Thursday, July 12, 2012

Q&A Laken Kurtz: Doing Good by Graham

Maybe you've seen her—somewhere in the frame of a Graham Rahal photograph... referenced in a random tweet. Conversely, perhaps you simply don't have a clue.

Well, let me assure you, Laken Kurtz is for realz. Partner, athlete, educator, philanthropist. From the Graham Rahal Foundation to living the glamorous life, you'll like getting to know, Laken. Here she is in her own words.

andhesonit:  Here we go, Laken. I have my share of softballs to throw at you, but I'd like to start with a hard-hitting question, first. Gird yourself. Ready? Okay.

andhesonit:  So, how did you and Graham meet? Were you a fan of IndyCar racing before you met him?

Graham Rahal and his companion, Laken Kurtz
Photo: L. Kurtz
LK:  It’s a very cheesy story. Graham and I actually met at a charity golf outing last May. I was a 500 festival princess selling mulligans at the event and asked Graham if he wanted to buy a few. He said “Yeah, meet me at hole #1 in 10 minutes by the ATM.” I agreed then hopped back on the golf cart with a few other princesses and continued with the rest of my day. Five hours later, I had lost all track of time and realized I never made it to hole #1 to meet Graham. As the month of May progressed, we saw one another at different events for the festival but never really spoke. 

At the events, Graham and I always made eye contact and I was immediately attracted to him, of course, but I had plans of moving out of Indiana to pursue my teaching career. At the end of the month I received a Facebook message from Graham that simply said “It was nice seeing you during the month of May, if you’re ever in Indianapolis again we should get together!” and the rest is history. I later found out that Graham had Googled “Laken 500 Festival Princess” to find me which led him to my Facebook page where he was able to contact me. All I can say is, thank goodness for the Internet!

andhesonit:  You have an unusual—and very kool, I might add—given name. Is there a story behind it?

LK:  Thank you for the compliment, my name is definitely unique! My father, Kent, was in the Air Force and while serving; he came across an Air Force base named “Lakenheath” in England. My parents decided to use part of the Air Force base name to create my name. I actually hated my name when I was in elementary school. My friends had “cool” names like Brittany, Nicole, Ashley, etc. I wanted to change my name to Zoe, after Elmo’s best friend in Sesame Street. As I’ve aged, I now really enjoy having a different name. It’s always a conversation starter and helps set me apart from others.

andhesonit:  I have great appreciation for the fact that Graham has established the Graham Rahal Foundation. You're closely involved with the foundation, yes? Can you tell us what it's designed to do and exactly what your role is?

LK:  The Graham Rahal Foundation, which was created by Graham himself, is designed to give back to children facing medical conditions. We are associated with two major national charities, Alex’s Lemonade Stand and Serious Fun Children’s Network, as well as many local organizations and groups. Graham chooses to base his foundation on children with medical conditions because of his former team owner and friend, Paul Newman. Paul and Graham had a very unique and close relationship. I love hearing Graham tell stories of Paul and his influences on Graham at such a young age. You can tell that Graham greatly respected and looked up to Paul and strives to bring the philanthropic side of racing back to the sport.

I am closely involved with the foundation and greatly enjoy the work I do. I am considered the “Foundation Director” but obviously work alongside others as well. Through the foundation, I help create events and run them, reach out to sponsors, build our relationship with Alex’s Lemonade Stand and Serious Fun Children’s Network, work with other organizations to grow our foundation, and much more. I wear many hats.

andhesonit:  Would you describe it as your "full-time job?"

LK:  The foundation is definitely enough work to be a full-time job but I’m also a teacher in my “spare” time. Due to our hectic traveling schedule, I have put my full-time teaching career on hold to focus on the foundation. I am able to spend many days in the classroom while also running the foundation so I essentially get the best of both worlds. While teaching is a passion of mine, the foundation has my heart and I feel like philanthropic work is my true calling.

andhesonit:  How many people are employed by the foundation?

LK:  The foundation does not currently have any employees, strictly volunteers. We are very focused on raising money to better the lives of others, not to pay a staff. At the foundation, we are passionate about what we do. No paycheck could ever compare to the satisfaction we receive from the “work” we do.

andhesonit:  I'm curious. Do you have any idea how much money you and Graham have raised as a philanthropic team? I understand if that's proprietary.

