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The Way It Is/ Graham Rahal may prove to be the best of a new wave of talented American open-wheel racers

by Gordon Kirby
For years many of us have wrung our hands over the dwindling pool of American open-wheel driving talent. Twenty-eight years have passed since an American won a Formula One race while Indy or Champ car racing--an all-American preserve until twenty years ago--has been swamped by foreigners. Jimmy Vasser won the last CART/Champ Car championship for the USA back in 1996 and A.J. Allmendinger is the first American to put up any kind of championship challenge since Michael Andretti in 2001. Allmendinger won three races in a row this summer, coming into his own after moving from RuSPORT to Forsythe Racing and is threatening to usurp two-time champion Sebastien Bourdais as Champ Car's fastest driver.

Thankfully, because of Allmendinger, Sam Hornish, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, the tide in the debate about American talent seems to be turning. In fact, it looks like the time has come for us to stop whining and begin applauding. After all, Hornish finally won the Indy 500 this year and is locked in a battle with teammate Helio Castroneves for the IRL championship while Marco Andretti came awfully close to beating Hornish in his rookie start at Indianapolis and scored his first IRL win at Sears Point last weekend.

Then there's Graham Rahal who has shown surprisingly keen abilities this year in the revitalized Atlantic series. At the tender age of seventeen, young Rahal now has won five Atlantic races--more than anyone else--and has been battling for the championship all summer with talented Frenchman Simon Pagenaud.

Rahal's emergence has been the least anticipated but he's certainly made his mark this summer and looks likely to race in Champ Car next year for Newman/Haas no less, pending a test session at Sebring on September 13 and 14. Rahal's Atlantic championship rival Pagenaud also has shown great talent this year. He leads Rahal by twelve points (253 to 241) going into the season-closer at Road America at the end of the month, so as long as the 22-year old Frenchman finishes the race he's likely to win the $2 million champion's bonus. That should mean both of Atlantic's two dominant drivers of the year will graduate to Champ Car, irrefutable proof of the revitalized Atlantic pudding.

Young Rahal's potential move to Champ Car started at Cleveland in June when Kevin Kalkhoven told Graham's father that he wanted to hire the teen-aged phenom to drive one of PKV's Champ cars in 2007 after Rahal won the first of two Atlantic races on the weekend's schedule.

"Then after I won the second race the next day he told dad that offer had just doubled," Graham remarked. "I think that was kind of a joke, but from there it started to come together. I figured PKV was going to be my choice. PKV is a great outfit. Mark Johnson worked for dad and I believe he can make it a great team, and Jimmy Vasser is there. I like Jimmy a lot. And I love Mr Kalkhoven's heart. His heart is in the right spot.

"Mr Kalkhoven met with my manager Rick Gorne and told him that Mr Haas and Mr Newman wanted me as well. Obviously, Newman/Haas is the best of the best and for me it would just be an honor to drive there or even to test the car. Look at who's driven for them from Mario and Nigel Mansell, they're all the best. So it would just be awesome to be part of the team."

Rahal and his father Bobby originally planned for Graham to race in Atlantic for two years and to then move his focus to Europe for a few years to race in GP2 in an attempt to break into Formula One. A decision was also made last year for Graham to take in as much racing as possible in the pursuit of increased seat-time. This meant branching out into the A1GP series and running some long-distance races in GT cars. Indeed, Graham will run eight of twelve A1GP races for Team Lebanon over the fall and winter but his focus now looks likely to settle on Champ Car with Newman/Haas.

"My feeling is that this is a great opportunity for him and he has to strike while the iron is hot," father Bobby observed. "I think especially if he can get the job with Carl and Paul it would be pretty foolish not to do that, and he's earned it. He's done the job.

"If you get hired by Newman/Haas I think it's a pretty simple decision to make," Bobby continued. "And if after that, there's a chance to do Formula One, then fine, you go after that, at that time. Time is on his side. He can spend two years in Champ Car and still be only twenty years old, which is as young as it gets in F1. So I don't think there's much to be lost by staying here and succeeding here.

"Just because you do GP2, there's no quarantee that you'll get to Formula One. You look at all the Red Bull guys who have done well in GP2 and got a chance in F1, but nothing great. Or you've got to be represented by Briatore!

"We've talked to a number of people over there and the view is if he can run competitively against guys like Bourdais, especially at his age, that's a good indicator. At least you could be given a chance as an F1 test driver to see if you could do it."

Graham agrees with his dad's assessment of the overall picture. "I've spoken to several people in the F1 community and they say they don't think you have to go to GP2 to make it to F1, that you could come from Champ Car," Graham said. "A lot of people have the opposite feeling because of Sebastien, but that's not how they actually feel in F1. I figure that if you can be competitive with Sebastien or Paul or A.J. or Justin, any of those guys, then I think you're going to be highly regarded.

