ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Graham Rahal opened his IndyCar career with a win in his series debut. Six seasons later, that victory through the streets of St. Petersburg stands as his lone trip to Victory Lane.
But so much has changed for Rahal since that 2008 win, particularly during this past offseason.
He returns to St. Pete this weekend with a high-profile new sponsor in Army National Guard, a veteran engineer in Bill Pappas and big hopes for the breakthrough season that seemed set to happen years ago.
"I think we have a good opportunity this year," Rahal said. "I feel with National Guard it helps take our team to a whole new level. Of course, with Bill Pappas, John Dick, all the guys we brought onboard, that's going to help a lot."
Dick was brought on as head of research and development shortly after the addition of Pappas, who spent the last two seasons as Justin Wilson's engineer.
It was all part of an overhaul at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, where team co-owner Bobby Rahal knew significant upgrades were needed if his son was going to have a fighting chance. Graham Rahal joined the organization last year, but had only one podium finish and his 18th-place finish in the final standings was his lowest since 2010.
"We made the investments in the cars and the equipment and the personnel, and it was clear we weren't giving Graham the equipment he needed to succeed," Bobby Rahal said.
As they head into the Verizon IndyCar Series opener Sunday at St. Pete with new sponsor National Guard, Bobby Rahal believes he's got the tools to build a competitive team.
"Signing the Guard is obviously huge, historic, because it gives us the ability to compete at the highest level and build our company," Bobby Rahal said. "We can give our driver the proper tools to succeed."
That puts the pressure on Graham Rahal to perform. He moved to IndyCar in 2008 after one season in the Champ Car Series, and has just one win, 12 podium finishes and two poles to show for his seven seasons. Last year, when he was supposed to be buoyed by the move to RLL and the opportunity to work with his father for the first time, Rahal instead hit a career-low with just six laps led.