McDONALD'S DRIVER RAHAL RETURNS TO HONDA GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETE IN ATTEMPT TO EARN BACK-TO-BACK WINS HERE; TEAM AIMS FOR 12TH SEASON-OPENING WIN IN 27TH ATTEMPT
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (April 1, 2009) --- McDonald's driver Graham Rahal, 20, will enter a race weekend for the first time as the defending champion when he arrives to town for this Sunday's 100-lap Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg IndyCar Series season opener. It will also be the first time in his career that he will compete in the same series two consecutive seasons. In addition to aiming for back-to-back wins for Rahal, Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing (NHLR) will attempt to earn their 12th victory in season-opener in their 27th season of open-wheel competition.
"I really am looking forward to going to St. Pete as the past champion," said Rahal, 20, who became the youngest winner in series history at 19 years, 93 days old with victory here. "It was a great win for me not only because it was my first, but also because it was my first race in the IndyCar Series. It's incredible to win a race, but for it to be your first, and to take the record as the youngest winner was truly amazing! Selfishly, I hope the record stands for a long time. But now you look ahead and I want to get more wins. One win is important to me and important to my career, but I want to have many more."
In their previous 26 seasons of competition NHLR has earned 107 victories and 11 of those have come in season-openers beginning with their first by Mario Andretti in the 1984 season-opener in Long Beach. During their transition season from Champ Car to the IndyCar Series in 2008, the team won twice -- both on street courses (St. Pete and Detroit). They also earned one pole with Justin Wilson for the Champ Car finale on the streets of Long Beach. Rahal is confident that the team will again be competitive on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn course in St. Petersburg and he will have another chance of victory here.
"It does increase the expectations," said Rahal of being able to hold off veterans Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan to win by a 3.5-second margin here last year. "It would be great to win two years in a row. That's the idea we're going there with. I want to defend my win and that's what we're going to try to do. It was exciting to have so many guys behind me that I looked up to for so long and to go and win against them was a dream come true. I have been watching them for many years and even to be in a situation to dice it out with them was thrilling. I look forward to doing it again!"
Although last year's St. Pete race was Round 2 in the championship, it was Rahal's debut after he was unable to race in the opening round on the oval in Homestead, Fla. the week before due to a testing crash on Tuesday of race week. The team was unable to repair the car in time for the race so instead concentrated on having it ready for a test on the road course in Sebring the Tuesday before the St. Pete race. Rain limited the team's test to 10 laps but they arrived to St. Pete undaunted. Unfortunately the rain came again on race day but after Rahal was hit by Will Power on Lap 37 and dropped to 23rd, Rahal's engineer Todd Malloy elected to put him on an alternate pit strategy that ultimately worked in the team's favor.
"Last year the weekend was good from the start," said Rahal who started ninth. "Realistically we had a pretty good car and were quick in every session. Qualifying didn't go quite as planned but we were in contention and we had a pretty good car to go racing with. Once the race started we saw the rain, then when (Will) Power hit us everything just played perfectly into our hands and that helped us as much as anything to have a good result."
NHLR ran limited test miles prior to the start of the 2008 IndyCar Series season due to the timing of the reunification of open-wheel racing and the fact that they received their race cars a mere three weeks before the start of the season. This year the team has not only tested on the Homestead, Fla. oval, Rahal and the McDonald's team completed their first ever full day of Indy car testing on a road/street course at Sebring International Raceway in early March and later ran another two days on the Barber Motorsports Park road course. Rahal believes that both he and the team are on a more level playing field this season.
"Experience is huge," said the New Albany, Ohio resident of his first-time events at 14 of the 18 tracks last season. "It allows you to bring more confidence because you know the cars, you know the tracks. Coming from Champ Car and transitioning here last year, a lot of learning has taken place since that move. This season, the entire team comes in with a lot more confidence, knowing that we ought to have a much better shot at being successful and winning races. Last season we didn't have much experience but this year we obviously we have a lot more after having a full season behind us. We're looking forward to going back to these places for our second race at most of them. Hopefully it will be a big advantage for us when we go back to St. Pete. We had a pretty good car last year in St. Pete so I can't expect too much there."
The 2009 event will mark the third time for the team to compete on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn St. Petersburg street course. In the 2003 Champ Car race here Bruno Junqueira finished third for the team and then-rookie Sebastien Bourdais became the first driver to win the pole in his series debut since Nigel Mansell won pole for the '93 Australian event -- also while driving for then-named Newman/Haas Racing. Bourdais led 30 laps and also set the fastest race lap but put too much pressure on himself to get back to the front after the team pit him out of sequence and contact ended his race. In their second event here in 2008 Justin Wilson qualified third and led 18 laps but the rain hindered his strategy before Rahal went on to make history here. Both Rahal and new teammate Robert Doornbos are hoping to add to those numbers both here and at other venues this season.
"The way I look at it, if we can get some victories this year, if we can fight and be in the top five on the ovals, do the same on the road courses, we can finish in the top five in the championship at the end of the year," Rahal added. "That's certainly doable. It's going to take a lot of consistency and a fast car, and I think we can achieve that."
Another history making year would be nice for Rahal and the team. At the Milwaukee Mile oval last year, he narrowly missed out on his first pole when he trailed Marco Andretti by 2/10th of a second over a four lap average to start a career best second in what was the first Andretti/Rahal front row since 1992 in Loudon, NH. Andretti now holds that record but Rahal is optimistic that being able to build on the knowledge he gained last season will help bring him closer to the front.
"This will be the first year that I will have driven the same thing for two consecutive years," said Rahal who progressed from the Atlantic series to Champ Car to the IndyCar Series from 2006 to 2008. "And I think as far as the confidence that it gives you, it's one of those things that once you have an understanding of the tracks, understanding of the cars, you can focus on what it takes and what you need to be more successful and more competitive the next season. I've definitely taken this off-season more serious than ever before and focused on my fitness and everything else to make sure that, as a whole, we have a chance to go out there and win and hopefully fight for the championship this year."
The 2009 IndyCar Series season opens with Round 1 of 17 -- the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on April 5 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. The 2009 schedule, one of the most diverse in all of motorsports, featuresraces onovals, permanent road courses and temporary street circuits, allbroadcast worldwide through a comprehensive, long-term agreement with Versus and ESPN. All races in 2009 will be telecast in High Definition. Coverage of the Honda Grand Prix will begin with a pre-race show on Saturday from 4-5 p.m. EDT while coverage of the 100-lap race will air from 2-5 p.m. EDT on Sunday. Both broadcasts will air on the VERSUS network.