"The only thing that Champ Car doesn't have that Formula One does have is money. I would say the drivers are just as good. Sometimes, to be honest, you question the drivers in Formula One. Sometimes you ask, are they really that good? Maybe not."

Father and son agreed when Graham was a prospective kart racer that Bobby would support Graham as long his mind didn't wander from school and he kept his grades at an acceptable level.

"Who knows? All the plans you make rarely turn out the way you think," Bobby ruminated. "Who knows? Maybe he can be successful in Champ Car, make great money and maybe he can do a lot to help bring the stature of Champ Car back up and make it more valuable for everybody including himself. I think a year or two here certainly isn't going to hurt, especially at this level and especially if you can be with a team like Newman/Haas.

"I never pushed him into racing. He was the one who was always saying he wanted to do it. I said, okay, that's great, but first things first, and that means school. You have to do well in school. If you do well in school, I'll do everything I can to help you, and he's certainly kept his part of the bargain."

Graham sees the family agreement the same way. "Our deal was always since go-karts that I had to get As and Bs," Graham said. "I've never not held up to my end of the deal and he hasn't dropped his either."

If he signs a contract for 2007 with either Newman/Haas or PKV, Graham will become a professional driver, moving beyond the father-son agreement much quicker than they imagined.

"Mr Haas and Mr Newman asked him to test one of their cars and Mr Kalkhoven has been very interested in Graham also," Bobby commented. "So now you're saying, do you go to school? Or when you've made it to this level, do you just keep going in racing?

"I'm a little nervous about him not going to school. I'm not confident that he would ever go back. But I guess if he goes off and makes some serious money racing a car then he doesn't really need to go to college. He's a smart kid and it's a recognition of frankly, how good I think he is, and how far he can go."

Graham is a well-raised, sensible young man and knows he shouldn't turn his back on more schooling. "It's important that you have a good education," Graham observed. "For instance, Cristiano right now. That can happen to anybody at anytime. You have to be prepared if racing is never going to happen again. You have to prepared to be successful in another way, and that's always how I viewed it. Education is very important, specifically for that reason.

"I know I want to be a professional race car driver and it could happen next year but at the same time I have to be prepared for things to change. You see a lot of drivers that just don't get any opportunities."

Graham flew to England on Monday for another A1GP test this week with Team Lebanon and will be back to high school in New Albany, Ohio next week for his senior year. Everyone remarks on the seventeen-year old's surprising level of maturity and steady, stable way on and off the track.

"I give him all the credit," his father said. "His driving manners and the way he carries himself have always been precocious, and his driving has always been precocious. He's never really had a problem going up to the next level.

"I think his success has a lot to do with the fact that he's very calm in the car. I've had experienced drivers watch him driving out on the circuit and they come back and say it's remarkable how quiet his hands are and that nothing looks hurried. He's smooth and he never or very, very rarely runs off the road. He's always driving within himself which is what he's done in karting up to this point.

"He seems to be very good at communicating what's going on with the car and what happens when you make changes to the car. He really seems to be on top of the situation which he wasn't last year because of a lack of experience and maturity.

"Graham is very serious about it. He's very focused. When he goes in the car you never question whether he's giving you a hundred percent. Some people are good one day and not so good the next day, but he's the same guy giving the same effort every day."

Driver coach Mike Zimicki worked for Rahal's team with Danica Patrick in Atlantic before Rahal asked him to continue in the same role with Graham in Formula BMW two years ago. Zimicki has worked with young Rahal in Formula BMW in 2004, Star-Mazda last year, and Atlantic this year.

"I think what Graham has got over most of the guys in the series consistently is the ability and the discipline to drive the car to the limit all the time but not to overdrive the car," Zimicki commented. "He's applied himself to mastering the basics and we keep reminding him it's all about getting the basics right.

"It is maturity beyond his years but he's also got a father who has a tremendous amount of racing experience and has imparted to him the basics of technique and he has me in his ear literally every lap trying to remind him of that stuff. He's done a great job of listening to that. He's been great to work with, very open-minded."

There was no question in Graham's mind last year that Atlantic was the right place for him to race this year. "It was the next step from where I was in Mazda," he explained. "The reason you choose Atlantic over IPS is that it's clear the competition is very fierce here, and there's also the new car. The series has done a heck of a job and you've got to stick with the road courses because that's where you learn.

"I came in here thinking this is a two-year program, let's see how we do the first year, and we had a lot of success immediately which wasn't expected. Now we're hoping to go to Champ Car next year. It's something I didn't expect. I looked at this as being a learning year and going for the championship next year.

"If you look at it as a learning year you're still going to push but maybe you're not going to push as hard. I always go all-out and stay within the limits. But once we started to have our immediate success we said we've got a chance at winning this championship, so lets really put our head down and see what happens."

All eyes will be fixed on Graham during his test with Newman/Haas at Sebring in two weeks and again in the Atlantic season finale at Road America on September 24.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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