The oddest thing happened to Graham Rahal the other day. After willing away the wait in a Starbucks drive-through line, he arrived at the window to find that the customer in front of him had already paid for his coffee.
After spending almost a year before convincing a sponsor to pay his way and restart his promising open wheel career, good things just keep coming in Trenta portions for the talented son of 1986 Indianapolis 500-winner and three-time CART champion Bobby Rahal, who at only 21, is taking his second swipe at being the next greatest thing as he joins IndyCar's most successful current team, Ganassi Racing.
"For me, really this year coming up is my time to have my Will Power season, when you can really come out and do some great things," he said, referring to the fellow Champ Car star's return from career limbo to five wins and a second-place championship finish with Penske last season. "This is the year. Obviously, the Ganassi organization as a team has already ... its performance speaks for itself. It's going to be a lot of fun."
And maybe a boon for the IZOD IndyCar Series, which is clambering to rekindle interest in the 15-20 million fans CEO Randy Bernard estimates the series lost to NASCAR since the 1990s. The notion that fickle American fans need an ultrasuccessful American driver to stoke interest has been repeated so often it has become pseudofact, and Rahal is in a position to test the theory for the first time since open wheel reunification in 2008. Ganassi has won the Indianapolis 500, the sport's most publicized and mainstream event, twice in three years with Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon. Victories by Americans have been sparse in the series since Sam Hornish Jr. won four races and the championship in 2006. Ryan Hunter-Reay won the only race by an American last season. There were none in 2009. Hunter-Reay, Rahal and Danica Patrick won once each in 2008. Hornish Jr. won once in 2007. Marco Andretti, grandson of legend Mario Andretti, won his only career race in 2006.
Bernard said he would "rather not speculate on the importance of an American to win" while concentrating on "attracting the very best drivers in the world to our series." But Rahal suits that need, too, he said.
"I have heard from many that Graham is one of the most capable drivers in the world if only he would be given a chance," he said. "Now he has one of the best team owners in the world backing him ... now he must show his ability."
Industry analyst Peter DeLorenzo, editor of Autoextremest.com considers Rahal supremely however, especially considering the decidedly middle-aged demeanor the driver has portrayed throughout his career. He speaks in lucid parcels of thought, tweets about bagels and washing puppies. He is presentable. His last name arcs to a fondly recalled era of open wheel racing for older fans while his youth would seemingly appeal to the younger demographic racing so covets.
"It's of critical importance for IndyCar to establish some American drivers, some that can win races," he said. "The young Rahal clearly fits that exceedingly well. Randy Bernard made no bones about how he wants to build personalities. He's calmer and wiser for someone his age, a real strong asset for the sport. There's no doubt he will be the poster boy for IndyCar."
This will be Rahal's second cup of coffee with a power team, a rarity in modern racing for such an untenured driver. Rahal landed his first prime open wheel racing job with Newman Haas in the now-defunct Champ Car Series in 2007, when he joined a team that was in the process of winning 31 races (tied for the all-time lead) and four consecutive championships with Sebastien Bourdais. Rahal became the lead driver when Bourdais left for a Formula 1 job just as Champ Car went bankrupt and was amalgamated with the then-Indy Racing League. Rahal immediately scripted what looked like a storybook first chapter of a gilded career when he won the second race of the season at St. Petersburg in 2008, in an obsoleted IndyCar donated from another team through the Champ Car assimilation program and assembled from parts weeks earlier. The car had needed so much work after a wreck at Homestead-Miami Speedway the previous week Rahal had to miss the season-opener there. But there he was in victory lane after holding off two-time defending race-winner Helio Castroneves, becoming the youngest, at 19 years, 93 days, to ever win a major open wheel race. He's also the circuit's youngest pole-winner at 20 years, 90 days.
Though he had five top-5 finishes and concluded 2009 seventh in points, his full-time ride at once-mighty Newman Haas eroded because of sponsor woes. Rahal raced partial schedules for Newman Haas, Sarah Fisher Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold and an entry by his father for the Indianapolis 500 last season.
Though an open-wheel zealot by birth and vocation, Rahal explored every possible motorsports option in what became an agonizing season away from full-time racing.
"I looked a lot of places," he said. "I did go down to Charlotte and visited with Michael Waltrip Racing and they were a fantastic group of guys. ... I couldn't get excited about it. It sounds funny, but even when I looked at the cars, I just said to myself, "I can't do it." It was something I just couldn't get over."
Rahal's first tangible steps toward 2011 came when Jay Howard failed to qualify for the Indy 500 in a Fisher car sponsored by Service Central. Fisher urged Rahal to explore a relationship with the company, Rahal said, which eventually signed him and began shopping for a team to deploy its cash. Service Central CEO Orland Woolford went to the team in the process of winning four straight league titles, and Rahal, along with Charlie Kimball were announced as members of a Ganassi satellite team in the offseason. His Ganassi career began successfully as he teamed with defending Grand Am champions Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas, and Joey Hand in winning the season opening 24-hour race at Daytona.
"For me, I'm obviously nervous. I remain nervous," Rahal said before the victory. "I know that I've got to perform. Now is the time to shine. No excuse."