Next-generation rivalry brews on IndyCar tracks
by Paul Newberry
Associated Press Sports Writer
May 26, 2012 12:40 AM | 957 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
INDIANAPOLIS — When Bobby Rahal was racing, he hung a picture of Michael Andretti in his workout room.

That’s who Rahal wanted to beat more than anyone else on the track.

And rest assured, Andretti felt the same way.

Looks like that vitriol’s been passed on to their kids.

Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti have developed quite an IndyCar rivalry, which was only heightened when Rahal took the blame for an April crash at Long Beach that catapulted Andretti’s car into the air before it slid into a tire barrier.

“He’s still all worked up about it,” Rahal snipped this week. “To me, I don’t even care about it anymore. Forget it. It took me out, too.”

Then, with a healthy bit of sarcasm, he added, “Like I was meaning to do that.”

IndyCar officials are loving all the bitter feelings, especially since it involves two of the sport’s most prominent families.

Mario Andretti won the Indianapolis 500 in 1969 and spent the rest of his long career futilely chasing another win. His son, Michael, led more laps than any other driver without actually winning the biggest race. Now there’s Marco, who nearly won as a rookie in 2006 but was edged at the line by Sam Hornish in one of the closest finishes ever.

“I still live for all this,” 72-year-old Mario said Friday. “I ride with Marco every inch of the way.”

The Rahals are just as passionate about the Brickyard. Bobby won the 500 in 1986, along with three series championships. His son became the youngest winner in IndyCar history at age 19, finished third in last year’s 500 and is viewed as one of the brightest young prospects in the series.

Not surprisingly, all that success has led to plenty of clashes between the two families.

“We’re competitors. What is yours is not mine — and vice versa,” Mario Andretti said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. If it gets out of hand, that’s one thing. But it doesn’t.”

The second- and third-generation drivers can be respectful of each other off the track, as they were during a promotional appearance in New York earlier this week. They talked of the rivalry being healthy for the sport and fist-bumped each other on the way out of the room.

But don’t look for them to become dinner buddies anytime soon.

The 23-year-old Graham, especially, seems to thrive on the idea of butting heads with the Andrettis.

“I can flat out tell you, when I was in Star Mazda (a developmental series), the goal we set the first day we were a team was that we’d be faster than Marco at every single session of the year,” Rahal said.

Why was that?

“Because,” Rahal shot back, “he was an Andretti.”

It’s not too surprising, given the way Graham’s dad felt about Marco’s father.

“When my dad worked out in our fitness room when I was a kid, on the wall was a picture of Michael,” Graham recalled. “It was motivation. That’s the way it is, that’s the way it’s always been.”

Let the trash-talking begin!

“My dad beat the living you-know-what out of Michael,” Graham said. “Look at the history. Yeah, Michael won a lot of race of races, but he didn’t win an Indy 500 or three championships.”

Series officials know a good rivalry, with two recognizable names, can only help build interest in a series that still struggles mightily to get noticed beyond its signature event. Certainly, the folks over at ABC, which is broadcasting the race and desperately seeking out new story lines now that Danica Patrick has jumped to NASCAR, would love to see Marco and Graham battling for the win on Sunday.

“From our perspective in the booth, a head-to-head with a Rahal and an Andretti over the last 10 laps, that would be a great story,” said former IndyCar driver Eddie Cheever, who is now an analyst for the network. “You know that those two guys going into the last corner are not going to be thinking, ‘Oh, I hope he doesn’t get angry at me today.’ They’ve going to be going for the final jab.”

Cheever believes the animosity is genuine, not contrived, the result of natural competition passed down from father to son (or, in the case of the Andrettis, grandfather to grandson).

“It’s a deep-seeded, well-nourished animosity,” Cheever said. “It’s good. I like it that two new drivers have the right amount of ambition and are not embarrassed about saying what they’re thinking. I’m sure it irritates the hell out of them when one goes faster than the other, as it should. If it didn’t, they’re probably in the wrong business.”

Marco seems more confident than ever, with good reason. All month long, he’s been one of the fastest cars on the track. Pole day was actually a bit of a disappointment, as he settled for the fourth-best time and a starting spot on the inside of the second row. He had the third-fastest time Friday in the final practice and the two guys ahead of him, Ganassi Racing stars Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, figured Andretti was actually holding something back.

“I think it’s ours to lose,” Andretti gushed.

Mario is impressed with his 25-year-old grandson’s increasing skill behind the wheel. Marco has always been able to go fast, and bravado has never been a problem, but he’s had trouble harnessing the enormous potential he showed during his first race at Indy.

“For the first time, I think he’s really been tuning in with the car, just the slightest changes,” Mario said. “That was one of my specialties. When you can reach the sweet spot by making just small, small changes to get it as close as you can, then you’ve got something. He’s been doing that. I just hope it carries over to Sunday.”

Rahal, who races for Ganassi’s satellite team, also figures to be one of the top contenders. He’ll start 12th from the outside of the fourth row.

While it pains him to say it, Rahal acknowledges that win by either him or — gulp — an Andretti would be a major boost to America’s most famous race.

“It would be a great thing for an American to win, but it would be an even better thing if it’s a recognizable name,” Rahal said. “It’s probably no secret that I really don’t want Marco to win, but at the end of the day it would be good to get one of our names back up there in the sport. That would mean a lot.”
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