Of all the teams racing in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, the one with the most ties to the Columbus area is Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
The IZOD IndyCar Series team headquarters is in Hilliard, Ohio. Graham Rahal, the son of team co-owner and 1986 Indy 500 champion Bobby Rahal, was born in Columbus and graduated from New Albany High School.
Graham Rahal’s popularity in his hometown may be rivaled, however, by his teammate James Jakes.
Jakes, a British driver in his third IndyCar season and first with Rahal Letterman Lanigan, has gained popularity thanks to a dedicated, Columbus-based fan following who call themselves “Jakesy Nation.”
Joey Recktenwald, president of “Jakesy Nation” and a Columbus resident, said the group began in 2011 when he and some friends decided to team up and choose one driver to root for. They chose Jakes, who was an IndyCar rookie at the time.
Those 8 to 10 friends have grown into Jakes’ unofficial fan club. Their popularity is growing, as the group’s Twitter feed, @JakesyNation, has more than 1,000 followers, and it also has its own website and Facebook page.
Jakes often interacts with “Jakesy Nation,” and the fan club designed a helmet which Jakes used during an IndyCar race last season. On Monday, Jakes autographed and returned the helmet to his supporters at a media luncheon. The fan club also hosted a birthday party for Jakes, which the driver attended, during the weekend of IndyCar’s race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course last August.
“It’s awesome, I can’t thank those guys enough,” Jakes said of “Jakesy Nation.” “It’s great to have them on board, and great to see them at races and enjoying themselves.”
Dru Delaforet, who graduated from Ohio State in 2009 with a degree in communications and received his master’s degree in English education from OSU in 2011, is the head blogger for “Jakesy Nation.” He called the interaction between the group and Jakes “great.”
“He’s really nice to us,” Delaforet said. “Sometimes we don’t even expect some of the things that he does for us, and how much he interacts with us. I think he just really appreciates the support, and he knows that when he wins a race, because he has yet to win a race … that we will go nuts and we will be there for him.”
The members of “Jakesy Nation” attend multiple races annually, one of which is the Indy 500. One of the group’s traditions at Indianapolis each year is a rib cook-off named in honor of Willy T. Ribbs, who became the first African American driver to compete in an Indy 500 in 1991.
“We just did it because of the name, because his last name was Ribbs,” Delaforet said. “We’re trying to get him to come to the Willy T. Ribbs cook-off this time.”
Another tradition stems from the initiation process into the fan club. When a new member joins, he or she is expected to wear a penguin head and a yellow apron at their first race.
“You’ve got to wear the penguin head and the apron at least the first day,” Delaforet said. “Usually people end up just wearing it the whole weekend, because it gets you a lot of attention. It’s like a really frilly, yellow apron so all these girls want pictures of you, everybody just ends up wearing it the whole weekend.”
James Irwin, the group’s self-proclaimed “beauty,” went through the initiation process during his first race, and said it was the “most incredible experience.”
Irwin said “Jakesy Nation” is the best fan club in IndyCar.
“No doubt about it. Clearly the best,” Irwin said. “We have the most fun and we support our racer better than anyone at the track.”
While the group has grown, Recktenwald said they have not changed much from when they were just a few friends attending races.
“It’s not like we’ve had to go above and beyond to change our regular tradition,” Recktenwald said. “Now, there’s people that are coming over introducing themselves and saying they want to join up with us, so everywhere we go, we’re meeting new people, which is fun.”
Recktenwald hopes the club helps generate more popularity for IndyCar racing in Columbus.
“It’s fun for us because Mid-Ohio (located in Lexington, approximately 60 miles from Columbus) is so close, and we’re three hours from Indianapolis,” Recktenwald said. “There’s enough around here that if we can try and build a buzz for it, there’s teams to follow and drivers to follow and tracks that are close enough that we can get to them.”