LK:  As a philanthropic team, Graham and I have raised roughly $850,000 for the foundation. This includes our go-karting event last fall, the Helmet Auction, our Drivers Tournament this May, and numerous other fundraisers. We have also hosted a few events where we physically make no money for the foundation, but help raise awareness for other organizations and ourselves.

andhesonit:  Turning back to your personal relationship with Graham, for a moment. Just what's it like to be an integral part of the life of a professional athlete? I find it somewhat fascinating. You "live the life," to an extent, yet you're not the one with the notoriety.

LK:  Life with Graham is nothing short of amazing. What I absolutely adore about him is that even though he is a professional athlete, he’s your normal guy next door. Our life is very public which can be difficult at times, but he never lets the fame and fortune get to him. I love that I get to be a part of Graham’s life but I enjoy even more that I am his #1 fan, his support system, his right hand woman. I don’t care about the public things like having pictures of us online, stories about our glamorous trips in the latest issue of Travel, or being seen on his hip 24/7. I genuinely love just being there for him. When all of the glitz and glamour have gone, I’ll always be there for Graham and I am very fortunate that he’d bring me along on this incredible journey.   

andhesonit:  Graham snores like a hyena, doesn't he?

andhesonit:  No question, here. Say anything you like: Hi to your family at home... whatevs.

LK:  I’d like to take this opportunity to say hi to my amazing and supportive family. I am the luckiest girl in the world to have parents who told me to follow my heart and live life to the fullest. No matter how many days we go without seeing each other, holidays I miss, or phone calls I forget to return, they never stop loving me. My family has never questioned my choices or criticized me for living the life I choose and for that I am beyond thankful. They are my biggest fans and it means the absolute world to me to know that I can always count on them, no matter how many miles away I am. I don’t think I could ever express my gratitude and appreciation enough. I am truly blessed.

andhesonit:  Because you're personally involved with Graham and also working with, and I don't know, maybe even technically for, him, do you ever worry about mixing business with pleasure, so to speak?

LK:  Graham and I make a great team. Simple as that! It’s definitely a tag-team effort to run the foundation but we make it work with ease because we’re so passionate about what we do. It’s not to say that we never have different opinions on things, we just always keep the foundations best interest at heart. It’s great to be able to share ideas and work on projects as a team. I feel that working together proves that we trust one another and are confident in the other’s ability to succeed. Some people may say that working with your significant other could harm your relationship and that may be true for some but lucky for us, working together has actually brought us closer and made our relationship stronger.

andhesonit:  In private, G insists you call him "Golden Graham." True or false?

andhesonit:  I think we're all aware of the "Helmet Auction" Graham organized to benefit the Wheldon family, which really blew up (in a good way). I'm pretty sure you were a part of that. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like behind the scenes?

LK:  Yes, I was part of the auction as well as our good friend, Beccy Gordon and the folks at Indycar. Let me tell you, those two months were truly amazing and inspiring. I have never experienced anything like the tragedy in Las Vegas and to see the outpouring of love and support from fans, athletes, celebrities, etc from across the world was magical. I remember standing in our hotel room in Las Vegas just hours after Dan’s passing and Graham telling me that he wanted to auction off his helmet and donate the money to Susie and the boys. I was impressed then by his small gesture but had no idea what was to come of a simple Tweet he would send out that night discussing his idea.

That next morning the auction idea took off and by the time we made it back to Indianapolis, we had numerous drivers and athletes from different sports onboard. Once we decided to do the auction on Ebay, the donations poured in from all across the world. Graham and I essentially ran the auction from our home in Indiana and Beccy worked from Florida. Items were being delivered every hour to our home and our front hallway and living room were jam packed with boxes. One day, a semi even showed up to the house to deliver signed car parts! Once we received donations, Graham and I would take inventory then drive the items to the Indycar office where they packed items in crates and shipped them out to California for Ebay to put up online. Each night when the auction went live, Beccy and I sat on Twitter sending out tweets describing each item along with a link to the page. This went on for two hours a night, 6 nights a week, for over a month. The auction was very time consuming and tedious but the response was overwhelming and people wanted to do whatever they could to help. The whole experience was moving and just proved how respected and loved Dan was by those all over.

andhesonit:  Fastball. Brace yourself. Date night: What's your car of choice to pull out of the Graham Rahal garage?

