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MILLER: Endangered Species
Written by: Robin Miller   
Indianapolis, IN
 
It’s less than a month before the IndyCar season opener and there are only two American drivers with full-time rides. That’s bad enough but what makes it even worse is that Graham Rahal isn’t one of them.
The one young Americas who IndyCar fans have grown attached to appears to be headed for the unemployment line. (LAT) » More Photos

The 21-year-old wunderkind, who was consistently the best in class behind the Ganassi/Penske armada in 2009, is in real danger of being a spectator in 2010.

Newman/Haas/Lanigan, his team since 2007, couldn’t find sponsorship yet strung him along until a few weeks ago when there were no other options.

KV Racing tried to put a deal together for Rahal but wasn’t successful.

Dale Coyne made him an offer but it was too binding for a talented young man who doesn’t need a lateral move or a misstep in a career destined for the top.

The Rahal/Letterman operation, reduced to sports cars last year, is still a possibility if Bobby or his son can raise funding.

Chip Ganassi says he’d run Rahal at Indianapolis with a little help but can’t field a third car for the year without a similar budget to Target’s.

Terry Angstadt, whose last-minute save kept Ryan Hunter-Reay in a car last season and IZOD appeased, has been trying to get Graham a backer for months but isn’t going to be able to get any “house money” from the series.

So while Hidecki Mutoh (he’ll be in the NHL seat), James Rossiter (the third KV Racing car), Takuma Sato, Milka Duno (likely in Coyne’s other car), E.J. Viso, Mike Conway and Ana Beatriz head for Alabama this week to test, young Rahal will be driving around the Midwest looking for sponsors.

That’s how insane things have become in America’s supposed pinnacle of open wheel racing.

A fan friendly, media-savvy, second generation whiz kid from Columbus, Ohio who is truly the future of IndyCar, is outside looking in at a series that desperately needs American heroes.

“You know its bad enough I can’t get a sniff of an Indy ride anymore but it’s unthinkable that a gifted young guy with looks who can speak and drive like Graham has nothing,” said Buddy Rice, the 2004 Indy 500 winner who was forced to turn to sports car racing in ‘09.

“He’s a rising star and deserves to be on one of the top teams. It sucks but it’s been going this way for a while now.”

In a normal world, Roger Penske and Ganassi would be in a bidding war for Rahal, whose maturity behind the wheel belies his lack of experience. But The Captain already has three good drivers and Ganassi is set with a pair of champions.

NHL and KV leapfrogged AGR in ’09 and challenged the top dogs on several occasions and Coyne got his first win with Justin Wilson but has since lost engineer Bill Pappas to KV, which now has three paid shoes.

In a stick and ball sport, somebody of Rahal’s age, skills and potential would already be signed to a long term contract and his biggest worry would be which ocean to
live by in the off-season.

He doesn’t just belong on the grid, he belongs with a team that’s capable of winning.

And it’s not that Graham hasn’t always had good equipment or he had to tow his own car and work on it, but he’s made the most of his opportunities. He went from go-karts to being Sebastien Bourdais’ teammate almost overnight and was undaunted. He won his initial IRL race in the rain with two seasoned pros on his butt the final 15 laps. He qualified in the Fast Six in all but one race last year and made big strides in his oval-track craft.

The bottom line is the problem. It takes millions to compete and convincing U.S. companies to invest in a series where the majority of the races are on VERSUS is obviously a huge hurdle. You can’t fault the Euros and Brazilians for finding money and you can’t fault most of the owners for taking it.

Paul Newman and Carl Haas spent their own money maintaining a competitive environment and the former would likely be livid with what’s going on along with his partner, who has sadly slipped and no longer calls the shots. Mike Lanigan and Bernie Haas do not see eye-to-eye on anything so he’s gone.

It’s understood why the Hulman-George family put the brakes on Tony George’s subsidy program and they’re trying to wean teams off begging for handouts. But this is a special circumstance and there’s more than familiarity in young Rahal – there’s equity.

Indy car racing started with Americans and flourished with Vuky, A.J., Parnelli, Mario, J.R., Gordy and the Unsers before they passed the baton to Michael Andretti, Sullivan, Rahal and Little Al. Today, Americans are endangered species on the circuit that cultivated those legends.

Graham Rahal wants to make his mark and living driving Indy Cars. He doesn’t want to drive stock cars or take a meeting with a NASCAR team in the first week of March, but he’s running out of options.

And IndyCar is running out of time to protect a very valuable asset.

Robin Miller became an Indy-car junkie in late 1950s and stooged for his hero, Jim Hurtubise, at the 1968 Indy 500. He went on to work as a vent man and board man on Indy pit crews from 1971-77. Miller bought a Formula Ford from Andy Granatelli in 1972 and raced it in SCCA until 1974 when he purchased a midget from Gary Bettenhausen, competing in the USAC midget series from 1975-82.

Robin flunked out of Ball State College in 1968 and began working at The Indianapolis Star sports department in 1969, covered motorsports there from 1969-2000.

In addition to his broadcast work. Miller's also covered IndyCar racing for Autoweek, Autosport, Car & Driver and On Track magazines over the past 35 years.


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The opinions reflected herein are solely those of the above commentator and are not necessarily those of SPEEDtv.com, FOX, NewsCorp, or Speed Channel
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