INDIANAPOLIS - If Graham Rahal didn't know it before, he does now: There's no such thing as a birthright at the Indianapolis 500.
Having a famous name didn't guarantee Rahal, son of 1986 winner Bobby Rahal, a smooth path to his first Indy 500. But after a few speed bumps that included getting bumped three times and venting at his team on the first day of qualifying, Rahal is ready to race Sunday.
Although a top-10 finish is a realistic goal for a rookie driver and a team still coming to grips with a new race car after coming to IndyCar from the now-defunct Champ Car series, Rahal wants to uphold the family name with a win.
'It's tradition, it's the history - especially a name that's won in the past,' said Rahal, who will start 13th. 'I think that makes it even bigger. So obviously for me, it would just be fitting to follow in the footsteps and win this event. But it's tough. Even if it doesn't happen this year, if it happens in the next couple it would be pretty exciting.'
There are 11 rookies in the field for Sunday's race, but none with a bigger name than Rahal's. The 19-year-old already is the youngest winner in IndyCar history after winning at St. Petersburg, Fla. earlier this year. But he says the victory hasn't sunk in.
'I've caught myself in conversation with people, they'd ask me if I want to go to Formula One,' Rahal said. 'I'd say, 'Well, I think I need to win a race here first.' And then you kind of think about it, actually, that's already happened. But it kind of came so fast, it hasn't hit me.'
Don't take that dose of humility as a sign that Rahal lacks confidence.
Rahal might look like the skinny kid who works the popcorn machine at the local movie theater, but he's already showing off his strong-willed side. He even jokes some call him a 'junior Tony Stewart.'
Consider Rahal's take on carrying on his father's rivalry with the Andrettis, now represented on the track by third-generation driver Marco Andretti:
'It's part of our family,' Rahal said. 'As dad always said, there's nothing sweeter than beating an Andretti on any given weekend. That's just the way it is.'
Rahal also told it the way it is after getting frustrated with his team two weeks ago.
He was bumped from the field three times on the first day of qualifying but wanted to take one last run before the end of that day's session. But the team wasn't ready, and time ran out, meaning he had to wait another week to qualify.
Rahal complained on television, saying the team's misstep was like 'shooting yourself in the foot.' He now regrets his outburst.
'Obviously, it's not my job to do what I did,' Rahal said. 'And some people looked at me and said that it was a good thing, because it was kind of like a junior Tony Stewart and all this other stuff.'
Much like Stewart, the 1997 IRL champion who went on to bigger stardom in NASCAR, Rahal admits he lacks the filter other drivers have to hide their tempers. Rahal apologized to the team, but said nobody seemed upset by the episode.
'It wasn't like I trashed them or anything, I said it how I felt - we just weren't prepared, and we should have been,' Rahal said. 'Actually, the thing that just surprised me is that if there's ever been a team in the history of the sport that has been known for their preparation, it's these guys. And so to be in that situation, it was kind of like, 'How did this happen?'
As far as 1998 Indy winner Eddie Cheever Jr. is concerned, Rahal's outburst wasn't a bad thing.
'If I would have been the team manager there, or the team owner, I would not have been angry at all,' said Cheever, now an analyst for ESPN. 'You want a driver with fire. It's impossible to take a driver who does not have fire and put it in them. It's feasible, not always possible, to lower the flame a little bit. But that guy is going to have a great future.'
But Rahal says there's one big difference between himself and Stewart.
'Tony Stewart's set for life, and I'm not,' Rahal said. 'I've got to be a little more careful.'
Rahal is joking, but only to a point: His contract with the Newman/Haas/Laningan team is up at the end of the year, and he has to think about his next move. He's likely to be a hot commodity to team owners but doesn't want to turn anyone off by coming off as too brash.
'As of right now, I don't have a job for next year,' Rahal said. 'So I need to make sure I'm on everybody's good side.'
Rahal has thought hard about Formula One and would listen if a top team came calling. But for now, he plans to stay in IndyCar, where he can help rebuild the sport's popularity and try to live up to his father's legacy at the Indy 500.
'We were talking about this the other day: He's won it as a driver and won it as an owner, and the only other thing he could do is to win it as a father,' Rahal said. 'I think it's certainly something that he'd like to do, but he understands more than anybody that it's going to take time.'