LK:  On a typical date night I really enjoying cruising around in our red Porsche Carrera GT. It’s fast, sleek, and sexy! Plus it’s a major head turner. You don’t see many of those driving around Carmel, Indiana everyday.

andhesonit:  Sometime in the not-too-distant past, Graham tweeted a pic of you and he on a boat, somewhere. You both were sporting—well—clothing you'd wear for a day on the water. Personally, I found it to be too much information and none of our business, but nevertheless, thanks to Graham, it's out there. Right. To the point. Forgive me... Ahem. You appear to be a fit/athletic person. Are you an athlete in your own right? Do you work out? Training is obviously a big part of Graham's routine, do you workout together? What's the skinny?

LK:  Growing up I was always playing a sport but my real passion was volleyball. Where I come from, we eat, sleep, and breathe it. I was always training and spent most hours of the day in the gym or weight room, which constantly kept me in shape. After my career was over, I began coaching volleyball, which also helped me stay in shape. Now with our hectic schedule, it’s more difficult to play volleyball or have much of a set workout routine so I’ve picked up running. It’s something I can do no matter where I am. I always have a pair of tennis shoes and clothes with me that way I can’t find an excuse not to workout. I’ve seen the most beautiful sights just from lacing up my shoes and getting out. This past May, I ran my first mini marathon with my Mom and now I’m hooked. I’ve already begun training for my next mini this fall and plan to do them as often as I can. I also enjoy cycling and workout class. Any activity that gets my heart rate going and makes me sweat is awesome. For me, working out makes me happy and gives me energy.

Since Graham is a professional athlete, he has to be in tiptop shape. We love working out together rather it be running, riding bikes, interval training, or just shooting hoops. It’s great to have a partner who is athletic because we can motivate one another and push each other that extra mile. This isn’t to say that Graham and I don’t enjoy our froyo but we’re a very athletic couple. Since I started dating Graham I’ve become more of a cook. I’m always trying to find healthier versions of our favorite treats and meals that way we aren’t depriving ourselves of the things we love. Living a healthy lifestyle is so important and we try very hard to maintain that.  

andhesonit:  I heard a rumor Graham's favorite breakfast is a venti frapp, extra whip, with a side of "38"-shaped pancakes. Can you confirm?

andhesonit:  K. Chance for you to dig deep, here. Right or wrong, I have a tendency to put IndyCar drivers on a pedestal, and without getting into all the nauseating details, Graham's right up there at the sharp end. That being said, we all know no single person is perfect, so what is Graham's most annoying habit? Something he does that you really wish he didn't?

LK:  By no means is Graham perfect but in my eyes, he’s pretty darn close! He has the biggest heart of anyone I know and is always putting others before himself. He is a hard worker, with an enormous drive to succeed in everything he does in life. Failure is not an option for Graham. With that being said, he does have a few minor, minimal, insignificant things he does that I wish he wouldn’t. One thing that bothers me is when he bites his nails. Graham can get stressed due to all of the craziness in his life so he just has to do it. I really try not to nag though considering he doesn’t do much else that bothers me. I guess I’m pretty lucky!

andhesonit:  Okay, I have many more questions I'd love to ask, but I think we're done here. You've been very generous with your time. I'd like thank you, but before we conclude, I'd like to give one more shout-out to the Graham Rahal Foundation. What are the ways in which our readers are able to learn more about the foundation, even volunteer or contribute, if they'd like?

LK:  The best way readers can learn about the foundation and give back is by visiting our website, www.grahamrahalfoundation.org. There, readers can find information on events, the organizations we support, and a place to make a donation. We also use social media such as Twitter and Facebook to provide additional information. Readers can follow us online at @GR_Foundation or “Like” our Facebook page. Graham and I are also constantly talking about the foundation on our own personal Twitter pages (Graham — Laken). If readers have any additional questions they can reach me directly at Laken@GrahamRahalFoundation.org

andhesonit:  Thanks for playing along, Laken—and personal thanks for the good work you're doing with Graham and the Graham Rahal Foundation.

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