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Driver Graham Rahal now drives for a team co-owned by his father, 1985 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal, left.

Learning without Dad

Graham Rahal now on team father co-owns

– So here he is again, the not-quite-prodigal son.

Graham Rahal sits in one of those wood-and-canvas director’s chairs, looking out at a small huddle of minicams in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center. He fidgets, like a boy being kept after school. He ducks his head as his father – who sits to his right, close enough to touch – speaks.

“I think it was important for Graham as a person, you know, to go out and see the rest of the world, how they go about it,” Bobby Rahal says. “He was very fortunate to be with great teams – Newman/Haas/Lanigan, and then, of course, Chip (Ganassi). He also had a year where things were looking good and then fell apart … He went from having a deal to not.

“And he had to scramble. Drove for Sarah (Fisher), drove for Dreyer & Reinbold, drove for us, drove for Newman/Haas again. It’s not pleasant, but it does nothing but show the driver … it’s not all a given. You have to work hard for it.”

Even if your name is Rahal. Even if you burst onto the scene five years ago as one IndyCar’s bright new hopes, a 19-year-old who won the first IndyCar race he ever started and who brought a shot of charisma to the table on top of it.

Graham Rahal hasn’t won an IndyCar race since.

He wound up 17th in the points that 2008 season, then finished seventh in 2009, his best year. In the three years since, he had just eight top-five finishes, lost McDonald’s as his sponsor, and, as his father points out, got an invaluable Ph.D. in Life Itself.

Now here he is, back with Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing again.

“I think it’s important for anybody to go out on there a little bit and gain the respect of their peers and others around him,” he said last week. “It’s important for any young driver, doesn’t matter where you come from, to go and experience other things. Even in Formula BMW, there was only one year growing up that Dad put together a team. Other than that, it was always someone else.

“So it was right to go and be with the other operations I drove for. But at the same time, it’s best that we’re here.”

Not that it’s come together all at once in this reunion of father and older (24), wiser son. On the one hand, Rahal came to Indianapolis just 14th in the points. On the other, he ran second at Long Beach, his best finish since Milwaukee almost two years ago.

Then it was on to Indianapolis, where Rahal wasn’t quick enough to qualify on Pole Day but came with the second-fastest qualifying run of Bump Day (225.007 mph). He’ll start 26th, in the middle of row nine.

“I thought yesterday would be quicker – we fought some small uphill battles and couldn’t get through it,” Rahal said. “But right away this morning, the car was back up in the 226s, so I knew the car had plenty of speed in it to move on.”

It was, in the end, a bit like being back with his dad again: Small uphill battles, followed by the chance to move on (and up) together.

“I haven’t seen them argue one bit yet,” team co-owner Mike Lanigan says.

“Our radio’s gotten interesting a couple times, but never that bad,” Graham concurs.

No. It is, in fact, all good, or mostly good.

“Bobby could not be a better teacher, in essence, to complete the master’s degree for Graham in racing,” Lanigan said. “Graham learned everything pretty much on his own through the years because he drove for other teams. But this is kind of like the icing on the cake.”

bensmith@jg.net

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