INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Graham Rahal understands there’s a world of possibilities for him in IndyCar racing.
He comes from a prestigious racing family, has a celebrity fiancee and an identifiable primary sponsor. He embraces social media and isn’t afraid to speak his mind. At age 26, he’s visible, engaging and just starting to hit his prime. And if he can reach Victory Lane at Indianapolis on May 24, he could finally become the answer to the series’ seemingly endless search for American stars.
“I think it helps if I can do well because I’ve been blessed with a name that’s recognized,” Rahal said as practice began this week for the Indianapolis 500. “But I think there always have been a lot of talented, American drivers.”
Rahal’s recent results are only one chapter in a 12-month surge of a cresting wave of American success stories.
Rahal drives for his father’s team and is the only Honda driver in the top five in points after back-to-back runner-up finishes. He’s tied for fourth with three-time series champion Scott Dixon of New Zealand and, according to father Bobby, in the midst of his best season ever.
Tennessee’s Josef Newgarden, age 24, has seven top-10 finishes each of the past two seasons and finally won his first career race at Alabama on April 26.
The 34-year-old Ed Carpenter, who grew up in Indy and is Newgarden’s teammate and a co-owner of the Chevrolet-powered team, could become the first driver in Indy history to win three consecutive poles this weekend.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, from Florida, ended the Americans’ seven-year drought at Indianapolis by winning the 500 last season and is now trying to help team owner Michael Andretti make it back to Victory Lane this year.
The story doesn’t end there. In Wednesday’s practice, California’s Townsend Bell posted the second-fastest lap of the day, finishing in 228.969 mph. The Dreyer and Reinbold-Kingdom Racing driver was only topped by Colombia’s Carlos Munoz, who had a 230.121.
Another young American, 20-year-old Sage Karam, of Pennsylvania, was fifth fastest at 227.822 and Marco Andretti, age 28, was ninth on the speed chart at 227.320.
For those who dreamed of becoming the next big thing in open-wheel racing, these are exciting times.
“When I was growing up, I cheered for the American guys” Hunter-Reay said. “I was just a kid. I didn’t have any reason to, but it was just a natural thing. It’s a very international sport, open-wheel racing, and it’s a U.S.-based series, so naturally when Americans can do well or win, it definitely is an attraction for the U.S. fans.”
For nearly a quarter-century, the series has been trying to find replacement for one of the greatest generations of American open-wheel racers. The names included A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Mario and Michael Andretti and the Unsers.
Some of those pegged to take over, such as Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti, stuck with their own brand, CART, during the open-wheel split in the mid-1990s. Others, such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, found more opportunities in NASCAR. Even one of IndyCar’s brightest young names, the popular Sam Hornish Jr., bolted for the Cup series after winning the Indy 500 in 2006.
The dearth of big-name Americans opened the door to a flood of foreign-born drivers such as Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan of Brazil and Dario Franchitti of Scotland, who still won over U.S. fans.
All along, though, series officials knew that to increase the fan base, it needed more home-grown talent.
“It’s a necessity because it is an American racing series,” said Derrick Walker, a Scotsman who is now the series’ president of competition and operations. “If you don’t have successful young talent who can show their stuff, it’s going to be a sad day for American racing.”
Those involved don’t see this as America vs. The World.
Instead, most drivers insist this is the way they prefer it — trying to be best in the universe.
And with closing between well-funded operations such as Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport and smaller teams such as Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing couple with an aging group of international stars, the Americans could be on the cusp of a breakthrough.
“You don’t have to be on Penske, (Chip) Ganassi or Andretti to win races anymore because of the talent and the parity of the rules,” Newgarden said. “Everyone has a chance.”
All the Americans have to do now is capitalize on their chance.
“It feels good to be where we are,” Rahal said in reference to the two second-place finishes. “But I want to win and o do that, we have to contend. But we’re in it, we’re in the hunt.”