Dreams Undimmed, Graham Rahal Joins IndyCar Unemployment Line
What the 21-year-old really wants, however, is a job behind the wheel of a race car -- preferably a car without fenders.
"I know there have been a lot of NASCAR rumors, but right now my focus is 100 percent on being in the IndyCar Series,'' Rahal told FanHouse this weekend.
"I'm not just an IndyCar driver, but very much a fan of the sport and to make a big switch like that takes time to consider. As of this second, everything I have going is for IndyCar.''
So instead of joining Danica Patrick in the stock car ranks -- even as a part-time gig -- Rahal has been visiting America's corporate boardrooms hoping to attract financial backing for the 2010 IndyCar season. The timing, however, couldn't be worse.
Rahal discovered he didn't have a job a few weeks ago, figuring it out only when his team of three years, Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing announced it would field just one car this season: for Japanese driver Hideki Mutoh.
In the weeks since, Rahal has had meetings with several teams and sought advice from team owners, including Chip Ganassi. He won't rule out driving for his father, 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, whose Rahal-Letterman Racing team could come back to life in the IndyCar series to field a car for Graham at the Indianapolis 500.
"But my dad is not going to run a car for me and feel satisfied to finish tenth or even fifth,'' Rahal said. "He'll want to do whatever it takes to win and so we would need a sufficient budget to get up to speed. To go to the 500 and win, that takes a whole different level of support. We as a family are not able to pay for it ourselves.''
Competing in the Indianapolis 500 as a one-off is just one option Rahal is forced to explore. He's already missed the two preseason test sessions and concedes that being on the starting grid at the season-opener is out of the question purely for logistical reasons. Teams are sending their cars and equipment to Brazil this week.
A deal would need to come together soon even to make the stateside opener, March 28 in St. Petersburg, Fla. where Rahal became the youngest winner in IndyCar Series history in 2008 -- weeks after his 19th birthday. He was the pole winner there last year.
If times are this tough for Rahal, one of the brightest American open-wheel talents, is it any wonder that NASCAR is becoming the default choice of up-and-coming American racing drivers?
After his dramatic coming-out party in St. Petersburg, Rahal answered with five top-five finishes and 10 top-five starts in 2009, the first full year of unification between the former Champ Car circuit and the IndyCar Series. And he finished seventh in a championship decided among the four cars fielded by the dominating Ganassi and Roger Penske organizations.
Yet despite the effort, Rahal is left knocking on doors. And the series, which needs to re-establish itself as a viable NASCAR option, is missing out on a prime opportunity to showcase American talent in America -- the place it races most.
All the hope and hype of IndyCar can't and shouldn't rest with Danica Patrick, who may pack up and transition to NASCAR full time in a couple seasons.
She and her Andretti Autosport teammates Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay will primarily be carrying the red, white and blue while the series trend is clearly overseas recruitment.
Mutoh has shown promise, including a best showing of runner-up last year. But the other series signings include 26-year-old Briton James Rossiter, a former F1 test driver rumored at one point to be a candidate for the U.S. Formula One team, and 23-year old Brazilian Mario Ramancini, who competed in Indy Lights last year, neither of whom exactly bring highly-superior resumes or substantial fan following.
"People have to be creative right now,'' Rahal said. "We're flying around and doing a lot of business presentations. The important thing is that no one can question our dedication and effort. Right now we're in limbo and we're juggling a thousand different balls. But one of them will fall.
"Although I feel like we've had a little bit of bad luck this offseason, I'm keeping my head up and my eyes on the goal."