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Graham Rahal earns pole for Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — Mom's going to have to bring it home this time.

Graham Rahal was greeted on the tarmac by father, Bobby, a former CART champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, when his unlikely dash through the rain helped him capture the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg last season. Bobby Rahal's motorsports team still had an Indy Racing League component last year, so he was around anyway.

But the father, as impressed as he was watching his son set another record in winning the pole for today's title defense, won't be around to watch in person.

The reason: Graham's half-sister was born 2 1/2 weeks ago and his father is headed back to Columbus, Ohio.

"I'll get back in time to watch on the TV," said Rahal, whose American Le Mans Series team competed at the Grand Prix on Saturday. "We're having a viewing party with a bunch of friends."

He might want to record this one. His son's performance in preparation for the IndyCar opener seems to foreshadow another memorable day.

Last season, Rahal became the youngest winner in the history of major North American open-wheel racing at 19 years and 93 days. On Saturday he became the youngest pole winner in IRL history at 20 years, 90 days, fending off a cadre of veteran street racers including Tony Kanaan, the only driver to finish in the top three in every IRL race here, and Dario Franchitti (fifth).

"I'm not normally superstitious, but because he was here all weekend and it's been a pretty good one, I hate to see him leave," Rahal said of his father after winning the pole with a best lap of 1 minute, 2.411 seconds over the 1.8-mile, 14-turn course.

Graham Rahal's mother, Debbie, uncle, little sister and others are in his dad's place.

"It's been exciting having them all here," he said, "and being able to do this in front of them, it's been a trip for sure."

In the unique system used to determine the top six starting positions on non-ovals, Rahal advanced through a knockout elimination round and outperformed five drivers in a 12-minute shootout for Newman/Haas/Lanigan. Justin Wilson was second, followed by Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe, Franchitti and Will Power.

Rahal completed the fastest lap of the session with just four minutes left in the shootout to take the pole from Wilson, Rahal's teammate last year who was released because of sponsor problems and signed a contract last week with tiny Dale Coyne Racing. His starting spot is the best in the team's 25-year history, mostly in Champ Car.

Qualifying offered a preview of tactical games that are likely today with new alternate tires — nicknamed "reds" for their red-striped sidewalls — that will be used on street and road courses. Teams are issued nine sets of tires for a race weekend, three of which are the softer, faster, but faster-wearing "reds." One set of "reds" must be used for at least two green flag laps in the race. The tires Firestone issues for St. Petersburg are among the softest of the season because the track has many types of surfaces. The alternates are not markedly softer, but they boosted speeds on Saturday. Teams generally used them early in the initial knockout rounds to assure a spot in the shootout and a top-six starting position.

The tires are a devilish variable. Firestone has not tested them and they appeared to affect handling. No one knows how many laps they will hold up for in a race. Rahal said he was almost half a second quicker with them. Kanaan — who said he was three-tenths of a second slower with them in the first qualifying round — and Franchitti are the only top-six starters who will begin the race on normal "black" tires.

"It can be a bit of trial and error because we haven't run these reds before in a race," Power said. "It depends on how much of a risk you really want to take."

As for his risk, Bobby Rahal, as tempted as he seemed to stay, appeared to know that it meant trouble if he missed his flight.

"Yeah. Exactly," he said, grinning.

Extra large teddy bear make up for it?

"I'd have to do something," he said.

Maybe Graham will send over a victory

Graham Rahal earns pole for Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 04/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 4, 2009 9:03pm]

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