Rahal Resumes Career In St. Pete

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 26 2010

Graham Rahal will get back into an IndyCar this weekend. He is now a Fisher man.(RacinToday.com file photo by Mark Henderson/Really Really Big Industries Inc.)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Thanks to an unlikely alliance between popular IndyCar owner/driver Sarah Fisher and one of the series’ aspiring American stars, “IGTBG.”

That’s the message on Graham Rahal’s personalized Ohio license plate, vanity-speak for “It’s Good To Be Graham.” Actually, 1986 Indianapolis 500 champion Bobby Rahal put that tag on his son at age 16, when Graham was competing in Formula BMW and dreaming of emulating his father. An inside joke as Graham rose through the open-wheel and sports car ranks, “IGTBG” took on a serious tone when Fisher hired Rahal to drive in Rounds 2 and 3 of the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule.

Rahal, 21, will make his competitive debut in the No. 67 Dollar General Dallara/Honda fielded by Sarah Fisher Racing during the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla., this weekend. Rahal also is scheduled to compete in the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park on April 11.

The two-race deal has reinvigorated Rahal following a fruitless offseason search for a full-time ride after losing McDonald’s financial backing and his seat at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. Rahal has been replaced there by Hideki Mutoh, formerly of Andretti Autosport.

“Obviously, it’s extremely exciting for me, and the call came from Andy O’Gara, Sarah’s husband,” Rahal said during a teleconference three days after the season-opening Sao Paulo Indy 300 in Brazil. “When I got it, it was a complete shock. Things were looking really… it wasn’t looking good for us to make St. Petersburg or Barber.

“And being that there was one race, other than the 500, I don’t want to miss every year is St. Pete. When the opportunity came from Sarah and Dollar General for me, I just had to jump right at it. Extremely excited and very enthusiastic about everything that’s gone on at or with SFR so far. And I think as we look to St. Pete and Barber, a lot of people are pretty optimistic. I feel like we should have a pretty good run at both places.”

Ryan Briscoe of Penske Racing won last year’s race on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn St. Pete street course, after Rahal earned his first career series pole at 103.627 mph for NHLR. In the process, Rahal became the youngest pole-winner in series history – a proper encore to his victory in the 2008 event. Making his crash-belated first IndyCar start, Rahal drove to victory over series superstars Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan at an average speed of 74.251 mph. At 19 years and 93 days, Graham became the youngest race-winner in series history.

“It’s so exciting to be a part of the event,” said Rahal, asked to explain his St. Petersburg success. “It’s just a great event. I’ve always really, really loved street courses. The track suits me well. And other than that, I couldn’t tell you exactly. I just – I really enjoy it.”

Those facts and Fisher’s lackluster performance during the Indy Racing League’s open test at Barber led her to make an executive decision regarding her third-year team.

“I had two tests this winter, getting ready for the road-courses, and we’re doing one-offs this year,” said Fisher, 29, who plans to run seven of 17 races herself in 2010. “We don’t have a complete full schedule, and the first test didn’t go that great. So I went back to the hotel and just thought about it. And I reached out to Rick Dreiling over at Dollar General and said, ‘What do you think about this idea?’ (of a hired gun), and he was very supportive of it. And so we started discussing who was available. And Graham was. So it all just worked itself out from there.”

Fisher, who made her IndyCar debut in October 1999 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, also plans to field Jay Howard in five races in the No. 66 Dallara/Honda in search of her team’s first victory.

“That’s big-picture,” said Fisher, who became the first woman to qualify on-pole for a major open-wheel event at Kentucky Speedway in 2002. “Graham says it best that we’re quietly optimistic. But the whole point of what we’re trying to accomplish here is really big-picture thinking with the team and where it’s going. And trying to have a shot at having good results.

“And I didn’t see that as being a part of the big picture when I was testing at Barber. So obviously my team is a whole lot more important to me than my ego, and Graham’s going to do a better job than I would have at the wheel for those two particular events. So there’s a hope that he comes away with what we’re going to be proud of no matter what. And it would be really great to rewrite the books. I think Dollar General would be really happy about that.”

Rahal, who racked up five top-five results including podiums at Richmond International Raceway and Twin Ring Motegi last year, is eager to impress his boss.

“I think a lot of the credit has to be given to Sarah, for the way that she’s thought about this,” said Rahal, who finished a career-best seventh in points last year. “And no matter what, no matter where I end up in the future, the way that the team has approached this situation, myself in particular, I think they deserve a lot of credit. We’ll certainly try to do what we can to help Sarah and help Dollar General and the program as they move forward, and who knows what can happen in the future.

“As I said, I think this is a starting point, but I’d love to see where things go. And hopefully we can go out there and open some eyes and ears over the next couple of weeks, the next couple of races. I think we’ve got a great opportunity to do so.”

As a second-generation driver, Rahal has been marketed as the “next big thing” in an open-wheel series lacking in American talent – and by association – fan and advertising appeal. But whatever the surname, a driver without a ride is just another unemployment statistic.

“The way that everything had developed – unfolded throughout the offseason – it looked as if we would be on the outside looking in, which was very frustrating for me,” said Rahal, a native and resident of New Albany, Ohio. “But, yeah, I mean, things did not look good. And when Sarah, when I first talked to the team, it gave me a lot to be optimistic about. Because I know we’re only signed for St. Pete and Barber, but who knows what’s to come.

