Graham Rahal is very much his own man and has been since bursting onto the Champ Car scene as an 18-year-old in 2007. Being the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 champion Bobby Rahal guaranteed nothing except a famous last name.
So the younger Rahal was fine with driving for teams other than the one dad owned. Except the people who paid the bills didn't always agree.
"I used to go to countless sponsor meetings. I would walk in with whoever it may have been, and the very first question would be, 'Why don't you drive for your dad?' " Rahal said at a recent IndyCar test at Sebring International Raceway. "I'm not going to say this is totally sponsor-driven, because dad and I wanted that as well."
This year everything has lined up and the son is driving for the father. Graham signed a three-year contract in the offseason with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Apart from a one-off drive in the 2010 Indianapolis 500, it's their first time on the same IndyCar team.
"I think the six years in IndyCar, he's been driving for very good teams. That's been great in terms of maturing him," Bobby said at Sebring. "That's why I thought it was time for us to get together, because he'd proven he belongs. Nobody can say he doesn't belong. I think we can give him a better effort than where he's been previously."
Graham's past two seasons were spent with Chip Ganassi, and results didn't meet the team's championship history. Rahal had three runnerup finishes and 13 top-10s for Ganassi, ending up ninth in points in 2011 and 10th last year.
Rahal's lone win in 77 starts was at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2008, where he set the record as IndyCar's youngest winner in his series debut.
"There's been a lot of races where he's been on the podium, a lot of races where he should have been on the podium when things have kept him off," Bobby said. "He doesn't really make a lot of mistakes; he's still very young (24). He's very good in his feedback on the car."
And a return this weekend to St. Petersburg, where in 2009 Graham also earned his first series pole, is always welcome.
"We can do it again," Graham said. "St. Pete's been a good place to me. My first win, my first pole. Frankly, it's a place that's kind of gotten away from me. But with (Sarah Fisher's team), we had a top-10 (finishing ninth) in 2010. It's a special place to me. It always will be."
Though Graham says he and his dad are "just a couple of gearheads," it's not just on the track that they relate. A much quieter pursuit than racing has long been a bonding experience.
"Golf is one of those things that perhaps I enjoy with him the most," Graham said. "As a kid, golf was always what we did together. To me, even now when we go golfing, it's probably some of the moments I enjoy most."
One of Graham's golfing buddies is British driver and Orlando resident James Jakes — a member at Isleworth Country Club, the former home course of Tiger Woods — who joins Rahal Letterman Lanigan to make it a two-car team this year. The younger Rahal recommended Jakes highly, and that his opinion held weight indicates the level of respect Graham brings to the team.
"Of course I had some input. I wanted to have a teammate, and I think James is a guy with a lot of talent who probably just hasn't been in the right place yet," Graham said. "I think this team has always specialized in taking guys like that and putting them in the right environment to succeed."
But the Rahal connection is the talking point for this team, with sponsors and fans alike. It's a natural extension of the father-son bond, even if it was a few years in coming.
"I'm very fortunate," Bobby said. "I have a close relationship with all of my children and a particularly close one with Graham. I'm very lucky for that. I'm so very proud of him in how he carries himself in defeat as well as victory. It's exciting to see him follow in my footsteps. I couldn't ask for anything better.
"I'm a lucky man."