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March 10, 2018

Ten Years Ago, Rahal Completed Symbolic, History-Making St. Pete Win

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – It was a metaphorical golden spike that seemed to link what was then the freshly unified Indy car world more than handshakes, contracts and paperwork could.

It was a 19-year-old son of a former driving star and current team co-owner becoming the youngest victor in Indy car history, at the expense of an old family rival. It was Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, the power elite of the defunct Champ Car World Series, showing it could compete in its new realm of what is now the Verizon IndyCar Series

But for Graham Rahal, whose team got its new Indy car unassembled in a box three weeks before the 2008 season began – then missed the first race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway after crashing there in a test and not having the parts yet to fix it – it was his first victory in his first start in the then-called Indy Racing League. 

Rahal thought there would be more wins soon, but would have to wait another seven years to collect his second victory. A decade later, Rahal has six career wins and is trending the way he hoped back then.

Back at St. Petersburg this weekend and now with a Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team that has grown into a weekly contender, Rahal retains vivid memories of the triumph on April 6, 2008, that was poignant to many – for many different reasons.

“I felt confident. I felt the Champ Car teams that had been used to running at a lot more road courses and competition level at the peak of Champ Car, the top guys were pretty good,” Rahal told IndyCar.com. “The depth certainly wasn’t there, but I felt the top guys were pretty good, so I felt like, ‘All right, we should be able to come into this and be relatively competitive,’ and we were.”

However, the realization soon came that he would be contending with the likes of Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Dan Wheldon, already stars in the IRL that had begun racing on street and road courses in 2005, in addition to ovals.

“Race day comes and race day is obviously intense,” Rahal recalled. “Racing against Dixie and TK and Helio, Wheldon, all these guys that you had kind of watched and looked up to and all of a sudden, ‘Oh, s---, now I gotta go race these guys for the first time!’”

Intermittent rains and an incident with Will Power, then with Champ Car crossover team KV Racing Technology – “a thankful nudge from Willie P,” Rahal recalls – put Rahal on an alternate pit strategy that worked to his advantage.

“And frankly, we played the cards just perfectly,” Rahal said. “We had worked our way up to third anyway in the rain, so we were running up front. But then we got nudged out of the way, so it put us in a little bit of a different mindset. And we were able to save a lot of fuel but also run at a pace where no one else could keep up with us, which was unbelievable. I don’t know what else to say. It just worked.”

Under gray skies but on a dry track as the race finished as a timed event, Rahal led a race-high 19 laps in the black No. 06 Honda and beat Castroneves by 3.59 seconds. (Watch the 2008 St. Petersburg race broadcast here.)

“It was huge,” he said. “And (Newman/Haas/Lanigan) got another one that year. (Justin Wilson) won at Detroit so the team had a couple wins that first season.”

They were the last two wins for the storied Indy car team that last raced in 2011. (Watch the 2008 Belle Isle race broadcast here.) Rahal celebrated on the victory podium with team co-owners Carl Haas and Michael Lanigan, as well as his father Bobby (pictured above with Graham).

“It’s a shame Newman/Haas is no longer,” Rahal said. “It was a great group of people. Lost its way there at the end but it was a great time. It was a great win for the Champ Car loyalists, but at the same time, I actually never looked at it that way. I won and (Danica Patrick) won right after (two weeks later at Twin Ring Motegi). It’s like, all right, this is a good buzz for our sport, period.”

A byproduct of Rahal’s win was that, at 19 years, 3 months, 2 days old, he eclipsed by a little more than two months the record previously held by Marco Andretti for the youngest driver to win a race.

“I was pretty geeked to take the youngest winner award away from Marco, take that away from an Andretti, but other than that I really didn’t think about it very much,” Rahal said. “I just wanted to find a way to win again and obviously that took a long time.”

Rahal would not win again until 2015 at Auto Club Speedway, but has five in the past three seasons for the resurgent Rahal Letterman Lanigan team. He’ll look to repeat a decade later in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The race airs live beginning at noon ET on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network and at 12:30 p.m. on ABC.

 

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