Rahal-Ganassi Pairing Set For First IndyCar Event

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 25 2011

Graham Rahal kicks off the Chip Ganassi era of his career this weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

The talking points of Graham Rahal’s on-again/off-again IZOD IndyCar Series career neatly have been notched on the Streets of St. Pete.

Rahal recorded his first win in his IndyCar debut at St. Petersburg, Fla., on April 6, 2008, becoming the youngest series winner at 19 years, 93-days-old. One year later, the second generation driver earned his first series pole.  Keeping with those “firsts,” Rahal will debut for team-owner Chip Ganassi this weekend on the 1.8-mile Florida circuit fully convinced that 2011 will be his breakout season.

“I think St. Pete ’08 was a long time ago, no doubt about that,” Rahal said during a teleconference previewing the seventh edition of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. “I don’t think anybody wants to win in this organization as badly as I do. St. Pete has been a good place for me. I’m going to hope that we kick it off correctly. Got my first win there, my first pole there. I think it would be a great way to start this year, by us having a very competitive showing.

“I think we have to have a breakout season. I think we have to win races. We’ve got to be right up there with the Target cars and the Penske cars all year. If we’re not, I think I’d be very disappointed but also pretty surprised.”

Rahal, now 22, has been paired with rookie Charlie Kimball in Ganassi’s second two-car team located in a shop owned by NHRA icon Don “The Snake” Prudhomme in Brownsburg, Ind. Martin Pare, formerly of Newman/Haas Racing, has been reunited with Rahal as his engineer.

Kimball finished fourth in the Firestone Indy Lights Series standings last year. The 25-year-old

The 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series begins this weekend on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Californian – first diabetic approved to race by the IndyCar Series – will drive the No. 83 Dallara/Honda sponsored by Novo Nordisk, a health-care company specializing in treating that disease. Brad Goldberg, formerly of Ganassi’s championship-winning Daytona Prototype team in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, is Kimball’s engineer.

The team’s two chassis and much of its equipment was purchased from Tony George’s Vision Racing inventory last year.

Ganassi has referred to the Rahal-Kimball pairing as a “satellite team” to three-time/reigning series champion Dario Franchitti and two-time champ Scott Dixon at Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Rahal begged to differ with his boss.

“I mean, I wouldn’t use the term ‘satellite team,’ because we’re really not,” said Rahal, driver of the No. 38 Service Central Chip Ganassi Dallara/Honda. “It’s one big team. While we’re not in the same shop, that doesn’t mean that we’re not one four-car team. I think that we will all share data. We will all be open to what’s going on with one another.

“Certainly, we look up to the Target cars. Those guys had a lot of success. They’re our benchmark. I think they’ve been everybody’s benchmark for the past several seasons. Really the Target cars, since the mid-90s, have been the benchmark of everybody. We’re fortunate, Charlie and I, that we have them to compare to right there. We can see what they’re doing. We know what they’re doing. We know if we can beat our teammates we’re doing something pretty great.

“I think it should be a lot of fun. We’re one big team. We’re working like that. We’re operating in that fashion. Like I said, while we’re not in the same shop, that doesn’t mean too much. Nowadays, as everybody knows, information travels quickly. It’s very easy for us to work on the same page.”

Rahal drove for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing in 2008-09, logging a career-best seventh-place

Graham Rahal got his first IndyCar victory at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2008.

point finish in the latter season based on five top-five results. Included were podiums at Richmond International Raceway and Twin Ring Motegi in Japan.

Lack of a fulltime sponsor forced Rahal to go nomadic in 2010, logging spot starts for Sarah Fisher Racing, Rahal Letterman Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Neman/Haas. Rahal led 11 laps and logged a ninth-place finish for D&R while subbing for the injured Mike Conway at Iowa Speedway and finished fifth on the Streets of Toronto in his return to NHR.

Those efforts helped ease the frustration of thinking about what-should-have-been in 2010.

“I felt like 2009 was a breakout year for me. A lot of people have overlooked that,” said Rahal, son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 champion Bobby Rahal. “In 2009 it was very rare that we weren’t in the top six in qualifying, very rare that we weren’t right towards the front, right behind Ganassi and Penske during all the races.

“When I look at that, I certainly feel like we’ve got a better chance and opportunity this year. We’ve got better equipment, better personnel. My engineer, Martin Pare…he was with me in ’09, as well. You know, Martin and I, we immediately hit it off in 2009. We got along extremely well. We had pretty good success right away. In fact, really good. We qualified on-pole in two of our first three races together.

“Martin is a fantastic guy. Very level-headed. Throughout all last year, we stayed in touch. Certainly I got to work with him for a few races there at the end of the season. Our car, I think we only finished out of the top 10 once for seven races or whatever it was last year. So that was a pretty strong showing. We had a good run.

“We certainly both have high expectations for this year. We know each other. We can read each other. We know what each other is thinking. I think that for us it’s a very easy transition to come to Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing, and I hope that we can have some success together because this will be going on our third year of somewhat working together. I think for both of us, it could be a breakthrough season, so we’re looking forward to it.”

Additonally, former Ganassi employee Mitch Davis has returned to the organization as team manager for Rahal-Kimball after two seasons with Dale Coyne Racing.

“Well, it’s great to have Mitch on-board,” Rahal said. “When we first sat down, (Ganassi Racing managing director) Mike Hull and I, to talk about people, bouncing names off of each other, Mitch

Graham Rahal outside of the car in St. Pete on Friday.

was the first guy on both of our lists.

“I worked with Mitch at Newman/Haas. I can tell you when he came into our team in 2008 he had an immediate effect on us. In fact, the first race weekend he was with us was Milwaukee, and we should have been on-pole, but qualified second. Our previous best start before then was far worse than that, I can assure you.

“Mitch helped us in a big, big way. Obviously, he’s got a past experience with Ganassi. He was there for a long time before. But I think when you look at where Mitch has been, even when he went to Dale Coyne, he elevated that team on a shoestring budget. He’s a great guy.

“I think what Mitch is so good for that a lot of people don’t see is that his dedication and his desire to work and to work hard is unmatched in this paddock. I can promise anybody that. He’s not afraid, even as a team manager, to get arms deep working on the cars, doing whatever is necessary to make sure that we’re competitive and to make sure we’re safe and got good equipment.

“I think that’s the key. That funnels down from him to everybody else in the organization. He’s done a great job and continues to do so. I’m sure he’ll keep us all excited and positive throughout the season. He’ll be a lot of fun.

“Like I said, I’ve had really good experiences with him in the past and I think he’s a good guy to have on-board.”

Rahal and Kimball, meanwhile, have added their names to the growing list of young Americans –including Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay all of Andretti Autosport and J.R. Hildebrand of Panther Racing – aiming to tilt the series’ balance of power.

Foreign-born stars Franchitti (Scotland), Dixon (New Zealand), Will Power (Australia) and Helio Castroneves (Brazil) again are favored to dominate the point standings in the final season of the current Dallara/Honda package.

“I think there needs to be an American star,” Rahal said. “At the same time, putting Danica aside, I would say the most popular people are not Americans. I can see how people can say that because there haven’t been that many (competitive) Americans over the past several years. At the same time you look at the names that are most widely recognized in this sport, and really none of them are American.

“I would say while it is important, we’re going to see what happens this year. We’ve got a great field of American drivers, a really good group of people that can certainly succeed. We’ll see how the fans take that, how they react to the fact that there’s an American in the National Guard car (driven by 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion Hildrebrand), me obviously in the Service Central, Hunter-Reay, Danica, Marco. There’s a long list of Americans to cheer for now. We’ll see how it goes.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 25 2011
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