Bruce Martin
Monday April 7th, 2008

Graham Rahal's victory in Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was record-setting, with the 19-year-old becoming the youngest driver in history to win a major open-wheel series race.

More importantly, the win is just what the IndyCar Series needed to showcase its new era of unity.

Rahal has one of IndyCar racing's most famous last names and carries on the lineage of his father, a three-time CART IndyCar Series champion in the 1980s and 1990s and winner of the 1986 Indianapolis 500.

Young and poised, Rahal sounds like a 30-year-old veteran when he speaks. And by winning in his first-IndyCar Series start on Sunday, the driver from New Albany, Ohio, became American racing's newest star and could become the poster boy for IndyCar's new unified era.

His fearless drive at the end of the race edged Dancing with the Stars winner Helio Castroneves for the checkered flag on the streets of St. Pete. It was a moment to remember and adds another fresh name to the American racing landscape.

"I think it's great," said IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan. "We need the Rahals, we need the Andrettis, we need new names. It's good that we're now one series and we can compare each other and race against each other."

Castroneves was attempting to win the St. Pete street race for the third straight year and drove to the rear of Rahal's car on the final restart before getting left in its wake.

"You know, we're talking about Bobby Rahal's son," Castroneves said. "Bobby Rahal is a legend. I remember watching him. Now all of a sudden his son followed in his steps. That's a big deal. It's a lot of pressure for him, for Marco Andretti and for A.J. Foyt IV, for those guys to repeat what their grandfathers and fathers did in the past."

Rahal became IndyCar's youngest winner at 19 years and 93 days. Prior to that, Marco Andretti held the record at 19 years and 167 days, dating to his victory at Infineon Raceway in 2006.

Rahal is also the fourth driver in IndyCar Series history to win in his first series start. Scott Dixon was the last to do that in 2003.

Those are some impressive accomplishments for a kid who has friends back home either flipping burgers at Wendy's or attending college looking for someone old enough to buy them beer.

"When I go home, I'm just another kid," Rahal said. "I really don't talk about racing much when I'm around town. In New Albany, where I live, it's nothing that I really ever talk about."

Ironically, Rahal's father owns a rival IndyCar Series team.

While Graham drives for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing -- one of the new teams in IndyCar which came over from Champ Car during unification -- Bobby is the owner of Rahal/Letterman Racing, which features Ryan Hunter-Reay as its driver.

"I don't know that I expected him to win this year at all," Bobby Rahal said of his son. "I was hoping he would but I didn't expect him to because this is a tough crowd. It was a tough crowd in Champ Car when you had Will Power and Robert Doornbos and Sebastien Bourdais and Justin Wilson. Now, you multiply that with Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan.

"To win his first race and to win it pretty convincingly ... this wasn't won on a yellow or on a fuel-consumption race. It was won when it was time to go fast. He was the fastest guy on the track."

Bobby Rahal talked to his team partner, television's David Letterman, on the phone after his son won the race.

"Dave was thrilled," Bobby recalled. "Dave has said in the past he wouldn't put Graham on until after he won a race so now we'll see if we get that call."

It's probably a pretty safe assumption that sometime in the next two weeks, Graham Rahal will be strolling out onto the set of Late Night with David Letterman on CBS. But in the meantime, he's trying to figure out how to get his personal car from St. Petersburg to his home in suburban Columbus, Ohio.

"I drove down here," Graham said afterwards. "I was looking forward to driving back home on Monday but now we'll have to wait and see. I've got a long drive home and I'm sure there will be plenty of people calling me."

It was important for the sport to have a new winner because it shows that, by adding both series together, an even stronger single series has emerged. Instead of having two series becoming increasingly irrelevant, the unified IndyCar Series has begun to get noticed and Rahal's victory embodies this new era of optimism.

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

After winning Sunday's Sprint Cup Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Cale Edwards is tired of hearing drivers complain about the new car and the harder tires used by Goodyear.

Essentially, the three-time race winner said shut up and drive after hearing Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch complain about how difficult the car is to drive.

"I don't want to get on a rant here, but let me state my position very clearly, because you asked," Edwards said. "I've heard people say that the races are boring, and people always want something to complain about -- if it's too hard to drive, you don't get enough side-by-side racing.

"The fact is that these are the 43 best drivers in the world. The cars have 900 horsepower and go 200 miles an hour, and the track is slippery and the tires are slippery and that's a spectacle. That's what it's supposed to be. It's not supposed to be easy, everyone. It's not supposed to be driving down the interstate.

"I'm tired of hearing people complain. The media make up stories about how terrible it is and stuff. This is auto racing. There are going to be people that are faster. We're going to have days when we can't keep up because the car is too hard to drive. Somebody is going to win. That's racing.

"So, for me, personally, I didn't have trouble with the car at Atlanta. I think that as long as the tires don't blow out, they're fine. So it's the same for everyone and it just makes it more exciting to win and it means more. That's how I feel about that."

GIVING CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE

NASCAR likes to take credit for a lot of things, including the SAFER Barrier that has been installed at all of its race tracks throughout the series.

Because of NASCAR's strength and influence in the racing industry, it helped implement one of the greatest safety innovations in recent auto racing history.

But after watching Michael McDowell walk away from Friday's horrific crash during Friday's qualifications at Texas Motor Speedway -- where McDowell's Toyota slammed hard into the first turn wall then flipped wildly down the track in a mangled mess -- Michael Waltrip gave credit where the credit was due for the advent of the SAFER Barrier.

He thanked Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO and Indy Racing League founder and CEO Tony George.

It was the IRL that worked with the University of Nebraska and its crash research department led by Dr. Dean Sicking in the development of the SAFER Barrier in the late 1990s. NASCAR was brought in as a partner for the SAFER Barrier but the project was spearheaded by the IndyCar community.

"Tony George was instrumental in the creation of the SAFER Barrier," Waltrip said after McDowell crashed on Friday. "I just have to tell you that millions of dollars were spent to try to make a car -- through the passion of Brett Bodine and Robin Pemberton and the passion that NASCAR has in that car -- to make the track safer. But when you see in a wreck like that it sure does make you feel good about what we've accomplished."

Despite the crash, McDowell made the race because he took over a car that was in the Top 35 in points when teammate David Reutimann took over Dale Jarrett's ride after Jarrett retired following the Bristol race.

"I came off of four on that first lap and I just felt a little bit off, like something wasn't right," McDowell recalled. "I went into one and I didn't know if it was the oil dry or something happened, but it's real unfortunate. I hate to make that much work for the guys back at the shop. Fortunately, I'm okay.

"I got to see that replay and it wasn't very good. I'm thankful for everyone back at the shop that makes these cars safe. That's one of the worst wrecks that I've seen in a while and I'm not excited I had to participate in it. We'll be fine."

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