LEXINGTON, Ohio — “Christmas in July” at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course meant Graham Rahal playing Santa Claus and Conor Daly serving as Santa's helper.
“I have a timeshare at the North Pole,” Daly said.
The two Verizon IndyCar Series drivers sped around in golf carts this afternoon to check out the best Christmas decorations at the track where Rahal grew up as a kid. The Honda-sponsored contest (using the #CampingWithHonda hashtag) recognized three finalists each for the camping and recreational vehicle areas. Grand prize winners for each section, as decided by the drivers, will receive pace-car rides Sunday morning before The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio race.
Rahal had two boxes of red Steak ’n Shake shirts in the back of his golf cart. He tossed them to cheering fans without stopping and presented them to the finalists, who also received Verizon gift bags.
The first stop was with Sherry and Joe Durbin of Ontario, Ohio. Rahal, a diehard Ohio State fan, first noticed a silver and gray Buckeyes golf cart.
“We love coming out,” Rahal said. “To be quite honest, this is what we did as kids anyway.”
After photos were taken and gifts given, Joe Durbin asked Rahal to sign the inside door of his camper. When the signature was finished, Durbin asked, “Put 2015 winner on there,” in reference to Rahal’s victory at his home track a year ago. Rahal, of course, obliged.
“Best day of my life,” Rahal said of the Mid-Ohio win. “Don’t tell my wife I said that.”
A second stop to visit Wayne Chauvin of Belle River, Ontario, Canada, had the drivers commenting on the array of Christmas wood cutouts and blow-up decorations. Frosty, Rudolph, the Abominable Snowman and even Yukon Cornelius were set up in a row alongside the camper.
“You have to be from Canada,” Rahal said, pointing at a wood cutout with Santa Claus on a motorcycle. “You’ve got hockey sticks holding this up.”
Chauvin’s decorations won the recreational vehicle title, but the day became even more memorable for his camping neighbor, Mike Archer, who grew up in Zanesville, Ohio, but now lives in Indianapolis. Archer had a Team Rahal hat signed by Graham’s dad Bobby Rahal 21 years ago. This day, Graham added his signature to the bill.
“My daughter Chelsea wore this hat every time we came here,” said Archer, who has been camping at Mid-Ohio for 31 years. “We couldn’t get it off her head. My first time at this track, Bobby won. I’ve been here every year since. This just adds to our Rahal legacy as fans.”
Just then, none other than Bobby Rahal drove up on a golf cart. Archer scrambled to grab a poster and ran after the cart. One more autograph, coming up.
Local fan Kip Griffith of Lexington, Ohio, had a more of a Hawaiian theme. His Galion, Ohio, buddy, Chandler Bauer, wore a coconut bra.
“Those are my coconuts,” said Vickie Howard, Griffith’s grandmother. “They’re on loan. He wears them better.”
The next visit introduced the first of two “Cousin Eddie” characters — the sloppy, bathrobe-wearing, cigar-chomping relative in a winter hat with flaps made famous by Randy Quaid in the 1989 National Lampoon “Christmas Vacation” movie. This “Eddie” was Art Kennedy of Cleveland. His wife, Denise, and brother, David, helped dress him for the part, which included flip-flops and dark socks.
“We decided he was perfect for the role,” Denise said. “I made him put some shorts on.”
The most celebrated stop came next as a group of festive fans greeted Rahal at “The Party Pole.” Daly had visited the area earlier and proclaimed a downed deer figurine with beer cans surrounding its mouth as “my favorite thing.”
The RV section winners had a banner that read: “The Party Pole, The Real Race Fans Come To The Heart Of It All ‘Cuz Anyone Can Take A Yacht To Monaco.” A knock on the RV door produced another “Cousin Eddie,” played by Troy Poole of Dover, Ohio. He had Rahal sign his RV.
Eric Dalpiaz of North Canton, Ohio, wore a Christmas present box around his waist and was shirtless. Buddy Josh Renicker of Indianapolis also helped plan the decorations. They had decided just a week ago, “Let’s decorate,” after learning of the contest.
“We captured the spirit of Christmas in Mid-Ohio,” Dalpiaz said. “That’s why we come here, to hang out and have a good time.”
“You guys are having way too much fun, man,” Rahal said. “I’m really jealous, you guys having this good of a time.”
The next stop included a sign which read, “Dear Santa, All I Want For My Birthday Is A Ride In The Pace Car, Rich.” It was from Rich Kocemba of Reminderville, Ohio. Dick Halda of Solon and Rusty Greene of Reminderville greeted their guests and took pictures next to a Christmas tree with Rahal die-cast cars.
A final stop saw Rahal jokingly grab a paper ornament with rival Marco Andretti’s picture and tell Gay Sutherland of Anna, Ohio, “We’ll just take this one down.”
It was time to confer with Daly via cell phone. Both drivers agreed on the grand prize winners.
“The whole objective of this thing is to get people excited and get people involved in the camping and really build up all the other parts of this race weekend,” Rahal said. “Who knows what we’ll come up with next year, but it’s a lot of fun.
“It’s always cool, as far as I can see, to have people out here and kind of enjoy what I grew up enjoying about this place, which is the atmosphere and being out here all weekend and spending family time with everyone else.”
When Rahal was driving to his final destination, he passed “The Party Pole” yet again. Those most festive of fans ran out to greet him yet again. Despite the fact Rahal had given them all Steak ’n Shake shirts, the men were still shirtless, all except “Cousin Eddie” in his bathrobe.
A light, steady rain didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits.
“You can put clothes on now!” Rahal hollered.
“Why?” Dalpiaz said. “This is God’s country!”