- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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Nine drivers have made the transition from the Champ Car World Series to the IndyCar Series this year. Only one is American, and he claimed a remarkable victory in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in his very first IndyCar Series race.
Perhaps more significantly, Graham Rahal has a surname that many American racing fans recognize. That's huge news for a sport that has been criticized for its increasingly foreign flavor over the last 20 years.
In fact, between Rahal, Marco Andretti and A.J. Foyt IV, IndyCar fans have a trio of homegrown, pedigreed drivers for whom to cheer. And there's the possibility of more, if Firestone Indy Lights pilots Al Unser III and Arie Luyendyk Jr. can step up their games and advance to the top level of American open-wheel racing.
By winning at St. Pete, 19-year-old Rahal, the youngest son of three-time CART national champion and 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, took over from Andretti as the youngest winner of an Indy-style race. Since he exploded onto the scene with five race wins in the
2006 Champ Car Formula Atlantic series, there has been the feeling that the younger Rahal has the most promise of the next generation of American stars. He supported that Sunday with a masterful drive in wet-to-dry conditions.
The result impressed observers from all corners of the sport, only adding to the enthusiasm and positive atmosphere that has already washed over the "unified" IndyCar Series after just two races.
"It was a great story," said Indy Racing League founder and CEO Tony George. "We've all followed Graham's career, so we know he's very talented and he comes from a family with a lot of history not only here but in motorsports on both sides of the ocean. He's very young, and there's an even better story given the fact that he wasn't able to participate in the first race [at Homestead-Miami Speedway] and this was his first [IndyCar Series] race.
"He held his composure and showed why everyone has a lot of high expectation for him and for helping represent the face of the league going forward," George added. "If you add that to what we already have, it has the makings of something really big, and we're very excited and looking forward to capitalizing on all of that."
Rahal took the lead on the 65th of what turned out to be an 83-lap race (which was originally scheduled for 100 laps but cut short by a two-hour time
limit) and easily held off two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves. Actually, Rahal pulled away from the Team Penske driver and had to be admonished by his Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing team to slow down.
The rain disrupted most of the teams' pit stop strategies, and certainly the elements of luck and timing played big parts in Rahal's victory. But the bottom line is that the youngster crossed the line first and handled the conditions better than anyone else.
"It was great teamwork and great driving," remarked third-place finisher Tony Kanaan of Andretti Green Racing. "People can say, 'Well, the strategy played along for him' and this and that. Yes it did. But I have to say, if I was 19 years old, restarting with three laps to go, with Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan behind, I would be kind of worried. He played it so cool, so I guess he proved how good he is.
"This is the new generation," Kanaan continued. "You see it everywhere: you see it in Formula One, you see it in NASCAR, and you see it here. The young guys are definitely coming up and growing up so quick that we've got to watch out."
Rahal's victory certainly boosted spirits in the Newman/Haas/Lanigan camp, which got off to a slow start in the season opener on the Homestead oval. In fact, Rahal never even made that race after damaging his brand-new Dallara-Honda race car in a testing crash several days before the Homestead race.
Justin Wilson qualified on the front row at St. Petersburg for NHLR, but a couple of strategic misfires relegated him to a ninth-place finish. Still, he was delighted for his team and his young teammate.
"Everything went well all weekend," Wilson said. "I watched the replay last night and watched those final few laps where he just pulled away from everyone. I think he did a great job and really lifted everyone's morale inside the Newman/Haas/Lanigan race team."
Penske Racing president Tim Cindric echoed those sentiments.
"After qualifying there in St. Pete, Carl Haas came into Roger's [Penske] bus and said, 'You know, it's starting to look pretty good out there,'" Cindric related. "His car was on the front row all of a sudden, so the world looked a little different to him than maybe what it did at Homestead.
"That's a big step obviously to put another name like Rahal up there that people are familiar with," Cindric added. "When you look at the so-called heyday of Indy when you had the Rahals and the Andrettis and that type of thing, seeing that next generation coming in is certainly important for the series."
With several next-generation, name-brand drivers coming into their own in the IndyCar series at a time when it is already receiving additional publicity due to the recent unification of the sport, series leaders can barely contain their excitement.
"From a long-term proposition, you've got to really be excited about the fact that we've got second- and third-generation drivers with names like Rahal, Andretti and Foyt, and we're excited about the future moving forward," said IRL chief operating officer Brian Barnhart. "It's ironic they're now challenging the old guard -- Castroneves, Wheldon and Kanaan. It shows the depth of the field and the excitement moving forward.
"When you've got those types of names, you feel there is going to be an emotional attachment that the fans are going to be able to make to all of your competitors and have a reason to root for someone. That's going to be an important aspect moving forward."
Teammate Wilson believes that a key to Rahal's early breakthrough in IndyCars is his amazing maturity. Those who follow the open-wheel scene closely say Rahal drives and acts more like a 29-year-old than someone who has yet to break out of his teens.
"It's hard to think he's my younger teammate," said Wilson, who is 29. "He doesn't seem like it. He's very mature and does a great job in the car and outside the car. It's quite amazing to see how well he can do under the pressure and the scenarios that we've been in. So I've got a lot of admiration for him and for the job he's doing. He's real easy to get along with as a teammate. That makes our life easier; we can go concentrate on racing and the performance of the car rather than trying to beat each other."
Rahal is so polished that he seems oblivious to the pressure of being one of the next great stars of the sport. The comparisons to Marco Andretti and Foyt the Fourth are inevitable, but he takes it in stride.
"You know, there's always pressure," he said. "Having any last name, whether it's Marco, myself, A.J., or anybody that's had a successful father or grandfather -- or both in some cases -- there's always pressure to do well, and there's pressure to get your first win and see if you really can do it.
"Then if you're not winning every weekend, a lot of people kind of doubt it," he added. "But certainly this just worked out perfectly.
For myself to get my first win off my back, I think it feels pretty good."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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