St. Pete: Series qualifying report

RAHAL BECOMES YOUNGEST POLE WINNER IN INDYCAR SERIES HISTORY ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., (Saturday, April 4, 2009) - If Graham Rahal could race on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., every weekend, who knows how many records he could...

RAHAL BECOMES YOUNGEST POLE WINNER IN INDYCAR SERIES HISTORY

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., (Saturday, April 4, 2009) - If Graham Rahal could race on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., every weekend, who knows how many records he could set. Last year, he became the youngest race winner in major open-wheel history when he took the checkered flag in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Saturday he became the youngest pole winner in series history when he survived the IndyCar Series' three-round, knockout qualification format to win his first career pole in his return to the circuit.

He lapped the 14-turn, 1.8-mile course in 1 minute, 2.4110 seconds, 103.828 mph

At 20 years, 90 days, Rahal took the record from Marco Andretti, who won the pole last June at Milwaukee at the age of 21 years, 79 days.

Rahal survived the first two knockout rounds of PEAK Performance Pole Qualifying to advance to the Firestone Fast Six. The Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing driver entered the session with the third-quickest time and came out of the 10-minute shootout on top.

The qualifying session marked the first time that IndyCar Series teams have used Firestone's new alternate tires. Known as "reds" because of their red sidewall, the tires have been introduced for the seven road/street course races on the 2009 schedule to offer improved grip at the expense of some durability. Teams have three sets to use at their discretion during practice, qualifying and the race with the stipulation that one unused set be used for at least two laps during the race. Rahal used alternates early during qualifying and then hung on as others used them late in the session.

"We didn't really know what to expect because we had the primary tires on there while a couple of guys had the alternates (in the Firestone Fast Six)," Rahal said. "The alternates were consistently faster today. I didn't really know what to think.

"It's an exciting day for me and a great day for the whole McDonald's team. It's exciting to be here. I obviously love St. Pete. It was good to me last year, and it's great to be on the pole this year."

Justin Wilson will start second next to Rahal on the front row. The Dale Coyne Racing driver turned in that team's best ever qualifying effort.

Tony Kanaan and Ryan Briscoe will start in Row 2. Dario Franchitti, competing in his first IndyCar Series points event since winning the championship in 2007, qualified fifth. He will share Row 3 with Will Power.

***

Defending race winner Graham Rahal has a large contingent of family and friends attending this weekend.

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 02 McDonald's Racing Team): "I've got my mom here, my little sister, who never comes to the races, so that's exciting. My dad is here for part of the weekend, my uncle, his side of the family, and my mom's boyfriend Chris. They've been at Disney World the last couple of days, and now they're headed over here. My uncle and my dad were here last year, but this year it worked perfectly with my sister's spring break. My mom just enjoys coming to the races."

***

HVM Racing is ready to lose a few spare tires. The team kicked off a two-month fitness challenge Friday at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with the goal to collectively lose 100 pounds - about the weight of a set of IndyCar Series tires - by the Indianapolis 500.

Huddled around a stack of tires representing the amount of weight they will aim to lose, the team gathered at the HVM transporter to hear the details of their challenge from Luigi Gratton, M.D., a member of Herbalife's Nutrition Advisory Board. Dr. Gratton will work with the team over the course of the challenge to teach smart nutrition habits to help reach their goal.

"Being on a pit crew is no easy job," said team owner Keith Wiggins. "The team members carry a lot of weight on the shoulders, often literally. And we want them to be at their best for every race."

E.J. Viso, driver of the No. 13 PDVSA HVM Racing entry, is a big believer in fitness and nutrition and wants his team members to enjoy the same benefits of eating right and keeping in good health. Viso, who is sponsored by Herbalife, introduced Dr. Gratton to the team and encouraged them to try the doctor's advice.

In addition to setting the goal of dropping 100 pounds by the Indy 500, Dr. Gratton also challenged the team to lose a total of 300 pounds by the end of the racing season.

***

More than 28,000 laps have been logged and more than 50,000 miles recorded since Dreyer & Reinbold Racing burst onto the IndyCar Series scene with a victory in the 2000 season opener at Walt Disney World Speedway.

Robbie Buhl drove the No. 24 car to victory in that 2000 race and stepped out of the cockpit in 2004 to concentrate on full-time ownership with the team. With 78 starts (30 top-10 finishes, including two victories), he notes it was "a tough transition."

Now Dreyer & Reinbold Racing reaches its 200th IndyCar Series race this weekend at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

ROBBIE BUHL: "Ever since I was a kid I wanted to race cars. When I was a driver-owner, I was involved in different components of how we were growing this team. But at the end of the day my ultimate responsibility was driving that race car. It's been a tough transition to learn how I enjoy not having the ultimate responsibility of not always driving and the success over here. Now, as an owner and playing that role without having any driving responsibility, my focus is spread amongst different things."

