Indianapolis For Graham Rahal, driving in the Indianapolis 500 has been an almost lifelong ambition.
The son of 1986 Indy winner and IRL IndyCar Series team owner Bobby Rahal has been coming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since he was a small child, and he has visualized himself in a car on the famed 21â2-mile oval many, many times.
It finally happened this year, thanks to the unification of the two American open-wheel series, and the 19-year-old Rahal has taken full advantage.
He was among 22 drivers who qualified Saturday, filling the 33-car field for the May 25 race.
"I really wanted to race here last year," said Rahal, who drove in the now-defunct Champ Car World Series in 2007 for eight-time champion Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. "Last year, I was here with Carl (Haas) and Mike (Lanigan), up in Mike's suite. I was trying to convince them to run a car with my dad this year.
"It would be a joint venture. We would use my (crew) guys and my dad's cars."
Fortunately for Rahal, pursuing that deal became unnecessary when the unification was announced in January, putting all the top American open-wheel teams and drivers in one series.
"When the merger was announced, I was the happiest person," the youngster said. "I didn't know where we would stack up (with the IndyCar teams), but we knew it was going to be tough coming over to the IndyCar equipment versus what we had used in the past."
The teams transitioning from Champ Car, including Newman/Haas/Lanigan, found themselves way behind on the unfamiliar ovals. But Rahal won his first IRL race on the street circuit in St. Petersburg, Fla., becoming the youngest IndyCar winner ever.
"We are going to keep learning," Rahal said after his solid qualifying run. "On any of the ovals, we are closer than we expected. There is still some speed to find, but being we're so new to this, we are pretty happy with our pace."
The first 11 drivers, including most of the big name drivers, made it into the field a week ago on the opening day of qualifications. The second scheduled day of time trials, last Sunday, was rained out, leaving most of the lineup to fill this weekend.
Despite steady 22 mph wind, gusting over 30 mph, the cars were lined up when Saturday's qualifying began at noon.
Townsend Bell was the fastest of the day's early qualifiers with a four-lap, 10-mile average of 222.539, barely bumping Rahal's 222.531 out of the 11th spot.
"We just nipped him," Bell said of Rahal. "He had a big first lap then slowed down a lot. We had a decent first lap then slowed down a little."
Darren Manning was next at 222.430, followed by Bruno Junqueira at 222.330, Rahal's teammate and fellow rookie Justin Wilson at 222.267, 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice, Bell's Dreyer & Reinbold teammate, at 222.101 and Davey Hamilton at 222.017.
Rookie Alex Lloyd and Ryan Hunter-Reay, who both drive for Rahal Letterman Racing, co-owned by Graham's father, came back from crashes earlier this month to qualify Saturday at 221.788 and 221.579, respectively.
Other drivers who came back from earlier crashes to qualify Saturday include rookies Will Power, E.J. Viso and Jaime Camara.
Sarah Fisher, making her first drive as an owner-driver, qualified 22nd, while Milka Duno was 27th. With Danica Patrick a first-day qualifier, that means there will be three women in the Indy lineup for the second straight year.
Others qualifying Saturday included veterans John Andretti, Jeff Simmons and Roger Yasukawa, as well as Indy rookies Oriol Servia, Mario Moraes and Enrique Bernoldi.