St. Petersburg flashback: Rahal’s rainy first win in 2008

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It’s a sign of how young he still is and how fast time goes that Graham Rahal, 24, is five years removed from both his first and thus far only, IZOD IndyCar Series victory. It happened April 6, 2008 on the streets of St. Petersburg.

Even getting to the race was an accomplishment in itself. Barely more than a month earlier, IndyCar and Champ Car announced their merger that would see some parts of the Champ Car series amalgamated into IndyCar, with Champ Car teams acquiring older Dallara chassis.

Rahal, then 19 and with one year of Champ Car experience already under his belt, had an accident in testing a week earlier at Homestead, Fla.’s 1.5-mile oval. That meant his Newman/Haas Racing team had to thrash to repair his only car and he didn’t start the oval opener.

With a flat black, repaired tub back in action, Rahal drove with such maturity and poise to keep his head in a mostly rainy day in St. Pete to score the victory ahead of Brazilians Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan.

Earlier in the race, he was leading Ryan Hunter-Reay, who at the time was driving for Bobby Rahal’s team! That is a conundrum that neither party will have to worry about this year as Graham suits up for Bobby’s team on a full-time basis this year.

The race also saw E.J. Viso (fourth) and Enrique Bernoldi (fifth) score surprise top five finishes for HVM Racing and Conquest Racing, two additional former Champ Car teams. HVM has now joined in partnership with Andretti Autosport for Viso this year, and also is set to run a Lola LMP2 prototype in the FIA World Endurance Championship with the European-based Status GP team.

Eric Bachelart’s Conquest team, which ran twice in partnership with Andretti and driver Ana Beatriz last year, is also exploring its options in sports cars after it was not able to garner an engine lease on its own for the 2012 IndyCar season. It raced the entirety of the American Le Mans Series with three-race IndyCar starter Martin Plowman and programmer and burgeoning racing driver, David Heinemeier Hansson.

See also: St. Petersburg flashback: 2003 race debut

Fernando Alonso likes NASCAR country, but he’s not leaving F1 any time soon

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Jimmie Johnson strolled into the Charlotte Convention Center and did a double-take when he saw Fernando Alonso hanging out in a hallway.

“What’s he doing here?” NASCAR’s seven-time champion wondered.

Alonso made the trip to North Carolina to make an appearance at NASCAR’s annual preseason media tour. No, a ride in NASCAR is not imminent, but the two-time Formula One champion is about to embark on his first major sports car race .

Alonso will race this weekend in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona for United Autosports, the sports car team owned by his McLaren F1 boss, Zak Brown. It was Brown who paved the way for Alonso to compete in last year’s Indianapolis 500, and he is helping the Spaniard knock prestigious races off his wish list.

Alonso spent about 10 minutes chatting with Johnson, and the duo was eventually joined by sports car aces Scott Pruett and Joey Hand, who were brought to the NASCAR event by IMSA to help promote the Rolex, and then Cup champion Kevin Harvick.

The meet-and-greet with Alonso was a thrill for Johnson. Alonso was equally impressed.

“The first time I heard his name it was probably 2003 on the NASCAR video game,” Alonso said Tuesday. “I used to choose him, not knowing him, just because of the car. I remember playing with another friend of mine, he likes a chocolate company I will not name now, and he was choosing that car and I was choosing Jimmie’s car.

“But that was the first time I heard of him, and obviously the success that he has in the years in motor racing, he became a legend of our sport, and massive respect.”

Johnson said he’s always been a fan of Alonso’s and spent some time telling Alonso how well he ran in the Indianapolis 500 last May. Alonso led 27 laps and seemed to be in contention for the win until his engine expired 21 laps from the finish.

“He handled himself so well, really did a great job, and I think brought a lot to the table,” Johnson said. “He brought worldwide attention to motorsports and it was really good for us here stateside.”

While in NASCAR country, Alonso was asked about potentially trying a stock car someday. It’s not something that could happen soon, he said, but it is something he’d like to at least attempt.

“Right now, it looks quite far. The driving technique and the experience all those guys have, it’s difficult for me to achieve that level,” Alonso said. “I will never know until I try, so I would like one day to test a car and after that, driving the car, I will know how enjoyable it will be in racing.

“Outside (watching), the races are great because they are all in a group, it is not predictable at all and until the last lap, you don’t know what is going to happen. We love watching from the outside, but I don’t know from the inside.”

Alonso has so far only had three days of testing at Daytona in the sports car to adjust to a closed cockpit, as well as driving at night and in traffic. Trying different series has been a thrill for him, and he’s still eyeing a way to get Le Mans on his schedule.

“It’s one thing that I would like to do, I would like to compete in the best races in the world, and Le Mans and is one of the top races,” he said. “If that day will be this year or not is still to be discussed, but maybe yes.”

More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org/