Keep an eye on Graham Rahal
Graham Rahal is just 20 years old, yet he enters the 2009 season as the lead driver for the second-most successful team in Indy-style racing's modern era. His Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing teammates will include one driver who has never competed in a race on an oval track (in a series in which two-thirds of the events are staged on ovals) and a perennial back marker who has been the subject of scorn and ridicule from every corner of the sport.
Yet if there is any upcoming driver in any form of motorsport who is up to the challenge, it's young Rahal, who possesses skill and maturity well beyond his years. The son of three-time CART champion (and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner) Bobby Rahal is as polished in and out of the car as most drivers twice his age and appears destined for a long and successful career in Indy car racing -- and possibly Formula One.
It's a credit to the senior Rahal (and his ex-wife, Debi) that Graham was clearly ready to graduate to American open-wheel racing's top level when he was just 18 years of age. Thrust into the Champ Car World Series in 2007 with Newman/Haas Racing as teammate to multiple series champion Sebastien Bourdais, Rahal held his own, notching five top-five finishes on the way to fifth place in the championship.
The learning curve only got steeper for Rahal in 2008 when Champ Car folded and the renamed Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing made the last-minute jump to the IndyCar Series. A testing crash forced Graham to miss the first race of the season, but a week later, he stood in victory circle after a heady drive in changing conditions at St. Petersburg made him the youngest-ever winner of an IndyCar Series race -- in his very first start.
The fairy tale didn't last. The rest of Rahal's season was a mixture of flashes of brilliance and rookie mistakes as NHLR sometimes struggled to come to terms with the IndyCar Series' Dallara-Honda spec car and preponderance of oval races. Still, he did enough to convince observers that he could definitely win more races in 2009 and possibly emerge as a dark-horse championship candidate.
"I think that the expectations that are put in place aren't necessarily because of my role in the team, but more because of the fact that I want to go out there and win races and be successful," Rahal said prior to the first IndyCar open test of the 2009 season. "Coming from a situation like Champ Car and transitioning here last year, it's all building blocks of leadership skills and a lot of learning that has taken place. Basically every step of my career has been a learning year for me. So this season I think the entire team comes into it with a lot more confidence, knowing that we ought to have a much better shot at being successful and winning races.
"That's the biggest thing, and for me it's exciting to be in the position that I'm in," he continued. "I want to go out there and win races and prove that I deserve the role that I've taken in this team. I feel like I've done a good job of building the team around me in the past couple of years and now hopefully that will all show through."
Although Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing ranks second only to Team Penske in terms of Indy racing wins and championships, the team struggled to find adequate sponsorship until female racer Milka Duno stepped forth with what is reputed to be an eight-figure package from Citgo and Arctic Ice energy drink.
I want to go out there and win races and prove that I deserve the role that I've taken in this team. I feel like I've done a good job of building the team around me in the past couple of years and now hopefully that will all show through.” -- Graham Rahal
While many observers believe NHLR would be more successful in 2009 had it been able to carry over its driver pairing of Rahal and Justin Wilson (also an IndyCar race winner in 2008), it was only the arrival of Duno and Robert Doornbos (who also is bringing funding to the team) that allowed it continue as a multicar effort.
In effect, what looks like one step back for the team in terms of IndyCar experience could result in two steps forward for Rahal's personal progress.
"For such a long time it looked like it was just going to be me in the team, and there was going to be a lot more pressure because I was going to be the one holding things together," Rahal said. "It's exciting that we've got a few cars here now and something that we can really build upon. We've got good financial backing, which is important for us to develop the cars as we go forward and hopefully do some more testing. That will hopefully make us more competitive in the end."
Rahal said he's not worried about Doornbos' total lack of oval experience and Duno's perceived lack of skill and added that he is open to helping them along -- to a point.
"I'm the type that if they come and ask, I'll give them an honest answer," he said. "But I'm not going to go out there and share it. If you're new to a series, then you should be asking questions. Obviously I'm willing to help out in any way I can. Robert will catch on quickly and Milka's got experience. At the end of the day, the racing here will be a completely new experience for [Doornbos], but he will be quick -- there's no doubt about that -- and that's something that we as a team can build upon.
"For me it's good just to have the extra data," Rahal continued. "On a road course it's a different situation because there is a lot for Milka to learn, and we're going to try to help her along there. But on the ovals it's going to help just to have a couple extra cars to try different things on. Last year Justin and I were both learning the oval thing, we were both learning the cars, and the team was learning the cars. So it was pretty tough to have a strong comparison between one another. This year I think we again kind of find ourselves in the same position because Robert obviously has a lot to learn. But it's always a bonus if you can have more than one competitive car to learn from, and that's what we're hoping to have this year."
Doornbos noted that he will certainly rely on his young teammate as a resource as he gets to grips with the IndyCar Series.
"Graham is a great guy," Doornbos said. "I know him from Champ Car in 2007 and obviously he has a big name in the U.S. There is maybe some pressure on him to perform, but I think we should have a strong team this year."
One interested observer outside the Newman/Haas/Lanigan team who believes that Graham will have a breakout season is somebody who should know -- his father, who competed against NHLR for most of the past 25 years as a driver or team owner.
"From what I know, [NHLR] had some very good tests at the end of the year at Richmond and Texas," Bobby Rahal said. "That's a very strong team, particularly from an engineering standpoint, and it's one year later with a little bit more experience for everybody.
"This will be the first time in Graham's career that he's driven the same car for more than one year," Rahal added. "Every year it has been a new car and a new learning experience. This is the first year he'll be sitting in the same type of car and going back to the same tracks and everything else. I think he certainly had some good runs last year, so I suspect he and the team will be more competitive."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.