that are driver preference really. Some guys aren’t so sensitive to the rear as others. What I’ve struggled with the past few years is understanding and being able to feel the rear of the car at all. That sounds really stupid, but when you get in these things and you drive ‘em long enough, you’d understand. That’s a big thing on an oval, feel is huge, and unfortunately, we’ve missed it this year. But we’re starting to get it back.
How has the aero affected your driving and what have you had to change?
With the current aero kit, I think you have to be a lot smarter in the way that you drive. You can’t really beat up the tires as much anymore. It seems like they don’t hang in there as long, probably because the more aero load, the more it works the tire, the harder it is. All those things have played to my strengths so far. However, we’ve struggled with my car all year because the tendency is to be pretty loose. That’s not my typical style. That’s not how I prefer to drive a car, but we’ve had to make the most of it, and I think it’s been pretty good.
You mentioned before IndyCar is trying to make the cars more extreme, partially to draw more attention from fans. What, from your point of view, has been the reaction this season?
What we try to always do is reach people who don’t typically watch us. And the one thing that’s for sure is that a lot of peeople have talked about the aero kits all year. Good, bad, indifferent, it’s been a storyline, and I think that’s a good thing.
What has been working for you and your team that you’ve been able to get on the podium multiple times?
I think it’s consistency. We’re good on race day, we’re good at saving the tires, keeping the tires underneath us and staying consistent. That’s what’s helped us the most.
With Fontana moving forward in the schedule, it’s the third oval in a row, and it’s in the day time as opposed to being at night like usual, how will the race be different?
It changes it quite a bit. Obviously, the heat will be much more significant at 1:30 p.m. than it is at 8 p.m. That’s probably the biggest thing that’s going to hurt us. The hotter it is, the more downforce we lose, the harder it is on the tires, the engine, the drivers. So that’s probably the biggest thing.
We go from here to Milwaukee, which is a flat one-mile oval, then to Iowa, which is a high bank seven-eighths of a mile, so these next three races are important. Sure, there are only six races, so that’s half the races, but everything we do from here on out is important, so we gotta makes sure we’re on top of our game this weekend. Particularly in our place, in fifth in points, all those different aspects of the heat and everything, we have to do what we can do to get a lot of points and remain there.
Do road courses or ovals play more to your strengths?
I’m probably more of a road course guy, typically. I like turning, it’s more fun to have all those aspects. But if your car is good on an oval, man, it’s hard to be the fun that that is. It’s just when it’s not good, it’s not fun.
What’s the word on whether or not Honda is coming back next year?
Nah, I don’t think they’re going anywhere. There’s been a lot of talk about this, but I don’t think it’s that valid. I’m very confident Honda will be in this next year. I’m confident we’ll be one of Honda’s premier teams, so I don’t prepare any different. I work very closely with the Honda guys, and we’re all talking 2016 at this point, so I’m looking forward to it.