Thrill ride in Thunderbirds F-16 leaves Rahal soaring

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LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, ARIZ. – Grinning, Verizon IndyCar Series driver Graham Rahal stepped out of the cockpit of a Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon -- having just been sideways, upside down and rolled in it -- and pronounced his ride with Maj. Kevin Walsh the coolest thing he’d ever done.

Graham Rahal with the USAF ThunderbirdsRahal became one of a small number who will experience such a thing with the United States Air Force Thunderbirds on March 31. Rahal, who is racing this weekend in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway, took the ride at nearby Luke Air Force Base, becoming a participant in the Thunderbirds’ historic program, aimed at showcasing the capabilities of the USAF airmen.

They wowed him.

“You climb to 15,000 feet, literally in seconds … all the maneuvers really cool,” Rahal said. “We got up to 9.3 in G-force, which is incredible. The sensation and the way it pushes the weight down on your body is so extreme.”

Rahal and the other Verizon IndyCar Series drivers are used to about five Gs at Phoenix – that’s the maximum they’ll pull in the April 2 race (8:30 p.m., NBCSN) as they scream around Phoenix International Raceway at more than 180 mph.

“When you’re pulling heavy G-forces, at eight Gs you can’t breathe,” said Rahal, who’s used to being the driver in his No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda but was the Walsh’s passenger in the F-16. “That’s similar to what we do. Here in Phoenix, through Turn 1, I’m not going to breathe.”

Graham Rahal with the USAF ThunderbirdsDuring their day together, Walsh and Rahal discussed the similarities between the job of a fighter pilot and that of a Verizon IndyCar Series driver.

 “There are just a lot of parallels between fighter aircraft and race cars in terms of turning fuel into speed and noise and power,” said Walsh.

The ride, which swooped and swirled into blue sky and white clouds over desert near Luke AFB, had been on Rahal’s bucket list since he was a child and he heard about the experience of his father, 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal, piloting an F-18.

“He flew an F-18 and they drove his Indy car on the runway,” said Graham, 27, who remembers gazing at a large print Bobby has of the experience. “He had this massive picture of him vertical over Edwards Air Force Base (in Southern California) and I just loved it and thought it would be so cool.”

As far as Graham is concerned, he was right. Walsh even gave him the F-16 controls for a few minutes and he flew it into a fluffy cloud and rolled it.

“I might have missed my calling,” he said, still grinning.

Graham Rahal with the USAF Thunderbirds

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