Mid-Ohio homecoming sweeter for Rahal as defending champ

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Bobby Rahal came to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the first time as a 10-year-old boy with his racing father, Mike.

Later, when Bobby was racing, his son Graham’s initial experience at the Lexington, Ohio, road course came at 6 months of age, so it’s a racing home Graham has always known. Graham grew up about an hour away near Columbus.

Their homecoming this weekend for The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio is special, to say the least. This visit is even more meaningful, considering Graham Rahal is the defending champion of the Verizon IndyCar Series race and is again driving the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for his father’s team, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

“I’ve spent my whole life there,” said Graham, 27. “I don’t compare directly in the sense that my win at Mid-Ohio was as important as LeBron James (an Akron, Ohio, native) winning the NBA championship for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but it’s hometown and hometown. The sense of accomplishment for me, as an individual, was so great because everyone knows I love Ohio,

“I’m very proud to be from Ohio and that event means so much to me in my life. To just win it, it’s a career accomplishment that I will never forget or never take for granted.”

Graham ranks his 2015 victory at Mid-Ohio as No. 1 among his career accomplishments, which includes three Verizon IndyCar Series wins and a 2011 triumph in the Rolex 24 at Daytona endurance sports car race.

“Without a doubt, Mid-Ohio for me is, I hate to say it, it’s better than winning Daytona 24 hours, it’s better than all of the other stuff,” Graham said. “It’s a place I grew up at. I spent so many days there as a kid, watching it, being a part of it, seeing it, loving what it’s all about.

“Mid-Ohio is home. Last year, the way it all came together, when I look at every aspect, the Buckeye stuff that we did (his racing helmet was designed to look like an Ohio State University football helmet and former OSU player Joey Galloway was the grand marshal), having so many friends and family there. My entire family was there – which never happens. To have that sort of experience, I can’t even tell you how valuable that is and how much it means to me.”

That’s why he covets everything from the 2015 Mid-Ohio win.

“For me, that day, you couldn’t have seen me any happier,” he said. “Every time I see that trophy at home, I still have the winning gloves, the helmet, everything. That’s something that I will never, ever, ever let go.”

Father Bobby’s Hall of Fame career included a 1986 Indianapolis 500 victory and three Indy car championships. He also won his share of races at Mid-Ohio.

“Two Indy car races, a couple IMSA races there, the Lumbermen’s race, my two IROC victories came at Mid-Ohio,” said Bobby, 63. “I had a lot of success at Mid-Ohio.

“I lived in Columbus from 1981 until five or so years ago, and with Jim Trueman buying the track in 1981, it was kind of synonymous with the Truesports racing team that I drove for and Jim Trueman and me by association. Going to Mid-Ohio, even still, that’s coming home.”

As Graham was closing in on his Mid-Ohio win last year, proud father Bobby recalls the fan reaction from a partisan hometown crowd.

“The fans were going crazy,” Bobby said. “That was fun to see.

“He said last year winning there was more important to him personally than winning his first Indy car race. And he did it in a dominant fashion, he beat all of the best guys that day. It’s very satisfying when you have races like that. We’ve had a long run of success at Mid-Ohio and I think for Graham having spent so many days there as a young boy watching me race, being able to win in front of the hometown crowd was pretty special.”

When mentioning how the father has won an Indy 500 and the son is still trying, Bobby says, “Not yet” and Graham adds, “I think we’ll win one.”

As much as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is at the top of every driver’s wish list, Graham put into perspective the difference between chasing an Indy 500 title and winning at Mid-Ohio.

“The Indy 500 for me would be more of a career victory, something that would be so great to have on my resume to help grow this sport, which is my main focus all the time,” Graham said. “Winning at Mid-Ohio is a personal accomplishment that can never be matched.

“That’s why I bring up LeBron. A lot of people wouldn’t get his sense of accomplishment. Michael Jordan winning it for the Bulls is great, but he’s not from Chicago. For me, to win 30 minutes from where I’m from at a track that I know every inch of that place — I’m not just talking about the racetrack, I know all of the rest of it more than the track itself.”

Graham looks forward to being introduced at home as a defending champion.

“I feel less pressure,” he said. “I can go back to Mid-Ohio as a winner the rest of my career. Last year, we had an insane crowd there. If anything, I hope it energizes the crowd even more.”

The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio fast facts


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