The text came to me early in the morning, so it wasn't until a few hours later that it was read.
"You coming to the announcement today?" it read. The sender was Graham Rahal.
It's not atypical to get a text from Graham. It would be disingenuous to claim we are close friends away from the racetrack, but our working relationship has always been one of respectful professionalism. I have always respected both Graham's ability to drive a race car and accessibility for a pit road interview.
Yet, our off-track correspondence is typically limited to occasional banter of our respective favorite college football teams. He, with his beloved hometown Ohio State Buckeyes, and I with my well-documented fandom pointed toward the Clemson Tigers. Last year, Clemson's Hunter Renfrow had barely picked himself up from his clinching touchdown for the college football national championship when the congratulatory text from Rahal was one of the first to come through. I always appreciated that, considering the Tigers had just blanked Ohio State, 31-0, two weeks before in the national semifinal game.
The messages from Graham came with a noticeably more upbeat excitement this week. A major announcement, he told me, was on the way.
"We have a big one to announce!" he wrote. "All new partnerships for INDYCAR."
It's new, but at the same time, old. That's what makes it cool. TOTAL QUARTZ synthetic lubricants has partnered with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing as a sponsor for the 2018 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, and will serve as the official lubricant for the team.
As much as racing is a sport about the innovation of the future, it's also deeply rooted in the nostalgia of its past. Total has a rich and diverse history in motorsports, with one of those chapters written by the Rahal family. Bobby Rahal rode the Total associate sponsorship to the 1992 Indy car season championship, his win in Phoenix coming with Total on his hat and a 3-year-old Graham by his side (see the team's tweet below).
What jumped out to me, however, was not just the significance of a world brand in the auto industry investing in INDYCAR.
It was seeing an American Indy car driver investing in his sponsor. Let's face it, financial backing is the key to any team's success and the market is competitive in securing the almighty sponsor dollar. When it comes to lubricating the wheels of sponsorship, no one's better than Graham Rahal.
Whether it's posting on social media, mentioning partners in pre- and post-race interviews, engaging fans in the promotion of product - how many times in the last year did you see fans post their support while enjoying some Steak 'n Shake? - or reaching out individually to inform media members of news for which he was excited, the guy from Dublin, Ohio, checks all the boxes. Even when it means texting someone whose team beat his Bucks by a cool 31.
I don't believe Graham is alone. I've been around a lot of sports and a lot of athletes over the years. No series has more engaging participants than the Verizon IndyCar Series. Autograph sessions at every event, drivers taking pictures in garage areas, even the occasional campground strolls to meet groggy campers at various road courses. Every weekend, I see drivers work as ambassadors for their sport.
There's no reason potential sponsors shouldn't see them as ambassadors for their brands. Perhaps it's up to all of us to let companies know what sponsorship can do for them. Look no further than the example provided from Graham Rahal. Even if it means an early text.
I'll see Graham again next week at the series' open test at ISM Raceway outside Phoenix. I'm sure I'll be talking with him. I just won't ask him about that Clemson- Ohio State game. It was a "Total" grease job.