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Monday, May 17, 2010

Indianapolis or Bust: Graham Rahal

Both Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Racing have fallen from the peaks of IndyCar racing. A lack of sponsorship has put the driver's immediate future into question, and limited the team to Indianapolis 500-only entries for each of the past two years. In a way, both view a chance at winning Indy as redemption after some tough times.

Rahal, seventh in points last year, lost his McDonald's sponsorship at Newman/Haas Racing, and the team kept him hanging on a thread in the offseason as other rides filled up. He turned down an opportunity at Dale Coyne Racing, instead running a limited schedule with Sarah Fisher Racing at the beginning of the season.

Last year, neither driver nor team had much success at Indianapolis; while Graham Rahal qualified fourth, he crashed coming out of turn 4 in the race for the second year in a row, and finished 31st. Meanwhile, Rahal Letterman's lone car, which had been qualified 26th by Oriol Servia, finished 25th after a fuel pump failed just before the halfway mark.

The one-race dream team of father and son will get a chance to show their stuff. Team owner and father Bobby Rahal has always wanted son Graham to establish his own identity as a racer instead of driving the family equipment (a la Marco Andretti and Ed Carpenter), but the combination of Graham's unemployment and Bobby's need for a driver who can attract sponsorship dollars made perfect sense. Indeed, the team signed dietary supplement Quick Trim to back them before even unloading for the first practice on Saturday; last year, many teams had to wait until later to attract sponsorship.

Rahal's driving talent has never been brought into question, even if he's failed to finish both Indianapolis 500s he's started, crashing the same way in both events. This is still the same driver that won his first IndyCar race, finished fifth in points in the final season of Champ Car, and improved tremendously as a driver last season, securing all of his top five finishes on ovals. As far as Rahal the driver goes, nobody should have anything to worry about.

Rahal the team, however, is a different story. It's important to note that Rahal Letterman has never found much success with the Dallara chassis. Its Indianapolis 500 win with Buddy Rice in 2004 came with a Panoz G-Force chassis, and since the team's switch in the middle of 2006 it has only won one race, with Ryan Hunter-Reay at Watkins Glen in 2008.

Add to this the fact that Rahal's is obviously old equipment, perhaps even the car that experienced mechanical failure last year, and the team will enter this year's 500 with some major question marks. While the car has been solid thus far in practice, turning a hot lap good for 10th in Sunday's veteran practice, it remains to be seen if the car will have the durability to go 500 miles.

Chances of winning the Indianapolis 500: C+
Chances of leading the Indianapolis 500 specials: B+

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