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The Score - Anthony Schoettle

Welcome to The Score, your place for hard-hitting sports business news, fast-breaking updates and fuel-injected debate.  Buckle up.  I'm your host, Anthony Schoettle, IBJ sports reporter.

Sports Business

IndyCar's Graham Rahal playing dangerous waiting game

March 3, 2010
KEYWORDS Sports Business

He’s young, good-looking and personable.

Oh, and did I mention, he’s American.

And today, as IndyCar Series team crews and drivers are packing their bags and boarding a plane for the first race in Brazil March 14, Graham Rahal will be sitting at home wondering if he’s making the right move.

While the IndyCar Series is going through a painful dearth of American drivers, one of open-wheel’s best drivers—certainly on road courses—is playing a dangerous waiting game.

It’s perilous for him. For series sponsors. And the series itself, who can scarcely afford to lose one of its budding stars.

Rahal is at least partially to blame for his drive into open-wheel’s rideless abyss. There he sits with the likes of Paul Tracy, Ed Carpenter and Buddy Rice to name a few.

But unlike those other drivers, Rahal has an offer sitting in front of him. Or at least he did.

Sources told IBJ that Dale Coyne Racing put a two-year contract in front of Rahal that would pay the 21-year-old a nice six-figure annual salary. But Rahal, sources said, wanted a one-year deal.

Why? Simple, really.

Rahal, arguably one of the best pure driving talents in open-wheel, and certainly a proven road racing power, sees where the series is going. With a greater number of road races coming to the IndyCar Series, Rahal will be an imminent threat to win the overall championship.

But he knows he has to have the right equipment, probably on road courses more than anywhere else. That’s why Rahal is holding out for a ride with Roger Penske’s or Chip Ganassi’s team. He’d also listen to an offer from Andretti Autosport.

Rahal knows there’s not a deal from one of IndyCar’s behemoths coming in 2010. But 2011 may be another story, and Rahal doesn’t want to be tied to what he considers a second-tier team when the big boys come calling.

Rahal also understands with a new chassis coming to the series in 2012, it will be paramount to be on a team with significant resources to make a smooth transition.

If Tony George was still in charge of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there’s little doubt among motorsports cognoscenti that Rahal would have a one-year deal by now. Either George would have brokered the deal, or he simply would have tapped into the deep coffers of the Hulman-George empire, as he’s done so many times before, and made it happen.

And why not? There’s a lot riding on Rahal’s participation this year.

Izod, the series’ new title sponsor, this year is begging series and team officials to find a way to get Rahal on the track. Rahal, the son of 1986 Indy 500 champ Bobby Rahal, has been popular at sponsor outing this off-season and the clothier wants to use him in their IndyCar-centric campaign alongside fellow pretty boy Ryan Hunter-Reay.

I simultaneously feel sorry for and admire IndyCar Series’ new boss, Jeff Belskus. He’s been asked by the board of directors who sign his check to be more frugal and make the operation run more like a business.

So Belskus has chosen to step back and let the free market run its course. Problem is, it may do so at the series’ peril. The series isn’t in much of a position to pass on short-term gain in hopes of a long-term payoff.

Who’s kidding who? The long-term future of this series at this point, is anything but assured.

Rahal's future isn't in much better shape. Despite speculation, Rahal can forget about NASCAR. No one in fender-land is looking for an open-wheel road course specialist. Certainly not in 2010. And any investment in Rahal in NASCAR is a long shot and a long-term proposition. And the good ole boys are looking for a much quicker hit than that in these uncertain economic times.

There was speculation that Graham's dad and David Letterman would pull together some cash to put Graham on the track this year. But that is looking less likely by the minute.

Meanwhile, Rahal's situation is screaming at a deafening tone to young, talented (and most notably, American) race car drivers everywhere; "There's no place for you in IndyCar." I mean, if Graham Rahal can't get a ride, who can? Well, Danica Patrick, of course, but other than that, it requires a green card and a seven-figure check to get into the cockpit of an open-wheeler these days.

So here we sit.

Rahal waiting for a bigger, better deal that may never come.

Izod officials crossing their fingers that somehow, someway Rahal gets an IndyCar seat THIS year.

Belskus breaking into a sweat mustache praying that the free market system doesn’t come up snake eyes for his series.

And open-wheel fans?

They couldn’t be more confused if it was 1996 and Tony George was walking through the door with a dead-blow hammer.
 

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