Rahal team builds success from tight-knit family atmosphere

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Winning in the Verizon IndyCar Series is never easy. Doing it as a small, one-car entry brings added challenges.

There's no second driver to bounce ideas off, less data acquired on a race weekend and fewer resources to solve problems that arise. And certainly no time for infighting.

Do it right and you have a hugely competitive one-car operation like Graham Rahal's No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda squad that has its driver tied for fifth in points and two wins to its credit in 2017, heading into today’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.

The talent of his crew speaks for itself, but it's the camaraderie and sense of belonging the outfit creates goes a long way to bringing success, Rahal insisted.

“We really work on trying to make sure everybody keeps a positive mindset and, each and every weekend, we make it a family environment,” said Rahal.

“I think that's what makes our team so happy and ultimately allows them to work together even better than most do.”

Rahal and his team co-owner dad, three-time Indy car champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal, make a habit of staying at the track on race weekends to stay close to the crew. Bobby, who co-owns the team with David Letterman and Mike Lanigan, hosts cookouts for the crew outside his motor home several times a season and serves as chef.

When he's not firing up a grill on race weekends, Bobby Rahal has been known to send every member of the crew gifts on special occasions, such as July 4. On off weekends, Graham sometimes takes the crew out to dinner, as does Bobby.

“I think the crew appreciates it and they feel it,” said Graham Rahal. “They know how Dad feels about them and Mr. Lanigan and David (Letterman) and myself and they know how valuable they are to us. I think that helps us considerably.”

While continuity in the crew over several years makes any Verizon IndyCar Series team better, it becomes more critical in a one-car operation that must go up against bigger rivals.

Graham RahalFinding speed in the car can be much more difficult for a one-car operation due to the limited data compared to other squads with at least two cars to try different things and find the optimum solution. Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske, whose drivers have won eight of the 12 races for far this season, have four cars each.

There's no doubt in Rahal's mind that finding the right people and ensuring they stay long term has been a key to the five wins and 12 podiums RLL has scored in the past three seasons.

“Unity is the biggest part of our team and I think that's why the one-car operation has worked well for us,” Rahal said.

“We don't like to see a lot of turnover and we don't have a lot of turnover. We pride ourselves on that and we focus hard to ensure it doesn't happen. It's always a difficult thing in Indianapolis (where the team shop is located) because there are lots of opportunities and places to go, so we try to keep the same guys year in and year out and work hard to create that bond and loyalty. 

Rahal's chief mechanic, Donny Stewart, personifies the longevity of those working in the RLL Racing family.

Stewart first turned a wrench for Graham Rahal 15 years ago during his karting days and soon became the aspiring racer's dedicated mechanic. While Stewart followed Rahal from karts to Formula BMW in 2004, they parted ways when the driver moved up to the Star Mazda series. Meanwhile, Stewart jumped to the RLL Verizon IndyCar Series team as a junior mechanic and was reunited with Graham when he joined the squad in 2013.

Stewart has only worked a RLL in INDYCAR and has no plans to go elsewhere.

“You just feel like you’re a lot more involved and that you are a bigger part of it instead of just being a guy who works on the car,” Stewart said. “It gives people more incentive to keep trying try harder and put more pride in it. It just pushes you to do better and better all the time.

“We have good people and you don't want to lose anybody because they think it's better somewhere else. If everybody's happy and they know it's the best place to be, then you keep your good group together. When you do that, you work a lot better together because everybody just knows what to do.”

Turnover also means the team must take time away from working on the car to get new people up to speed, something a one-car team simply can't afford to do often, Stewart added.

The bottom line for Graham Rahal is simple: A Verizon IndyCar Series driver can't achieve success without the right people doing a great job on the car every weekend, and that deserves recognition.

“There's a lot to praise,” he said. “With Dad, it's key for him and definitely where I get it from. Ultimately, when we do see success, you have to praise the guys and give them credit because it's due to their work and energy, and the time they spend away from their families.”

Rahal won the 2015 race at Mid-Ohio and will start fourth in today's 90-lap event. He was fastest in the final warmup practice this morning. Live coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on CNBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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