DENNIS REINBOLD: "In some ways, it seems like it was just yesterday that it was our first race and we rolled out in Orlando after three weeks of preparing and scrambling to get onto the track. In other ways, it seems like it's been quite awhile. You think of the people and the faces that have come and gone and changed in the sport in the past 10 years. Things are definitely different today in a much better way. This is a bigger business than when we first started."

***

The National Guard is in its second full season as a sponsor of the Panther Racing car. Driver Dan Wheldon was delivered to the St. Petersburg racetrack courtesy of a Florida National Guard Black Hawk helicopter. He was joined for the ride by Staff Sgt. Alexandra Espinel, a Winter Park, Fla., native who is this weekend's National Guard "Real Hero."

At each IndyCar Seris event, Panther Racing selects one hero from each Guard unit located near the racetrack and places the soldier's picture on the back of the team's autograph cards to honor their service. Additionally, the team hosts local soldiers throughout every race weekend.

"It's a proud moment representing the Florida National Guard," said Espinel, who has received the Army Service Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal and the Florida Service Ribbon during her six years of service to the nation. "It's just good to be a part of it and I'm looking forward to the race."

***

E.J. Viso and HVM Racing entertained a group of at-risk students from Thomasville, Ga. The second-year IndyCar Series driver was providing play-by-play to the Bishop Hall Charter School group as mechanics worked on suspension changes.

"Every one of these students has had a challenge in their lives and would drop out of school if not for a school like ours," said Dan Salveter, the school's psychologist. "This is good for them to see the teamwork and preparation that goes on to succeed. We try to get that across to them -- if you plan to succeed and have a vision you can achieve it.

"Many of the kids have not been outside of southwest Georgia; maybe they've been to Atlanta. We're trying to broaden their horizons -- to see there's more out there than dropping out of high school, staying in Thomasville, Ga., and maybe working at Burger King."

The group, which is camping nearby as it enjoys the school's spring break, also visited with Firestone Indy Lights team owner Sam Schmidt, a quadriplegic who heads up the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation.

***

PEAK PERFORMANCE POLE AWARD QUALIFYING NOTES:

* Graham Rahal wins the PEAK Performance Pole Award. It is the first pole of his career.

* Rahal becomes the youngest pole winner in IndyCar Series history at 20 years, 90 days. The previous youngest was Marco Andretti, who was 21 years, 79 days when he won the pole at Milwaukee last June.

* This is the first IndyCar Series pole for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. They started second twice last year (Milwaukee, Watkins Glen).

* Justin Wilson qualified second, tying his best IndyCar Series start. He also started second last year at Watkins Glen.

* Second is the best starting position ever for Dale Coyne Racing. The team started fourth twice in Champ Car (Bruno Junqueira at Zolder in 2007, Gualter Salles at Long Beach in 1998). Its best IndyCar Series start was seventh last year at Edmonton with Junqueira.

* Tony Kanaan qualified third. Kanaan has participated in 15 of 17 Firestone Fast Six sessions since the format was introduced in 2005. He has started in the top six in all four races at St. Petersburg and has never finished below third.

* Ryan Briscoe qualified fourth. He participated in the Firestone Fast Six for the seventh consecutive race, the longest active streak among drivers.

* Dario Franchitti qualified fifth in his first race in the IndyCar Series since he won the championship in 2007. This is his 12th consecutive top-five start in the IndyCar Series dating back to Texas 2007 and his 21st consecutive top-10 start dating back to Michigan 2006.

* Will Power qualified sixth, his third consecutive top-six start on road/street courses.

* Team Penske was the only team with more than one driver to participate in the Firestone Fast Six.

* Alex Tagliani qualified seventh. He also qualified seventh in the non-points race at Surfers Paradise last year and went on to finish fourth in the race.

* Raphael Matos qualified ninth in his IndyCar Series debut, the highest of the four rookies in the field.

***

PEAK PERFORMANCE POLE QUALIFYING QUOTES:

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 02 McDonald's Racing Team, pole winner): "It's an exciting day for me and a great day for the whole McDonald's team. It's exciting to be here. I obviously love St. Pete. It was good to me last year, and it's great to be on the pole this year. We didn't really know what to expect because we had the primary tires on there while a couple of guys had the alternates (in the Firestone Fast Six). The alternates were consistently faster today. I didn't really know what to think. I'll tell you what, the car was good, the guys were working hard, and it's great to be on top."

