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Motor Racing

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Associated Press
Graham Rahal practices for today’s IndyCar race in St. Petersburg, Fla. Rahal is confident entering the new season. Rahal won the race in 2008.

Change afoot as IndyCar opens

– Another IndyCar season breaks the seal on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., this afternoon, and the usual suspects are present.

Whether they’re accounted for depends on how many times you blinked recently.

If you blinked once, you missed Ryan Briscoe moving from the No. 2 Roger Penske. He’s driving for Penske’s great rival Chip Ganassi now.

If you blinked twice, you missed the fact that Juan Pablo Montoya, who won the Indianapolis 500 for Ganassi in 2000, returned from NASCAR purgatory to take Briscoe’s seat for Penske.

If you blinked again, you missed Tony Kanaan taking the retired Dario Franchitti’s seat in the No. 10 Target Ganassi car. And you missed 42-year-old Jacques Villeneuve signing with Sam Schmidt to run Indy for the first time since winning the 500 in 1995.

It is an altered landscape, in other words, that will greet 2013 champion Scott Dixon and everyone else today. Which is why, as the engines fire again, you’re compelled to look for anything that seems remotely familiar.

Here’s something: Graham Rahal’s still racing for his daddy.

Getting a ride

Bobby Rahal never really wanted this for his son.

Even though the kid was caught on tape at the age of 3 saying he wanted to be a race-car driver, and even though Bobby started taking him to the track and even to sponsor dinners when he was 5 or 6, he never actively encouraged Graham to climb behind the wheel. Quite the opposite.

“It took awhile for me actually to convince my dad to let me race,” Graham says. “For a long, long time he was really against it. It’s funny to think about it now, but my dad was the kind of guy who wouldn’t let me play football because he didn’t want me to get injured, but he eventually let me drive an IndyCar.”

That’s because the kid had talent, almost from the jump. At 18, in his third Champ Car race for Newman/Haas/Lanigan, he became the youngest driver in series history to gain a podium finish when he finished second at Houston. A year later, in 2008, he won his first IndyCar race at St. Petersburg.

Then his career slid south: He lost his sponsor (McDonald’s), which cost him his ride, and for the next two years he scuffled around, running races for Sarah Fisher and Dreyer & Reinbold and Chip Ganassi before his dad decided to take him on full time in 2013.

For better or worse.

Under the radar

No one’s talking much about Graham Rahal today, as IndyCar begins at the scene of what is still his only IndyCar win. And with good reason.

It was not, after all, the best year for either father or son last year. Burdened by a rules package that favored the Chevys over the Hondas run by Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan, Graham finished 18th in the points with just two top-five finishes. At Indianapolis, where he’s finished in the top 10 just once, he qualified 26th and finished 25th, completing just seven laps before getting caught up in a crash.

The good news in all of that: Father and son made it through the season without throwing wrenches at each other. And that could have happened.

“When it’s a family business, emotion can play big part,” Bobby says. “That’s something I’ve always really guarded myself against (is) allowing the emotional side, the father-son element, to get in the way of the owner-driver element. And it’s hard.”

Though not as hard as it might have been.

“I thought we’d bump heads more than we have, frankly,” says Graham, 25.

And now?

Now changes in the engineering group, positive results in testing and the signing of veteran driver Oriol Servia as a part-time second driver has the Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan camp feeling optimistic about 2014 – as is the father about the son.

“Graham doesn’t make a lot of mistakes,” Bobby says “He doesn’t have a lot of crashes and that type of thing. He’s pretty smart about what he wants in the car and he’s very good at deciphering what the car needs.

“If we give him a good year and the confidence level he’s going to have from that, he’s just going to be tough to beat.”

Note: Takuma Sato won the pole for today’s race.

Sato circled the street course in 1 minute, 0.01 seconds in Saturday’s rain-delayed qualifying session to put his A.J. Foyt Racing entry out front.

Kanaan qualified second, 0.2951 second behind the Japanese driver.

Ryan Hunter-Reay was third and followed by Will Power, who had won the pole the last four years.

bensmith@jg.net

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