Graham Rahal slouched atop a stool nestled inside a local coffee shop.
The 24-year-old IndyCar driver planted his elbows firmly on the small table in front of him.
His stare darted around the room. He could imagine grandstands surrounding him that very moment.
But no crowd rumbled. No checkered flag flapped.
The loudest noise in the shop was the feverish tapping of Rahal’s right foot.
Again and again, he pounded his heel against the metal seat. It was as if he was hammering the gas pedal of a car flying at 225 miles per hour.
Five people claimed seats at the coffee shop, not the 400,000 expected at Sunday’s 97th Indianapolis 500.
The wait is killing the driver, who has a lengthy list of Chicago-area ties. The same driver who became the youngest winner in IndyCar Series history when he glided to victory in his debut at the ripe age of 19 years, 93 days.
But don’t be mistaken, there was nothing youthful about Rahal's stare.
The glow in his eyes looked more like that of a prizefighter poised to enter the ring than a driver sitting amongst the smell of coffee grounds and baked goods with race day still five days away.
“The adrenaline in that place on race day doesn’t compare to anything else,” Rahal said. “That’s really all you can say. It’s all I can think about. The Indy 500 is the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Stanley Cup all rolled into one.”
Well, maybe not quite.
Rahal admits he’s a little biased in his description of the famed race. But any event that remotely fits that bill comes with its fair dose of pressure.
And Rahal is no stranger to pressure.
Graham Rahal is the son of Bobby Rahal. Know him?
If you’re a racing fan, you would.
Bobby Rahal won three championships and 24 races in the CART open-wheel series, including the 1986 Indianapolis 500.
The elder Rahal raced in seven Indy 500s. The worst he finished was seventh place.
In short, he’s kind of a big deal.
But Graham Rahal’s old man isn’t just a regular racing celebrity. No, that just wouldn’t be enough.
He’s also the owner of the team Graham races for--along with some other notable folks like “Late Night” host David Letterman and Chicago business mogul Mike Lanigan.
How’s that for pressure?
If the picture isn’t clear enough, in the world of IndyCar racing, "pressure" and "Rahal" are nearly synonyms.
But Graham Rahal has grown accustomed to it.
He didn’t really have a choice.
The kid whose nickname was “The Shadow,” because he tagged along with his father everywhere, Rahal basically grew up in the spotlight.
When he started racing go-carts at 10 years old, local newspaper reporters hounded him.
Nowadays, he deals with a little more than the local paper man.
Today, he wields a three-page agenda typed in 10-point font to sort all the attention.
“You learn to deal with it,” Rahal said. “Now, I just ignore it. There’s nothing else you can do. You can’t avoid it. It doesn’t matter if I win 20 races in a year, people would be asking, 'When is he going to win his 21st?’ ”
Yes, Rahal can avoid the pressure that comes with his family name, or so he says.
But he can’t avoid the weight that lurks Sunday.
Fidgeting in his seat, Rahal was at a loss when trying to describe the stress that comes with racing in the Indy 500.
“I’m not really sure if I can put it into words,” he said.
But he tried.
And tried to do so in Chicago terms.
After all, his father is a one-time Glen Ellyn native and lives in Lincoln Park. His grandparents and uncle live in the western suburbs. His cousins attended area high schools.
In other words, he’s no stranger to the area.
While Rahal was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, he visits Chicago “pretty frequently.”
Rahal’s uncle owns a boat harbored by Soldier Field. He recalls spending countless hours rocking in the waters of Lake Michigan.
“I love spending time out on the lake,” Rahal said. “In fact, my uncle’s boat is docked right over there.”
He points, but toward the Trump Tower--the absolute opposite direction of Soldier Field.
Sure, Rahal may be rusty when it comes to Chicago geography, but luckily for Rahal he’s not about to be a downtown cabbie anytime soon.
Rahal does genuinely enjoy the area, but perhaps most importantly, he manages to put the pressure of an IndyCar driver in a language that most Chicagoans can understand these days--the Blackhawks.
“In racing you have a team, but a lot of the time it comes down to the driver,” Rahal said. “A driver is the easiest way to screw things up. There’s a lot of pressure. Let see, how would I put it? It’s not like the Blackhawks.
“By that I mean, if Kane makes a bad play or pass, or whatever, he has Toews and all those other guys to pick up the slack for him. It’s not like that in our sport. If you make a mistake, it’s on you.”
And Rahal has little room for error Sunday.
Rahal will run 26th in a field of 33.
But as Rahal is quick to point out, his best finish at Indy was paired with his worst starting position.
In 2011, Rahal qualified 29th. He led six laps and finished third.
Rahal isn’t worried about starting near the tail end of 11 rows of three cars as the green flag waives.
No, he’s focused on his lifelong dream--to win the Indy 500. It inches closer and closer with each passing minute.
And again, he tried to put the dream in Chicago-friendly terms.
“Some dream about being Michael Jordan and hitting that game-winning shot in Game 7 of the NBA Finals,” he said. “But for us–-the drivers–-it’s all about driving underneath that checkered flag on Sunday. It’d be pretty hard to explain. If it happens, I wouldn’t be able to say much. Words really couldn’t do it justice.”
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