INDIANAPOLIS — Graham Rahal says IndyCar racing needs bigger names, higher-profile sponsors, more fans and a young driver to sell the sport. And he knows just the guy to do it.
A 20-year-old American.
"I'd love to be the face of this series, and I think the potential is there," Rahal said. "But you have to become successful first."
Rahal is making progress on that front.
After becoming the youngest winner in series history at the 2008 season-opener, he won the poles at the St. Petersburg, Fla., road course and the Kansas oval, then narrowly missed qualifying for the front row in Sunday's Indianapolis 500. Rahal will start fourth, the inside of Row 2, as the top American in this weekend's 33-car field.
Challenging him as the future star of IndyCar racing are other youngsters such as 22-year-old Marco Andretti and 20-year-old Mario Moraes of Brazil, who both qualified in the front three rows.
Moraes fits the old model. The Brazilian got his start in the South American F3 series and moved to Britain's F3 series in 2007 before joining IndyCars last season. In 19 career IndyCar starts, Moraes has three top-10 finishes — none higher than seventh.
And he fits right in among the first four rows of Sunday's race, which include drivers from Brazil, Australia, Scotland, New
Zealand and England. The only Americans in the bunch are Rahal, Andretti, who starts eighth, and 27-year-old Danica Patrick, in 10th.
Longtime veterans acknowledge that, for the series' long-term health, Indy needs a young American to reach Victory Lane in its signature event.
"If it's not me, I think it would be great to have an American win because the series has a lot of foreigners already," said 35-year-old Tony Kanaan, the 2004 points champ and a Brazilian. "It needs to be someone with a personality that fans love, and it needs to be someone that hasn't won it before."
Rahal has yet to join his father, Bobby, in the Indy winners' club.
And Andretti, who earned a second-place finish at the 2006 Indy 500 as a rookie, longs to be the first Andretti to sip Indy's traditional milk since his grandfather, Mario, last did it four decades ago.
Clearly, having another Andretti face on the Borg-Warner Trophy would be a boon for the series.
"To bring the name back to Victory Circle would be awesome," Andretti said.
Still, Rahal believes he's IndyCar's best future hope because of his commitment to the series.
Most international drivers, such as Moraes, grew up dreaming of running Formula One and still aspire to that series.
Andretti also has openly expressed interest in F1, though his father's ill-fated overseas venture makes him leery of taking just a job.
"That's something you learn from; you need a team to be fully behind you," he said. "Looking back, I don't think he (Michael Andretti) had that. And you can't be the second driver on a team, you've got to be the first."
But Rahal insists he's here to stay as long as the series will keep him.
That's a drastic change from recent years when some of the series' best and brightest — Tony Stewart, Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti — switched to stock cars.
Now Rahal's working on bolstering his resume to back up his dreams.
After growing up on road courses, Rahal has showed significant improvement on ovals this season, qualifying well at Kansas and Indy and finishing seventh at Kansas.
In his second IndyCar season, Rahal already has six top-10s, including two this season and the one victory.
A second career win, at Indianapolis, would certainly boost his profile and give the series a bolt of excitement.
He can't wait to get it started — for himself and the series.
"You know how it once was, and we all want to see it get back and get even bigger," he said. "If you're going to see that happen, it's going to take someone (young) winning the 500."