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Graham Rahal poised for greatness in open-wheel racing

Bobby Rahal didn't want this for his son. He didn't need Graham to follow him into the viper pit that a racing paddock can be.

It would be fair to say that the three-time CART champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner even discouraged his son. But Graham Rahal, then 8, wanted it too badly.

Now 20, Graham Rahal has been cast as the next generation of greatness to follow one of racing's legendary drivers, the next big thing and the next American hope. Daunting, crushing expectations.

But he wants all of that, too. And that could be a very good thing for the future of North American open-wheel racing.

"He is unbelievably marketable," Indy Racing League commercial division president Terry Angstadt said. "In my opinion he can be a true superstar. He's as good as it gets."

Possessing the talent, charisma and presence beyond his age that makes stars out of race car drivers, Rahal begins his second IRL season with the chance to help reshape its image with mainstream America.

"The goal is obviously to be more successful. That's what every son wants, I think, and it's the same for me," he said. "It's a lofty goal for sure, but I think it's doable. I think I've always had the pressure around me and so, I'm ready to take it and try to carry the torch, so to speak."

Rahal picked it up last April in the St. Petersburg Grand Prix. It was his first IndyCar start and his first victory.

The circumstances around the victory were sublime and ultimately historic. His Newman/Haas/Lanigan team had migrated to IRL when the Champ Car circuit, which it had dominated, folded. But the late reunification of open-wheel racing left those new teams with just one borrowed car each. Rahal wrecked his before the opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway, prompting his team to skip that race and prepare for St. Petersburg.

In holding off two-time defending race winner Helio Castroneves, Rahal became the youngest, at 19 years and 93 days, to win a major North American open-wheel race.

Rahal called it a "storybook ending, for sure," but is already anticipating the next chapter, where his team, fully acclimated to the IRL, makes a legitimate bid for a championship with him as its leader and contender. That's a bold statement considering his six crashes last season and 17th-place finish in points. But Rahal is accustomed to growing fast.

"I definitely view the team as my team, and I've taken that mind-set into it so far this year and I will continue to do that," he said.

Self-confidence and self-reliance have defined Rahal since childhood. Determined to make his own way, at age 12 he convinced his parents to allow him to stay in New Albany, Ohio, with a family employee to attend school while his father took a job with the Jaguar Formula One team in Europe.

"From the time he started whatever it was, playing soccer as a kid or in school, he was one of those guys, when crunch time came he wanted to be in a position to make something happen and I see that a lot in his racing, especially when his confidence is high," Bobby Rahal said. "This year, I think his confidence is very high."

Graham Rahal placed fourth in the Star Mazda series in 2005 (beating fellow next American hope Marco Andretti) and was second in the Champ Car-feeder Atlantic series in '06 with five wins, earning a test in a Newman/Haas/Lanigan at Sebring at 17. Quickly up to pace with four-time series champion Sebastien Bourdais, Rahal signed to a contract and made his series debut in 2007, becoming the youngest driver in the series to record a podium finish. All this just six years since he began racing actual cars.

"He's always been precocious, but he's caught up pretty rapidly," Bobby Rahal said.

And to think Bobby tried to stop it before it began. Graham nagged him for a go-cart at 7, but his father refused. Finally, when Graham was 8, Bobby took him on a trip to a CART race in Portland, Ore., making a stop at carting school run by the son of Jim Hall, a Texas oil magnate who raced Formula One as a driver and won two Indianapolis 500s as an owner.

"He said, 'Here's Graham. He's interested in this. He's yours for the day,' and he just stayed out of it," Hall II, who managed his father's Indy-winning teams in 1978 and 1980, told the Times in 2007. "Graham, even at that age, seemed like he had an aptitude and was interested in learning."

Bobby still wouldn't buy Graham a cart for a year and wouldn't let him race it, only test. Finally, he was convinced.

Drivers are not best judged in a vacuum. Bourdais won four straight titles, but the feat is difficult to assess because he did so in a declining series with no consistent adversary. Rahal's career will likely be judged against that of another kid in much the same predicament: Marco Andretti. The grandson of legend Mario Andretti, son of former CART champ Michael, Marco entered the IRL in 2006 with all the same pressures and expectation because of his iconic last name.

Michael Andretti, whose battles with Bobby Rahal in the '80s and '90s helped stoked one of racing's great rivalries, believes a renewal of competitive hostilities would be a boon for the sport.

"I think they're a big part of the future of open-wheel racing. It's important they continue to do well," he said. "I hope they're in Victory Lane a lot. That will only help bring attention to our series."

Bobby Rahal was never quite sure his advice — when he dared offer it — or his methods made sense to his son until he heard Graham repeat it word-for-word to someone else. That included the part about being his own man. Neither wanted Graham to make it in open-wheel racing through Bobby's Rahal Letterman team. He'd have to prove his worth to another owner and sponsor willing to invest their time, money and metal.

"Graham's got to make his own footsteps," Bobby Rahal said. "He can't follow mine. I think he's going to do that. I'm sure of it."

And that would be a very good thing for open-wheel racing.

Graham Rahal poised for greatness in open-wheel racing 04/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 2, 2009 8:54pm]
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