JUSTIN WILSON (No. 19 Sonny's Bar-B-Q, second): "It's great that we're second. I'm very pleased with the team. We've worked hard together up to this point. We're such a small team in comparison to the guys we're ahead of. So I'm very pleased, but at the same time, I'm very competitive and even on a small team competing against big teams, I want to be on pole. I want to be the fastest. We had the chance today, but unfortunately we got held up and that ruined our best two laps. And we actually did our quickest lap on a second run on the same set of tires, so there's a lot of potential in there, we just didn't get to get it out today."

TONY KANAAN (No. 11 Team 7-Eleven, third): "It was quite competitive. It was fun to see a lot of people trying to play different strategies on the tires. It was really tough. I think we saw that it was really close for fourth to eighth, and we thought, ‘If we don't put on the red (alternate) tires, we're not going to make it to Q2 (Segment 2).' I ended up using my two red sets in Q1 and Q2. It's really exciting when things happen like this. It think it's going to be really fun this year competition-wise because the field is much deeper."

RYAN BRISCOE (No. 6 Team Penske, fourth): "Qualifying in the Firestone Fast Six is always an achievement, and we'll see if we can keep moving forward for the race. It's going to be tough. We've got this alternate tire, a soft tire, that we all have to use in the race tomorrow. We all got a taste of it today. It seemed like it had a little more grip, but in the Fast Six (Dario) Franchitti went slower on it. We'll see what the temperature is; it could be hurtful for a lot of cars in the race, but we've all got to use them at least once and it could mix things up. I'm really looking forward to it."

DARIO FRANCHITTI (No. 10 Air Wick, fifth): "I think the track is the same as it was the last time I was here in '07. It will be a great race tomorrow. I think the guys did a great job putting up the track and it's all good. As Tony (Kanaan) says, it's a typical street course, getting faster all the time and getting more rubber down."

WILL POWER (No. 3 Team Penske, sixth): "It was tough going, especially in the first session. The Team Penske car would have been safe on blacks (primary tires), but we weren't going to take the risk. It really threw a stunner in the works in terms of tire selection, but we got through each round. It was hard work because I think we did five or six new tire runs in a row. Team Penske needs to work on the car a little bit more, but we know we have a good car, a good team and I'd love to be on the podium tomorrow."

ALEX TAGLIANI (No. 34 Rexall Edmonton Indy, seventh): "I'm very happy with today. It felt more like our first real day on track since yesterday was more of a testing session, just getting back into the groove of things. We almost made it into the Firestone Fast Six. We missed it by just over a couple of thousandths of a second. However, we made it in front of the Ganassi car of (Scott) Dixon and three AGR cars. I think that's pretty good. I think the team deserves a lot of credit. We came here at the last minute, and we know that there's more in the car that we need to learn, but we're just limited with time right now. I'm very pleased that we put in a good performance like this in our first showing, and I hope that we have more to come."

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing, eighth): "We were consistent, but consistently slow. I think the concept with the red tires, and the change there, even for the first go at it, added a lot of excitement. Not just for the fans, but for the drivers as well. Today was tough. You really had to piece a lap together, and I can't say I got any one lap together. It's so frustrating - obviously not where we want to start. Getting knocked out of the top six is pretty tough, but we're going to work out something strategy-wise to make up those spots tomorrow. My teammate did a hell of a job, but he got pushed back there toward the end. He had the car to be on pole. All in all, it was an average day and I think both of us are pretty disappointed."

RAPHAEL MATOS (No. 2 Marines Luczo Dragon Racing, ninth): "I am happy for the team that we achieved a top-10 in our first race. I think we could have made the top six but I got blocked on my quickest lap. I'm very encouraged by our progress. We made a lot of improvement from yesterday but still have a lot to do. This team has done an amazing job. There has not been one mechanical problem, which just shows how good they are. They have done so well together, and I am very happy I could deliver a good qualifying for the team and the Marines. We needed this."

***

SUNDAY'S SCHEDULE (all times local):

6 a.m. Garages open
8:30-9 a.m. IndyCar Series warm-up
2 p.m. Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg pre-race
2:45 p.m. Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (100 laps/181 miles)

-credit: irl

Be part of something big

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Justin Wilson , Gualter Salles , Robbie Buhl , Bruno Junqueira , Alex Tagliani , Dario Franchitti , Tony Kanaan , Graham Rahal , Dan Wheldon , Sam Schmidt , Ryan Briscoe , Marco Andretti , Chip Ganassi , Will Power , Dale Coyne
Teams Panther Racing , Team Penske , Chip Ganassi Racing , Dreyer & Reinbold Racing , HVM Racing , Dragon Racing , Dale Coyne Racing