UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
MMA

Father and son team up for 'world's biggest race'

INDIANAPOLIS -- Now that 21-year-old Graham Rahal is competing in the 94th Indianapolis 500 for his father's race team, it creates an interesting dynamic.

If Graham doesn't do what he's told by his father, does that mean "Dad can take the keys away?"

Graham's dad is Bobby Rahal, a three-time CART champion, the 1986 Indy 500 winner and the 2004 Indy 500 winner as a team owner when Buddy Rice drove to victory.

The younger Rahal had hoped a full-time ride for the remainder of the season would materialize but with Indy approaching, he had to consider driving for dad -- something that made the most sense but also put him in a difficult situation.

"It wasn't the move I wanted to make if Dad was paying for it," Rahal said. "The facts are that you're coming to the largest single-day sporting event in the world and you're coming here with a team that's won this race.

"You're coming here with a name that has been synonymous with success at this place. I wanted to make sure that no matter what happened, we were in a car that was fully funded, that we had a sponsor that we could come here. I've said all along that the one thing that I didn't want to do was come here and have my family pay for it or quite frankly, do any racing and have my family pay for it."

Throughout his career, Rahal has shown the promise and potential to match his father's IndyCar accomplishments. He drove to victory in his first-ever IndyCar race at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2008 he was just 19 years old and became the youngest winner ever in a major racing series. During his next two IndyCar seasons with Newman Haas Racing, he appeared to have the talent, personality, looks and charisma to become America's big racing star in a series dominated by international drivers.

But when Newman/Haas Racing could not put a sponsorship package together at the end of last year, Rahal was suddenly out of a ride. He filled in for owner/driver Sarah Fisher on the street and road course races at St. Petersburg, Barber Motorsports Park and Long Beach earlier this year, but did not have a full-time ride for the remainder of the season.

His story was similar to the plight of his dad's team, which was a full-time competitor in the IndyCar Series through 2008 with Ryan Hunter-Reay as the driver. But Rahal Letterman Racing competed in just one IndyCar race last year with Oriol Servia driving in the Indy 500.

Given Graham's talent as a driver and Rahal Letterman Racing's past successes it seemed like an ideal time to join forces.

"It does present some dynamics that we've never really faced before," Bobby said. "But I'm very confident in the people we have on the team, starting with Scott Roembke, and many of the people that are the mechanics. Ricardo Nault was the chief for Buddy's winning year and has been with our team for quite some time. And there are a number of other people who are part of our team that are going to be here the next two weeks. So there is a lot of experience. And I think we can help give Graham a great car.

"At the same token, we've seen in the past you've got to have a guy who can stand on the gas to really create a great car. There is no question I think Graham has shown his ability to do that."

When Graham considered the prospect of competing in the Indianapolis 500 in a car owned by his father he wanted to make sure it was done "the right way." He didn't want his dad to whip out his checkbook in order to get the talented driver into the race.

That meant finding a sponsor and on Saturday Rahal Letterman Racing announced Graham's ride at Indy would be sponsored by QuickTrim -- a weight-loss program endorsed by celebrity Kim Kardashian. Kardashian and E! Entertainment will be on hand for Race Day, creating additional exposure for Rahal's Indy 500 effort.

"Really, there was a whole bunch of things that kind of came together," Graham said. "Brian Marks helped us. That was the initial connection to the sponsor. So basically I passed it on to Dad, and that's how it went."

With a sponsor to pay for the program, Rahal will be able to get on track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to gear up for Saturday's Pole Day qualifications and for the race on May 30.

Interestingly enough, the idea of a father-son team was not foreign to the Rahals. When young Graham was a teenage racing prospect the family suspected that one day a father-son team would become a reality. But they also thought it was best that in Rahal's formative years he race for another team in order for his talent to develop.

Once Graham showed real promise as a driver, it seemed natural that one day he would compete for his father's team.

"When Scott Roembke (team general manager) and I said we need to get the car ready and we're going to put Graham in the car, I think the reaction by the team was everybody was really excited," Graham said. "And then a split-second later everybody is going, `Oh, we better make sure this is a good program, we've got the boss's kid in the car.' Not that we've ever come here without a good program."

While both Rahals continue to work toward that goal of competing beyond Indy, those aspirations take money and sponsorship.

The addition of Graham Rahal to the lineup gives the Indianapolis 500 another top American driver. And don't discount what this team is capable of doing. Graham could sneak into the "Fast Nine" on Saturday's Pole Day Qualifications.

And in a 500-mile race, situations often dictate that the favorites don't win and a team that uses proper strategy and skill claims the victory. With Roembke's amazing ability to call race strategy at the Indy 500 and the depth of talent that Bobby Rahal has on his team, they could certainly be in contention for a win.

