If Jack Hanna had been thinking about it a couple of decades ago, IndyCar driver Graham Rahal — his godson — would be walking around with the nickname "Hippo."
That's a story that came to light Friday after Hanna, 71, the director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, gave Rahal a quick tour of the Africa exhibit at the zoo, a place seemingly 10 times as large as when Hanna came to town 40 years ago to take over as director. The tour was in part to reconnect and in part to promote the upcoming IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 29.
But as they broke for lunch, Hanna recounted the story of hosting Graham's mother, Debi, and a few others on a safari in Rwanda back in the mid-1980s, well before Graham was born in 1989. Graham's father, Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner, and mother were living in Muirfield Village at the time and had become good friends with Hanna and his wife, Sue, but Bobby was not on the trip.
At one point in the safari, the group was in an old, six-person boat seeking hippos when they mistakenly came between a mother and her calf.
"All of a sudden — if I had known the mother was there I wouldn't have done this — she comes up underneath the boat and lifts the thing out of the water; OUT of the water," Hanna said.
Debi's friend started to fall out and Hanna grabbed her. As he pointed out, hippos "take more lives" in Africa than any other animal.
The near-disaster still rings an alarm with him, especially every time he sees Graham.
"He wasn't born," Hanna said. "Can you imagine? I should call him 'Hippo' from now on."
Laughing, Graham chimed in, "because I wouldn't even have been here."
Hanna added, "That could be our code."