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Racing's 'Power Couple' Hoping to Celebrate More in May

Courtney Force had just lost in the Funny Car semifinals of the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA SpringNationals in Houston on April 26.

When she arrived at her bus, family and crew members provided another race update.

Her fiance, Graham Rahal, was in contention in his Verizon IndyCar Series race, the Indy Honda Grand Prix of Alabama.

“My mom is like keeping me up to date when I was out signing autographs at the ropes,” she said. “My team would be like, ‘He’s in first place right now.’

“I got all my work done and watched the rest of the race on TV with my mom, my dad and my sister. I was literally jumping up and down and screaming. When he would pass people, I was freaked out a little bit.”

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver ended up second to Josef Newgarden. It’s the sixth runner-up finish of Rahal’s 115-race career. He won his first series race at St. Petersburg in 2008, so to say he’s anxious to experience that again would be an understatement.

“I don’t put any extra pressure on myself from that standpoint,” Rahal said after Sunday’s Opening Day practice for the 99th Indianapolis 500. “Things just haven’t gone our way.

“The biggest thing is I’ve been in this drought for the last six years and it’s frustrating because I’ve been second a lot. I finished second to Will Power in Detroit last year by a second. I finished second last weekend by a second and a half. After catching up 18 seconds in seven laps, that’s crazy. I’ve never heard anything like that. It’s really fun, but I’ve got to win one of these damn things.”

That’s why he’s looking forward to Saturday’s Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He’s confident after Alabama that he can win on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

“Hopefully we can do it,” he said.

Grand Prix practice begins Thursday with qualifying on Friday. Force will attend the race.

They got engaged in November and plan to wed in California after their racing seasons conclude. The 26-year-olds have been described as racing’s power couple.

“I don’t know why people called it that,” Force said while waiting for Rahal in his Gasoline Alley garage, “but it’s kind of like, ‘What do you expect? We’re both in the racing world, so you’re going to end up with someone in the racing world.’”

Force, of Yorba Linda, California, is in her fourth year driving a Funny Car for her famous father, John, a 16-time NHRA national champion. The former high school cheerleader and Cal-State Fullerton graduate is the winningest female driver in Funny Car history with seven victories in 13 finals appearances.

Rahal, of Columbus, Ohio, drives for his famous father, Bobby, the 1986 Indy 500 winner. The son’s best run in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” was third for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2011.

“I’m sure not interested in dating Marco Andretti,” Rahal said, in a jab at one of his racing rivals, “so at least I can date her.”

He turns laps at about 225 mph at IMS and spends a little under three hours in his car for the 200-lap pinnacle of open-wheel racing. She zooms from zero to 320 mph in a little more than four seconds and after days of qualifying settles drag races in a series of one-on-one showdowns. Two cars enter, one advances.

“We’ve kind of lived the same type of lives, growing up in our dad’s shadows,” Force said. “That’s kind of how we hit it off, understanding each other and the chaos. We know how this works. I don’t have to be everywhere. When I come out to his races, I feel so out of my element. Just focus on myself, but he’s always dragging me somewhere. Be here for this, this and this, which is nice.”

She’ll miss the Indy 500 on May 24th for her own race in Topeka, Kansas.

“At the end of the day, what we both love about racing, what it goes back to is the same, which is family,” Rahal said. “People always ask me, some of my fondest memories in racing, it’s not just winning. Winning is a fun thing, but if I go back to when I was a little kid go-kart racing, it’s barbecuing out back of the go-kart trailer with dad or whomever. Those are fun days. They’re great memories you never forget.

“I miss those days, frankly, sometimes. We can just go have some fun and be relaxed and not have to worry about all the pressures of all the stuff. That’s not how it is anymore and we accept that. There’s not many people out there who can understand those pressures.”

When she’s racing and he can’t be there, Rahal keeps close tabs on how Force is running.

“I think about it all the time if she’s racing,” Rahal said. “I’m obviously concerned about her safety, No. 1. Whether she wins or loses doesn’t really affect the way I view her in my eyes. She’s safe, that’s the key, but I do think about it a lot, though. It’s difficult because there are a lot of races we go to, separate like here at the Indy 500, and I’ll have no clue what’s going on until four hours later. I won’t know what’s going on until after the day. That’s fine. That’s how part of this thing goes.”

Force’s parents have followed their youngest daughter’s lead and gradually learned what Indy car racing is about.

“Her parents have got into it,” Rahal said. “Her dad starts asking more and more questions because I don’t think he understood a lot about Indy car racing. Now, he starts to ask and starts to figure it out, stuff about budgets because I think all of that stuff is intriguing to him. I think her mom is my biggest fan.”

One question before the wedding is whether Force will change her famous name.

“Make him change his name,” she said with a playful smile. “See what he says to that. He’ll laugh at you if you ask him.”

One of Rahal’s crew members jokingly calls him, “Graham Force.”

“Nah. No. No. No. I like my name,” he said, shaking his head and smiling. “Professionally, she’ll probably keep her name. But on a personal level, she better change it. It’s tradition.”

He understands her name is a brand, so keeping it to maintain the value of merchandise makes sense.

“It’s very hard to decide that,” Force said. “Your changing your identity. That’s what you’re doing, and for everything I’ve tried to build up from my name, which is hard enough because half of it is my dad, and I’m trying to make it on my own.

“I told him if it didn’t work out and I had CFR on a building somewhere, technically I could turn the ‘R’ into racing and I’d be good. So I always poke fun at him. (Laughs.) I’m just kidding.”

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