Tony Kanaan might need to put in for overtime after being the session's busiest driver, turning laps in all five Andretti Autosport cars during Saturday's Opening Day for the Indy 500. Helping the team determine baseline speeds to begin the week of practice, Kanaan ran his fastest lap of 224.793 mph in John Andretti's No. 43 entry. Kanaan was also sixth in his own car -- the No. 11 ride -- with a lap at 224.685 mph. He also ran 15th in Marco Andretti's No. 26 at 223.516 mph and 16th quick in Danica Patrick's No. 7 at 223.208 mph. Ryan Hunter-Reay's No. 37 was the 25th fastest at 221.230 mph with Kanaan behind the wheel and 22nd quick at 221.707 mph with Hunter-Reay taking over.

"We just wanted to make sure that all of our cars had the same feel and make sure that we had the same starting point for everybody," Kanaan said. "So they voted me the guy to do that. They tell me it's because I'm a veteran, but usually that means you're old and I definitely don't see myself that way. But I'm glad to do it and think we've got a good idea of what we are as a team and where we need to go for the 7-Eleven car."

While some believe Kanaan's five-car driving was meant to ensure that all cars started with the same baseline information, it may indicate that some drivers have struggled to get the information themselves. When Marco Andretti was asked if he was glad that Kanaan helped set up his car, the answer was a resounding no.

There's nothing like an honest answer.

Scott Dixon had the second-fastest lap during Sunday's practice for the Indy 500, but it was one of his slowest laps that he found most memorable. When Dan Wheldon lost control and spun out in the fourth turn before hitting the outside wall, Dixon was able to just miss Wheldon and continue without incident.

"That was pretty close," Dixon said of the incident. "I think Danica Patrick backed up to try to get a tow and then I was behind Dan and noticed he had a hesitation and then he came out of it and went into a slow spin. Something mechanical must have happened. I had to downshift and get on the gas again. Luckily, we just missed.

"It seemed pretty close in the cockpit. I'm just happy we didn't make contact."

Wheldon suffered a deep bruise on his right foot. He earned the seventh fastest lap of the day at 224.583 mph.

"It's just bruised," Wheldon said. "I whacked it pretty good on the side of the tub. It's one of those things around here; sometimes you crash really hard and you don't get knocked up at all, and sometimes it's those little hits and it bangs your foot against the side of the tub. Nothing big."

Dixon was running his primary car -- the one he hopes to drive in Saturday's Pole Day qualifications and in the May 30 Indianapolis 500.

Dixon ran a lap at 226.202 mph for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. Helio Castroneves was the fastest driver for the second day in a row with a lap at 227.046 mph for Team Penske.

One element of danger that always exists for drivers, given so much track time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway: that they can get involved in someone else's incident, destroying a car that could be the race winner.

There may be one less week of practice and two less rounds of qualifications, but Team Penske driver Ryan Briscoe believes the condensed practice schedule still gives teams plenty of time to get ready for both qualification and the race.

"It's about the same amount of running time -- I think we're about six or eight hours shorter than we've had in the past," Briscoe said. "Track time is about the same, but it's a bit busier and a little more intense. There is a little more strategy involved with getting qualified and race setup all in one week. Now we squeeze it in to one week and almost do a reverse."

Briscoe liked the change in Opening Day where the veteran drivers were first to hit the track, followed by the Rookie Orientation Program (ROP).

"I really like the fact that all of the drivers are out here on Opening Day," Briscoe said. "It's exciting for the fans that the first cars to hit the track are guys like Helio (Castroneves), (Dario) Franchitti, (Scott) Dixon and others who have won the race before. I think it is more incentive for the fans to come out and see the pros."

"I have my American Express card. I never leave home without it." -- IndyCar driver Jaques Lazier when asked if he brought his helmet with him. Lazier does not have a ride for the Indy 500 but is at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway trying to put a deal together in time to make the field.

While the Indianapolis 500 Pole Qualifications have always had its own form of unique drama, there is a new twist this year. With one less week of on-track activity and the elimination of two rounds of qualifications, a new format will be unveiled where 24 of the 33 cars that will start the race will be filled on Saturday. Of those 24 cars, the nine fastest will be put in a 90-minute "Fast Nine" session where the previous speeds will be wiped out and those nine cars will battle it out for the pole. Each of the nine cars is required to make one attempt at the pole. The driver that is the fastest will win the pole as well as $175,000. Also, for the first time, championship points will be awarded to every car that makes the field for the Indianapolis 500.

The remainder of the 33-car starting lineup will be determined Sunday on "Bump Day." This year, there are 37 cars fighting for the 33 spots so there should be increased drama surrounding who makes the cut for the "World's Biggest Race."

More MMA

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.