Football fan: IndyCar star Graham Rahal gears up for Ohio State game

Graham Rahal is a full-time racing driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Sarah Glenn/Getty Images for Texas Motor Spe

There are few things in life Graham Rahal enjoys more than driving his Verizon IndyCar Series car, but Ohio State football is one of them.

“I think that is very fair to say,” said Rahal, who drives for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. “The Buckeyes are definitely something that gets me going more than most things in life, that’s for sure. It’s been a good year so far for the last six months. Everybody thought when they lost to Virginia Tech that was it. And I think they have proven that loss to Virginia Tech is probably what made them who they are now.”

Rahal will join his drag-racing fiancée Courtney Force at Monday night’s National Championship game between Ohio State and Oregon at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

“It’s been cool to see the highs and lows and everybody is learning you never bet against head coach Urban Meyer and this team,” Rahal continued. “Clearly, they have a lot of confidence but they also have this desire and ability to work together to beat a lot of programs nobody thought that they should.

“They were an underdog against Michigan State and they won that. They were an underdog against Wisconsin and absolutely dominated that one. And nobody gave them a chance against Alabama and frankly they dominated. The end result maybe was only a seven-point victory but if you watched the game Ohio State had two turnovers in their own 20-yard line that gave Alabama 14 points. At the end of the day it was a pretty dominating performance.”

Rahal was at the home of his fiancée in Southern California for Ohio State’s big upset of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on New Years Night and had a warning for his future wife before the game.

“I think she was just more happy because I told her she was going to get a really disappointed and mad fiancée or a really happy one. ‘You better hope for a good result,’” Rahal said. “I’m sure she was pleased she got a happy one.”

And now the couple is off to Texas.

Rahal, who grew up in the Ohio State suburb of New Albany has been a Buckeyes fan for as long as he can remember. His father, 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART champion Bobby Rahal, was already a local celebrity and took his son to many games.

“I’ve always been a die-hard my whole life,” added Graham. “When I was a little, little kid Dad used to take me to the games and we sat up in the press box way up at the top where you could barely see the football. That is really where my love started. I have pictures of me at the games when I was three or four years old. It’s been going on for years and years and years and I love it. It’s my thing. It drives my fiancée, Courtney Force, crazy because all I want to do is watch Ohio State, this, that and the other thing. But I do love it. It’s something I’m very passionate about and something I enjoy a lot.

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“These are the glory days right now; the days we have to enjoy. To have a coach like Urban Meyer and have players like they do and going to play for a national championship and knowing they could so many more times in the near future with the way these guys are playing you don’t come by days like that often.

“At the end of the day it’s pretty cool to be a Buckeye fan and see where they are at right now.”

Rahal knows it will be even cooler to be a Buckeye fan if his team can find a way to upset Oregon, especially after the way the Ducks completely dismantled and humiliated reigning National Champion Florida State in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.

This is the first year of college football’s National Championship Playoff with the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl serving as the semifinals for the four teams selected to participate for the title.

“I actually feel a lot better about the Oregon game than I did Alabama so hopefully we’ll get to see the second national championship for Ohio State in my lifetime,” Rahal said. “It’s a young group so the opportunities for more and more success and more and more championships in the future is brighter than it has been in the past.”

When Rahal was just a youngster, he was once interviewed on the sidelines by Jack Arute during an ABC telecast of an Ohio State game. John Cooper was the first Ohio State head coach that Graham got to know personally but he formed a nice friendship with his successor, Jim Tressel, who guided Ohio State to its last National Championship in 2002.

“He was a great guy, heck of a coach, was extremely nice and showed me around the facilities,” Rahal recalled. “Early in my life the Buckeyes weren’t beating Michigan that much. When Tressel came in that completely changed and have been in that dominant form ever since.