“All I knew was it was a great opportunity to go out there. But certainly when the music did stop, there were a lot of seats I thought I was going to have on a fulltime basis. And then last minute someone else jumped in. Last minute, something else happened where the sponsor disappeared or this or that. So, yes, it was a frustrating offseason, simply because we felt like we were so close to so many things.

“And for the first four months of the offseason, I thought that I had a done deal at Newman/Haas. So the way things unfolded, looked like it was going to be a very tough year for us. But now, you know, I think everybody’s put their heads down. Really my manager and myself and obviously we’ve been in touch with various teams. So everybody’s working really hard.”

Despite those struggles, Rahal said he has not detected a bias against American drivers in a series that, ironically, was launched to give red-blooded Americans a solid shot at competing in big-time open-wheel racing – topped by the Indianapolis 500.

“Really, only in the past month-and-a-half is when we really started to search hard for sponsorship, because, like I said, before that we thought we had a done deal,” Rahal said. “But I would tell you we have created a lot of interest in IndyCar racing. I think it’s pretty impressive. I saw the TV ratings for the opening race of the year, and we’re up 40 percent over last year.

“I feel like IndyCar…I don’t talk to anybody that says, ‘No, there’s zero interest, you guys aren’t a good series’ (or) anything like that. But the mindset nowadays has to be different than what it used to be. When we talk about the economy, you’re just not going to go find a sponsor that is going to write you however-many-million-dollar-check just to be on a car. Doesn’t work that way.

“If you look at Dollar General, the way they do it through all their associate sponsors, if you look at the target platform, very, very similar thing. Those types of models work, and those are the type of people that you have to find that can be a part of this. So it’s very different. But I think that we’re on the rise, I really do.

“As far as American drivers, you know, I don’t know how else to say it. (But) I was talking to someone the other day down in Sebring (Fla.) at the 12-hour (American LeMans Series opener) asking them why didn’t they have very many American drivers.  Simply put: ‘We’ve tested a lot of American drivers and none have been able to do the job properly.’ And it’s sad to say, but that’s been the case. And I think that people sometimes have the approach that it should just be given to you if you have good results and stuff.

“The facts are you’ve got to work hard…(it’s) never easy. Right now the Europeans, the Brazilian drivers, first of all, the results are there. Second of all, they have a lot of support whether it be their countries in some situations, whether it be sponsors from home, family, whatever it may be, they’ve had that support.”

In Rahal’s case, Mutoh – a native of Japan – brought sponsorship from Honda’s Formula Dream Project to a storied NHLR organization that has won 107 open-wheel races, 109 poles and eight championships since 1983.

Fisher, whose Indianapolis-based team skipped the season-opener in Brazil because of budgetary considerations, plans to make her first start of the season and 77th of her career in the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 at Kansas Speedway on May 1. Fisher, who made only six starts last year and three in 2008, admitted she never envisioned being a team-owner.

“And when I got here I had no idea the time commitment it takes,” said Fisher, a native of Commercial Point, Ohio. “But, you know what, I’m having the most fun I think I’ve ever had in my career. I really enjoy that and I really enjoy being in a position that people can look up and aspire to do what we do every day.

“It is, for sure, a breakout year for us. We’re very fortunate in that we’re one of the few IndyCar teams that keeps growing every year. But we have great solid partners, (like) bringing Service Central/Tire Kingdom on for Jay’s program and expanding that before it even hit the track to race at Kansas.

“It’s just every day we take a step, my husband and I do, to grow this team. And we wake up every day thinking about what can we do today to make it better and bigger and more successful. And that’s something that we see in someone like Graham. Graham wakes up every day as a race car driver and says to himself, ‘What am I going to do today to make myself a better race car driver and present myself with more opportunities?’

“As a racing team, we try to have that same thought process. So we’re just very lucky. It could happen to anyone, then it all goes away at any point in time. We’re having fun with the opportunities that we do get to have. And I think you’re going to see the whole of our team all the way down to the people who are only part-time here even at St. Pete having a great time and having a great experience with our opportunity as a whole.”

Rahal, naturally, believes that solid showings during his two-race stint could lead to an extended stay at SFR. ”There’s a lot going on,” Rahal said. “There’s been a lot of stuff that’s been happening over the last several weeks. We’re juggling a lot of different situations. And hopefully one of them is going to fall. Because as I tell everybody, Sarah has been great in giving us this opportunity for the next two, but then we need to look beyond that. Obviously we want to be – we want to be fulltime.

“And I could tell you, as I said earlier about all the sponsors, there’s a lot of interest. We have a lot of interest. It’s just trying to find something that’s going to come together. And Sarah can tell you as well as anybody, trying to get a lot of money out of big corporations, it takes time. It’s rare that you find a situation that is one guy and you happen to hit the right guy that can hit that magic button and say ‘Go’ right away. It just doesn’t happen.”

Sunday’s race will be telecast live in High Definition at 3:30 p.m. (ET) by ABC, and air live on the IMS Radio Network, XM channel 145 and Sirius channel 211. The race also will be carried on www.indycar.com.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 26 2010