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Rahal makes splash in IndyCar debut

ST. PETERSBURG

Carl Haas stood aside the black race car and held his arms wide, a chomped cigar in his left hand. Bobby Rahal, a few feet away, just beamed.

"Thanks for the driver," said Haas.

"Thanks for giving him the chance," Rahal said quietly, pulling Haas in for a hug.

Their careers defined by decades of racing brilliance, they'd been disarmed on a runway-turned-pit road by the 19-year-old kid who'd been led through a throng to raise his Grand Prix of St. Petersburg champion's trophy. In this moment, they were Graham Rahal's boss and his father.

Graham Rahal became just the fourth driver to win his first Indy Racing League IndyCar start and the youngest at 19 years, 93 days old to win a major open-wheel race. He's now the standardbearer for Champ Car's refugees after just their second start in their once-rival series. In the process he became a famous father's suddenly famous son.

And ultimately, the fourth annual Grand Prix won't be remembered for rain. It may be remembered as the day Graham Rahal became the next
American racing star and being a Rahal got a lot easier.

"I can tell you it got a lot lighter just about an hour ago," he laughed. "For a long time there, a lot of people that kind of — if you're not winning every weekend, a lot of people kind of doubt it. But certainly this just worked out perfectly."

Helio Castroneves was second, 3.5 seconds back, followed by Tony Kanaan, Ernesto Viso and Enrique Bernoldi in a race shortened by a time limit to 83 laps from a scheduled 100 because rain slowed the start.

Rahal's victory was unlikely despite his pedigree, talent and a composure that belies his age. He needed all of them on a final restart with three laps left and two-time defending race winner Castroneves lurking. An awfully fast race car didn't hurt either.

Rahal led by as much as a 2.7 seconds. Fuel economy and pit strategy put Rahal back in contention after he spun on Lap 39 and dropped to 23rd. He was able to skip a pit cycle when it became clear the race would not reach its original distance and he passed Ryan Hunter-Reay, who drives for his father's Rahal Letterman team, on Lap 65 to lead the final 19 laps. Rahal broke the IndyCar mark of Marco Andretti, who was 19 years, 167 days old when he won at Infineon in 2006.

Though his Newman/Haas/Lanigan team is one of the sport's most successful, with eight CART titles and now 106 wins, its assimilation into the IRL had been adventurous. It is still using equipment borrowed from other teams, and Rahal's car arrived in a box from Vision Racing on March 5. He had gotten scant practice time in the car and wrecked before race week began at Homestead-Miami Speedway. With no backup car, that machine was reassembled and readied for the streets of St. Petersburg — apparently pretty well.

Chief mechanic Donnie Hoevel said a month ago the team, which won the final four Champ Car titles, would not catch up to the rest of the IRL until December. Christmas came early. Or was it Labor Day?

"Hard work," he said. "There's a lot of good guys here."

Among them Graham Rahal, who has long stressed his desire to be his own man, not take what he sees as the easy, easily discounted route of racing for his father. Landing a job with Newman/Haas/Lanigan last year gave him that freedom. Until unification, he and his father didn't even race in the same series, but he treasured the chance for his father to stand over his car as he pulled off his helmet on Sunday. There would be no sharing of this moment on a cell phone. But it didn't get any more likely he'd race for his father one day.

"I'd hire him, but I can't afford him," Bobby smiled. "Not now."

Brant James can be reached at brant@sptimes.com or (727)
893-8804.

>>FAST FACTS

Meet Graham Rahal

Date of birth: Jan. 4, 1989

Hometown: New Albany, Ohio

Height/weight: 6-2; 175

Favorite foods: Sushi, ice cream

Racing career: Last year, his first in Champ Car, he was fifth in points. Sunday was his first win in a major series; he was second last year at the street race in Houston. & He ran in the 24 Hours of Daytona this year, finishing sixth along with three teammates, including IndyCar teammate Justin Wilson. & In 2006 he drove in both Indy Pro (IndyCar's feeder series) and Atlantics (then the feeder for Champ Car).

Rahal makes splash in IndyCar debut 04/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 7:40pm]
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