“Tressel was a great guy and would help get me tickets whenever he could. But he was the type of guy no matter how busy he was if I ever emailed him I got a response back immediately. Shelly Poe, who was the head of communications at the time, introduced us and right away he said, ‘It’s great to meet you. I was a huge fan of your father’s. I remember when I was coaching at Ohio State in the early 1980s and he was kicking everybody’s butt.’ We connected right away.

“Urban Meyer is a different guy — probably the best coach that we’ve had since. The fans love him. Tressel was a heck of a coach but he was always very conservative. Then you get Urban and he is just a gunslinger. The fans love that. The fans really enjoy that if it’s fourth-and-two even in your own territory he is going for it. And the fans really, really enjoy that.”

Rahal has formed a close friendship with former OSU players such as Michael Jenkins, a wide receiver and a key member of the 2002 National Champions who went on to play for the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings of the NFL that spanned from 2004-2010. Other players are Kirk Barton, Zach Boren and Jack Mewhort, currently in his second season as offensive tackle/guard for the Indianapolis Colts.

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“Jack came out to Indy with us last year to the 500 for the first time so I know him a little bit,” Rahal said. “All of these guys have moved on from the Buckeyes days but it’s pretty cool to interact with them. Michael Jenkins and I connected through the car forum. At first I didn’t know it was him. He is a Porsche nut and we both connected over that. Really he is a complete car guy and that is a lot of fun. A lot of guys in sports are car guys but I got to know him because he was so influential and such a big part of when we won the National Championship. His catch really is what saved the entire year.”

Ohio State’s season has been one of triumph over adversity. Starting quarterback Braxton Miller was lost for the year early in the season with injury and true freshman J.T. Barrett took over and impressively guided the team until he was injured against the University of Michigan. In came sophomore Cardale Jones, who closed out the Michigan game and led the Buckeyes on a 59-0 blowout of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis and the upset win over Alabama.

“Everybody expected that when that happened that was it,” Rahal admitted. “I think that when Braxton went down we never recover and I think people felt the same when J.T. went down. But what has been shown is obviously the coaching staff at Ohio State is unbelievable. We haven’t had a dip.”

From listening to Rahal talk about his beloved Buckeyes he is much more than an “Armchair Quarterback.” He sounds like a coach or a scout.

“I think J.T. Barrett is a better quarterback than Braxton,” Rahal said. “He’s a better all-around player. He can run and is very powerful but also a guy that can throw the ball extremely accurately. Then you have Cardale come in and you think there is no way he can play at that level and that is why we’ve been underdogs every game. And obviously, he’s right there, too. He is equally as good and has put up the numbers and the performance.

“I don’t think there is any other team in the country that can say they have that many QBs that are that good – that can literally play and start anywhere. It’s pretty cool to be in that position. It speaks volumes about the coaching staff at Ohio State.  There has been no dip. The guys are really, really good. It’s pretty cool.

“As a fan I remember the start of the year and everybody saying that’s it, Braxton is out and there goes any hope Ohio State has. And here we are.

“This team is extremely young. J.T. is only a freshman. I think this team is well beyond where they should be at this point and that is even cooler as an Ohio State fan because you realize the potential is incredible – where they could go in the future is pretty awesome.

“But, what do I know? I’m just a fan sitting here who likes football.”

By watching his favorite college football team overcome an early-season loss to Virginia Tech and its top two quarterbacks, Rahal has seen how a competitor can endure adversity – something he is familiar with after a season when he finished 19th in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings.

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“I don’t know if anything can help me more than the never say die attitude,” Rahal said. “This team has continued to push very hard and continued to excel and win. They have been down and out several times.

“We have obviously had a couple tough years in racing. The last couple years have not been a lot of fun. They have been pretty difficult but the never say die attitude of the team and myself is what proves all the doubters wrong. I think we will have a great team this year and we have worked very hard to make sure we have a team that wants to win; that those who don’t want to be there aren’t there and those who believe are.  It’s going to be really cool this season. I’m really looking forward to it.”

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