IndyCar Series newcomer Graham Rahal made history at the Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg by becoming the youngest winner of a major open-wheel race at the age of 19 years and 93 days.
More impressive, however, was the fact that the Florida street circuit outing was the Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing driver's first in the IndyCar Series, Rahal having had to withdraw from last weekend's Homestead-Miami Speedway opener after damaging his car in a pre-season test the week before the race.
Rahal, who started in ninth in a rain-affected race, overcame a setback on lap 37, when he made contact with fellow Champ Car convert Will Power, to win the IndyCar Series' first temporary street course race of the season, and ousted fellow 'son of' Marco Andretti as the youngest winner. Andretti was 19 years and 167 days old when he won at Infineon Raceway in 2006.
“It was tough,” Rahal said, “After getting hit by Will in the rain and everything, it was going to be a tough start. But it doesn't get any sweeter than this - to expect a win in our first race...... We had the pace and pulled away from them, so it wasn't like we lucked into it. This is just awesome.”
Rahal, the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal, becomes just the fourth driver in history to win on his IndyCar Series debut and just the fourth rookie to win in their first IndyCar season. He also ensured that those teams making the switch from the near-defunct Champ Car World Series could shake the 'when will they win' monkey from their backs early in the campaign after fending off double defending race winner Helio Castroneves in the final stages.
“Obviously Helio is very successful and has won a lot of races but, at the same time, I knew we had the pace and I knew that, if I could just keep calm, we could pull away," the youngster continued, "We were pulling away before and we were aggressively fuel saving, so I knew that, if I could attack the car, we could pull away.
“On the last lap, you just don't want your focus to get off of the car and the race so, for me, I just needed to keep calm and make it through the last set of corners, especially since there was a yellow out on turn eleven. I just wanted to be cautious, but I knew we had quite the gap, so I wasn't too worried. This has just worked out so well. It's awesome.”
Rahal Sr, who runs a rival team in the IRL-sanctioned series, was naturally delighted for his son, who joins Buzz Calkins - in the first ever IRL event at Walt Disney World in 1996 - Juan Montoya and Scott Dixon as first-start winners.
“Do you think he'll ever listen to any advice from me again?” he smiled, “He really thinks he knows everything now. But he drove a phenomenal race and the crew did a great job. The engineer gave him a great car, and he was fast at the end. That's the best conditions, a lot of people banging each other, and he kept it together. I'd hire him, but I can't afford him. I'm really pleased. Pleased for him and pleased for the team.”