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Winning tops Graham Rahal's list for new IndyCar season

Photo: Donna Ward/Getty Images

Graham Rahal arrived in New York ready to match wits with his boss.

Graham Rahal would've been within his right to exhibit the full-blown symptoms that come with being called to your boss's office -- the sweaty palms, the shortened breath, the churning stomach -- especially given that his is not just any boss. It's David Letterman, the IndyCar team owner who happens to host one of the most watched late night talk shows in the country.

For a few minutes on Wednesday night, the host will cede his considerable spotlight on The Late Show with David Letterman to Rahal, who will present the Top Ten list. The appearance is equal parts perk for and promotion of the 24-year-old Columbus, Ohio, native, who is about to begin his seventh year on the U.S.'s top open-wheel racing circuit as a new member of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan team. The IndyCar season opens on Sunday in Florida with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

"It's always different when I'm in his setting versus when he's in mine," Rahal said on Tuesday, hours before his stage call at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York. Having flown in from his home in Indianapolis on a rainy Tuesday morning, he admitted to feeling a little nervous because he was going into the afternoon rehearsal cold, without even the slightest clue about the list's topic. "I've been asking what it is because, quite frankly, I want to make sure that I don't skip a word or something," he said. Sometimes the series of one-liners is still being polished only a half-hour before the show starts.

Rahal is hardly unfamiliar with his famous boss, who he's known since Graham was a four-year-old bundle of energy in perpetual orbit around his racing legend father Bobby, a longtime friend of Letterman. And Graham can be as quick with his dry wit as he is in a race car. He famously flashed his driving talent during his historic IndyCar debut in 2008 at St. Petersburg where, at 18, he became the youngest winner ever in major open-wheel racing.

But unless it's on the track, Rahal would rather takes things more slowly. He could've started out racing for his father, the former three-time series champion, 1986 Indy 500 winner, and the man who puts the Rahal in Rahal Letterman Lanigan. But Graham wanted to pay his dues. Altogether, he's raced for four teams -- five, if you count the two races he ran for his dad and Letterman in 2010. During the past two years, he drove for Chip Ganassi Racing, and that stint was marked as much by his lack of collaborative chemistry with teammates Dario Franchitti and Charlie Kimball as it was by his absence from the podium.

Rahal has only one victory in 77 career starts, but it's more than mere coincidence that nepotism now gives him a solid shot at reversing his fortunes.

"At some point you have to sit back and say, 'Ok, what's best here?'" he said. "'What's best for myself? What's best for my dad and our family? What's best for our team? And, frankly, what's best for our sponsors?' If you look at every one of those things, then the team that I'd always select is my dad's."

The hope is that Graham doesn't get tired of his dad's voice, the one he'll hear crackling over the radio now that Bobby is his chief race strategist. IndyCar fans have seen this kind of connection dropped before -- when Michael Andretti called races for his son Marco during the 2011 season, then called it quits a month into the following year.

But Graham insists that he and his dad "get along extremely well" and "have a lot of respect for each other." The clearest messages pass between them with few words. Before the season, Bobby had a gym built at RLL headquarters in Brownsburg, Ind., complete with a personal trainer. Graham repaid that investment with a 12-pound weight loss. His lighter frame along with a garage that has churned out cars that have run better than they've finished have Graham confident in his chances of reaching victory lane for the first time since his coming out party in St. Pete six years ago, which landed him his first guest spot on The Late Show.

As for IndyCar's desire to reach more casual fans, Rahal thinks the series should stick with what it promotes best -- "the fastest, most badass machines in the world," he said -- rather than act on the advice of a report it recently commissioned from the Boston Consulting Group and assign specific personalities to each drivers, a la NASCAR. But that would be a disservice to the many personalities that clash in this sport. Some of its brightest sparks are the ones that fly between Rahal and Andretti, a family rivalry that goes back generations.

"If I want to beat anybody, he's definitely one of the guys I always target," said Rahal of Marco, who he further describes as "a Hollywood type, always tweeting about Paris Hilton" to his "typical Midwestern quieter guy."

Another target in Rahal's sights is NASCAR. He wants IndyCar to better compete with the stock car series for fans as well as top drivers. "I know a lot of guys like Jimmie Johnson who love IndyCar racing," he said. "I think they'd love to drive one someday. But in many cases their team owners don't allow them. If we can get this sport's popularity back to the level where drivers are earning a really good living and the fans are watching and the sponsors are coming back, then, yeah, we can draw some of those [NASCAR] guys back."

All of this is very big talk, yes. And yet it couldn't be better suited to a man who now races for one of the fastest wits around. Nailing Letterman's Top Ten, for all of its pressure, seemed like such a waste of worry for Graham. Lines, after all, are what he delivers best. Whether he finally backs up the talk is a subject for another list, one worth keeping as the new IndyCar campaign unfolds.

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