Rahal recovers to become youngest IRL winner

Graham Rahal celebrates his victory at St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg, Florida - As the laps wound down and his fuel ran low Sunday on the streets of St. Petersburg, teenager Graham Rahal said he had only one thought: "Please, please come to an end."

The son of longtime racing star Bobby Rahal had come oh so close to winning his first major open-wheel race several times last year as a rookie in the Champ Car World Series only to be disappointed.

Now, in his first race in the IRL IndyCar Series, Rahal was out front but being chased by Helio Castroneves, the winner of the last two races here and a guy who has been around long enough that he raced against Graham's father, who retired in 1998.

"At the end of the race, with Helio behind me, I knew he has won a lot of races and has a lot of experience, but I knew we had the pace to beat him," Rahal said, grinning happily after enjoying a victory celebration that, of course, included no champagne for the underaged driver. "I kept telling myself that."

Rahal came back from a spinout early in the race to become the youngest winner in major open-wheel history. At 19 years, 93 days, Rahal broke the age record set two years ago in Sonoma, Calif., by another driver from a racing family, Marco Andretti, who was 19 years, 167 days old.

The win also also a crowning moment for the former Champ Car teams that only last month became part of a unified American open-wheel series under the IRL banner.

With his father, co-owner of the rival Rahal Letterman Racing team, watching from the top of his team's pit box, the younger Rahal, the top rookie in Champ Car in 2007, took the lead by passing Ryan Hunter-Reay, his father's driver, on a restart on the 65th of 83 laps.

"It was tough after getting hit by Will (Power) and with the rain," the winner said. "But we were pulling away from Helio while I was saving fuel. It's not like we just lucked into one."

The race was slowed by periods of rain and cut short of its scheduled 100 laps by a 2-hour time limit.

"He drove beautifully and, when he had to go fast, he did," the elder Rahal said. "I'm so proud of him. To come back and not get depressed after he got turned around by Will (Power), that was a great job.

"I don't know if I expected him to win this year at all," the 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner added. "I hoped he would, but this is a tough crowd with guys like Castroneves, (Tony) Kanaan, (Scott) Dixon and (Dan) Wheldon out there. And now you multiply that with the guys from Champ Car."

The younger Rahal, who missed the season-opener on the oval at Homestead after crashing in testing earlier that week, appeared headed for an easy victory as he built a lead of more than 4 seconds in his brand Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing Dallara. But the last of six full-course caution flags came out for a three-car incident on lap 76, giving Penske Racing's Castroneves another shot at the leader.

"It was a great day for motor racing," the Brazilian said. "I was going for it. We tried everything and we couldn't catch him. But, you know what, second is good enough."

The nine former Champ Car teams in Sunday's 25-car field acquitted themselves well on the more familiar territory of a street circuit after being overmatched on the Homestead oval, a type of track where most of them have little or no experience.

This was a particularly satisfying weekend for most of them, considering they have had their new Dallaras for less than a month and have had almost no testing and few spare parts.

"We didn't have a backup car and we didn't have any spare parts to put it back together," Rahal said of his Newman/Haas/Lanigan team. "If I had hit the wall again, I would have missed this race, too. But the team just did a great job preparing both of our cars and Justin (Wilson, who led laps and finished ninth) had a great weekend, too."

Carl Haas, co-owner of the eight-time CART/Champ Car champion team, said, "We were happy to be here and we're lucky to win the race. But we love it."

It wasn't a perfect day for Bobby Rahal, with Hunter-Reay running out of fuel on the last lap while running third. The Rahal Letterman car wound up 17th.

Polewinner Kanaan, a former IRL champion, finished third, followed by newcomers Ernesto Viso and Enrique Bernoldi.

It was a very messy race right from the beginning, with the first 10 laps run under caution in a downpour that began about 15 minutes before the start.

Once the green flag waved, there were a series of spins, most of them harmless, on the still very wet 1.8-mile, 14-turn downtown street circuit.

With so many cautions and rain spitting down on and off the rest of the way, strategies kept changing and drivers moved from the front to the back and back to the front on pit stops.

It was on a restart on lap 37, with the leaders closely bunched, that Power, another former Champ Car star, bumped the back of Rahal's car and send him spinning. Rahal fell from third all the way to 22nd.

Meanwhile, Ryan Briscoe, Penske's replacement for three-time series champion Sam Hornish Jr., who moved to NASCAR, had taken control up front. He led from lap 34 until he pitted on lap 45 and was moving through the field toward the front when he clipped the inside wall and then slammed into the outside barrier on lap 57, ending his day.

Hunter-Reay and Rahal, who had been running midpack, suddenly found themselves 1-2 when they stayed on track when most of the leaders pitted on lap 60 during another of the caution periods.

Viso came out of that pit stop in third, with Castroneves, Wheldon, Homestead winner Dixon, Bernoldi and Kanaan trailing behind.

On the ensuing restart, as Rahal drove past Hunter-Reay, Castroneves did the same to Viso. He then grabbed second place from Hunter-Reay on lap 69 and tried to track down Rahal, but never came close.

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