Can Rahal capitalize on Rolex win?

BY foxsports • February 1, 2011

Bobby Rahal’s win in the 1981 Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway turned out to be the bridge to something bigger.

Rahal, along with Brian Redman and Bob Garretson, took a Porsche 935 K3 to victory in the famous sports car race. He spent the rest of ’81 in sports cars, but the next year saw him move to open-wheel racing. With two wins to his credit, he finished second in the 1982 CART championship behind fellow future legend Rick Mears and grabbed rookie of the year honors.

Thirty years later, his son has now made some wonder if bigger things will be in store for him as well.

In his inaugural 24-hour run at Daytona this weekend, Graham Rahal claimed his first Rolex wristwatch alongside Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas and Joey Hand. For Rahal, a driver that has long been tagged as a future champion and cornerstone for the IZOD IndyCar Series, winning America’s biggest sports car race may give him extra momentum as he tries to tackle those expectations.

Those expectations reached new heights earlier this winter when he joined Ganassi’s IndyCar operation, helping it expand to a four-car operation that includes back-to-back defending series champion Dario Franchitti, two-time titleholder Scott Dixon and promising American rookie Charlie Kimball. But on Sunday, Rahal had the perfect start to his alliance with the legendary car owner from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“I didn't get to drive too, too much, but these guys did a hell of a job,” Graham said on Sunday. “And [for this] to be my first race with Ganassi…and getting the IndyCar schedule kicked off in only a month or two, there's no better way to win.

“It feels so sweet to do it here. And we are also now looking at these watches thinking, these are things you just dream of — you know, looking at Dad's for many years and imagining some day, I might have one. Well, I didn't think it would come this soon.”

The No. 01 team of Rahal, Pruett, Rojas and Hand took the lead for good with 49 minutes remaining in the race, but Pruett had to survive a final restart with one minute remaining. He managed to pull away from the sister No. 02 car, which had Dixon at its controls for the final stint of the event.

Dixon and Franchitti, along with No. 02 teammates Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray, had to settle for second. But while Montoya was a tad frustrated — "We are here to freaking win," he said — the "all-for-one” atmosphere on the Ganassi team prevailed.

“I think with the IndyCar program, we share the shop with the Grand-Am guys and that winning mentality just kind of seeps through. . . . It's just a good feeling for the building and a good way to start the year,” Franchitti said. “Boss has a smile on his face, too, so that's always a good thing.”

With Grand-Am now underway, the NASCAR season closing in fast and with the IndyCar season on the horizon, Ganassi’s grin may be on his face for quite a while. But there’s still some questions, especially on the IndyCar side. While the program is technically four cars now, it basically functions as a pair of two-car teams.

The matter of if and how newcomers Rahal and Kimball gel with veterans Franchitti and Dixon will make for an interesting subplot all season.

As will seeing if Rahal can once again follow in his father’s tire tracks by using his Rolex 24 win as a springboard to open-wheel greatness.

On their own

Throughout the month, several IndyCar teams have gotten in their own test work before everybody comes together for the big open test in mid-March at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.

Andretti Autosport, Newman-Haas Lanigan, Panther Racing and Target Chip Ganassi Racing recently took laps around Sebring International Raceway in Florida. One of those teams, Newman-Haas, was there to give Firestone Indy Lights driver James Hinchcliffe a second IndyCar test, while the rest were presumably working on their road-course setups for 2011.

Conquest Racing closed out the month with a test for Firestone Indy Lights champion J.K. Vernay, who bested Hinchcliffe for the title last season. It’ll be the Frenchman’s first time out in an IndyCar and he may prove to be an option for Conquest as it continues to sort out its driver roster.

Houston coming back?

After losing its Champ Car race in the wake of unification, the city of Houston, Texas, is looking to finally make its return to the open-wheel landscape.

City officials and Mi-Jack Promotions welcomed IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard last week for a tour of Reliant Park, the former site of the Champ Car race and the proposed site for a 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series event. According to the Houston Chronicle, Bernard was also on hand for a reception and the official announcement of the campaign to revive the Grand Prix of Houston.

Houston’s downtown streets played host to CART from 1998 to 2001. After a five-year hiatus, Champ Car returned to ‘Space City’ in 2006 and utilized the Reliant Park complex, which features Reliant Stadium (home of the NFL’s Texans) and the famous Astrodome. The ’06 event was CART/Champ Car’s first-ever night race on a street course.

share story