The greatest young race car driver in the world coasts down a winding Douglas County road where metro Atlanta’s western suburbs give way to bucolic pastures. He points out a hand-painted sign: Someone is offering a $10,000 reward for information about whoever is killing cows.
When Sean Rayhall won his first two cart races at age seven—with no practice—he was hooked. At twelve, he became the youngest North American driver in history to win a formula car race. Three years later, at the age most kids get their learner’s permits, he bagged his first points-based pro championship and tallied $56,000 in winnings. Of the 152 races Rayhall had completed as of this writing, he’d won an astonishing 48 percent. That’s good enough to earn him the number one ranking in a global database of thousands of drivers under age twenty-one—and it’s a pole position Rayhall has held for two years.
Peel away the accolades and Rayhall is a straitlaced eighteen-year-old with Abercrombie-guy hair and git-r-done moxie. Behind the wheel of a Toyota Tundra, a lumbering truck that squelches his lead-foot tendencies, Rayhall leads a tour of the stomping grounds he’s already outgrown. Here’s the neighborhood where, at age three, he crashed a four-wheeler. “I was on wheels from the beginning,” he laughs. Here’s the tiny Christian private school where he graduated with honors last year, despite constantly missing classes for race events across the country. Here’s the brick house where a young Rayhall grew up idolizing Michael Schumacher, the Formula One legend.
Rayhall holds a commanding points lead in the Prototype Lites series, with final races this month at Road Atlanta, which feels like home turf to him. The series is a feeder for American Le Mans racing and another rung in Rayhall’s ascension. His goal isn’t NASCAR or IndyCar but the global proving ground of Formula One.
As the tour winds down, Rayhall begrudgingly answers questions about his last name. Yes, he’s distantly related to—but barely knows—Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal and other members of that racing dynasty. Rayhall’s grandfather Americanized the Lebanese last name for phonetic clarity after people mispronounced it “ruh-hall.” And the scion embraces the distinction. “Maybe it would have been easier having the Racin’ Rahal name, but the y and the l makes it mine, makes it unique,” he says. “I want to be an entity by myself.”
Get out to the track!
Road Atlanta’s sixteenth annual Petit Le Mans takes place October 16 to 19. roadatlanta.com
This article originally appeared in our October 2013 issue.