Road to glory

TERRY JONES -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:58 AM ET

INDIANAPOLIS -- He's 19 years old, single, good looking, articulate, exceptionally likable and he drives it like he stole it.

If there's one driver, other than Danica Patrick, perhaps, who would do the most good for the future of the merged Champ Car-IRL series by winning the 92nd Indianapolis 500, or 93rd or 94th, Graham Rahal would be it.

He's already the flag bearer for the Champ Car Series merger, having won the first race he ran in the new combined IndyCar series. He's racing for Champ Car's winningest team owned by Paul Newman, Carl Haas and Mike Lanigan.

He's driving in his first Indy 500 here Sunday, the race dad Bobby won in 1986 and the event his dad runs with the IRL team and co-owner David Letterman. And he's got that magic last name.

Auto racing fans love family traditions and one of the many great story angles going in is that there will be a Foyt (A.J. IV), Andretti (Marco) and Rahal in the race this year.

But Rahal is the one who brings it all together.

Indy 500 fans who essentially pack up and move north in late July for the Rexall Edmonton Indy already feel they know the kid, having watched him break in as a driver in the Formula Atlantic undercard event two years ago and as a Champ Car series rookie last year.

With Edmonton the first new stop for the IRL drivers, it's also the next time Rahal and the Champ Car drivers will get back to a road course.

When I asked him about that, Rahal said he can't wait - not just to get back to the airport track, but to bring the rest of the Indy 500 field to the place for the first time.

"I'm going to be thrilled to go back. Edmonton is the most physical of all the circuits we're going to go to this year.

"The best thing about Edmonton is 100,000-people crowds on Sunday. I think these guys are really going to enjoy that."

When I asked Rahal if he saw himself as the poster boy for unification, he wouldn't go there by himself.

"I don't think it'll be any one of us. It's all of us as a group. I think my win in St. Pete's really helps," he said of winning the very first race in the new unified series, having crashed in qualifying for the series opener, an oval event in Homestead/Miami, then taking the checkered flag at the St. Petersburg, Fla., street course.

"A win for Danica here would be huge for the sport. For myself, for anybody on a transitioning team, I think it will be very difficult. It's going to take a couple of years. One Indy isn't going to do it."

Indy isn't being shy about selling the last names of Rahal, Andretti and Foyt IV here this year, young American drivers with names people recognize. The three were put together on a conference call from trackside, where they were part of an autograph-signing session yesterday, to talk to media from around the world.

"Having names come back and perform is awesome," said Andretti. "It's real big. But I don't think everything is in my lap or Graham's lap."

Rahal said he doesn't think it's something that comes with pressure.

"I don't think the pressure is on us completely. But it's good to have names back and old rivalries, although I'm not sure Marco or A.J. and I look at it like our dads did. But having the names back should bring the crowd back to Indy or anywhere where they haven't been in the past."

It's more about unification, though.

"It has changed things already," said Andretti. "Within three years, I think it will be back to where it was in its heyday, if not better. Graham's win was huge."

Rahal certainly isn't promising any wins here yet.

When I asked him about the massive learning curve for drivers going from road courses to these ones with only left turns, Rahal says it isn't easy.

"It's been quite tough. I don't know if any of the transitioning teams will win an oval race this year. There's a lot to learn. But when we get to the road races, we'll be very competitive.

"Right now we're realistically a couple miles per hour behind, maybe two or three miles per hour on the big oval here. There's a way for us to go."

While he wasn't born when his dad Bobby won here, young Rahal was around in the late stages of his career and when his dad won as an owner with Buddy Rice behind the wheel.

Funny the way it's worked for Graham Rahal. Despite his dad being an Indy guy, he was always looking at Formua 1 as his race destiny until the merger came along.

"The merger is something I never expected so soon. When I was asked when I'd be at Indy, I said I had no clue. I really didn't think it would be so soon."

The timing is perfect. He can now be part of a combined road race and oval series, his world and his dad's world.

And he can be the driver who brings it all together for an IndyCar racing return to glory that hasn't really existed since his dad won here.


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