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Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is 'special' to IndyCar driver Graham Rahal

First in a series of guest columns IndyCar driver Graham Rahal will file this weekend during the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg:

It's great to be back at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. This has always been a place that's near and dear to me. I got my first IZOD IndyCar Series win here back in 2008. That's still my only win, which is a shame, but I also won the pole here in 2009, so this racetrack holds a special place in my heart. If there's one race I look forward to, it's St. Pete.

Honestly, if we could race here 20 times a year, I wouldn't complain. It's not just about the racing; it's about the atmosphere. The fans are great and make us feel at home. The drivers and teams that come here all feel comfortable. It's familiar to us.

The track itself is incredibly challenging, which makes it fun for the drivers. They threw in a couple of small changes in the curbing this year. The pavement is generally the same mix of asphalt and concrete that we're used to racing on, with the same bumps and difficult corners to navigate through. It's one of the most challenging street circuits on the schedule, and we're always up for challenges.

If you haven't heard, we have a new engine and chassis this year. They'll look completely different and sound completely different than what you've been used to seeing. It's a much quieter, more pleasant sound, but it still sounds fast. It's also cool to have three engine manufacturers — Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus — involved this year. You'll be able to pick out the three different engines just by listening.

The Dallara chassis is much safer, which we've all anticipated. You'll notice the flared sidepods leading to the rear wheel, which is surrounded by bodywork now to prevent cars from wheel-to-wheel contact. As a taller guy, I'm pleased with the added safety equipment and comfort in the cockpit.

The new car has more technology in the sense that the throttle is electronic like most passenger cars these days. And we have a hand clutch, so there's no longer a pedal for the clutch. Fans won't necessarily notice that, but for drivers it's a huge difference. It's been intriguing for all of us to help in the development of the car. It's been a very busy past couple of months, but we can't wait to see how this car performs under race conditions.

What makes St. Pete so much fun for us is its carnival atmosphere. It's a huge part of the event. It isn't just a race. It's an event. There's more to do than just watch racing. It's family-friendly, colorful, exciting and different, all with a scenic backdrop. For the people in the Tampa Bay area, it's easy to get to and thrilling to see.

St. Pete has always been one of the best when it comes to hosting a large race like this. It's right on the waterfront and right downtown. There's ample parking and some of the best restaurants in town right next to the track. For those of us involved in the race, that's our favorite part — it's all centrally located. And it's never boring.

Everyone here should be proud of this first-class event. It's a great way for IndyCar to start a new season and a new era. I hope everyone is able to come out and support us.

And I hope everyone knows how much we appreciate your hospitality.

Graham Rahal, 23, won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2008. He will drive the No. 38 Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing Honda/Dallara this weekend. The son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, he resides in New Albany, Ohio.

Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is 'special' to IndyCar driver Graham Rahal 03/22/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 24, 2012 8:32pm]

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