It all started so optimistically.
Now, Graham Rahal can't wait to move on.
Yesterday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was the last event in a short-season program that paired the IZOD IndyCar Series' hottest young shoe with the series' most determined and popular "underdog" team owner. What began as a landmark pairing between Rahal and Sarah Fisher Racing, though, ended with Rahal venting and scurrying for the exit as fast as his long legs could carry him.
What started out as a Cinderella story in the making turned out to be a chapter in his career that Rahal couldn't wait to finish.
A couple of months ago, the Rahal - Fisher pairing was all anyone could talk about. The story of how the young star driver, left rideless inexplicably after the start of the season, was getting a chance to race after all was a good one to begin with. But the way Sarah Fisher essentially talked her sponsors into backing Rahal at the expense of her own opportunity to drive made the story great.
Fans and competitors alike hailed the deal, and few could see it as anything less than a win-win scenario. Rahal would get his track time and keep himself in the spotlight, while Fisher would get a road course specialist and bona fide star driver to help her develop her team's program on the twisting road and street circuits.
In retrospect, of course, we were all very, very naive. Like a baseball or hockey team at the beginning of a long season, our every glimpse of the future was bright and unsaddled with the lows and struggles that inevitably strike.
But strike they did. At St. Petersburg, where Rahal had won in his maiden IndyCar start, the team was only able to muster a 16th place starting position. Rahal battled to ninth place by the end of the event but got airtime for all the wrong reasons, including spinning out fan favorite Simona de Silvestro late in the going.
All parties chalked the experience up to a "feeling out" period between driver and team. Fisher's crew, unused to the quality and volume of feedback that Rahal provided, came away emboldened for the next event. Fisher herself went to work seeking to add Long Beach to Rahal's SFR schedule.
As for Rahal himself, he seemed guardedly optimistic at best. The #67 Dollar General Dallara was understeering like crazy and it seemed like there was no grip at all. "We just kind of hung in there," Rahal said after the race.
"Hanging in there," unfortunately, turned out to be the plan for the next two races as well. The SFR team, still feeling out their road course procedures, was improving with every session, but the understeer demon continued to haunt Rahal at Barber and at Long Beach. The mounting frustration was evident in his post-race comments from Barber: "There's no lack of effort," he said, "but I just can't understand why it's not coming together for us."
Long Beach was a disaster for both driver and team. Never a factor in qualifying or race trim, Rahal spent the event lost at the back of the field and ended up being run into by Mario Romancini. By this time, Rahal was at the end of his rope; the SFR team had discovered that Rahal's chassis was cracked and there was nothing the team could do about it before the race. It was clear to see in his face in post-wreck interviews that Romancini's obliteration of the Dollar General Dallara could have qualified as a mercy killing.
By this time Rahal was more than ready to move on. Three races with a midpack performance as the best result was doing nothing for his career. While the SFR team was game and hard-working, it was clear that the lack of shared testing time and the limited 3-race deal would not afford them the time and opportunity to improve the way they needed to to become competitive. And Rahal clearly was not thrilled with the prospect of any more races in "makee-learn" status as more of a glorified test driver than a threat to win.
Fisher and her team, on the other hand, had to have been at least pleased with how things had gone. Dollar General had gotten more exposure than they could have expected otherwise. Rahal's exceptional feedback level had enabled SFR to make enormous strides in their road racing platform. And if nothing else, the three-race deal had kept the team working instead of riding the sidelines to start the season.
With Kansas Speedway on the horizon, Sarah Fisher will be back behind the wheel of the #67 and Graham Rahal will be back pounding the pavement looking for a new deal for the rest of the year. As Rahal posted to his Twitter account Monday morning, "Today is a new day! A start of something new I hope. Another chapter in my life that I can move on from the last!"
In his rush to move on, though, one can only hope that Rahal still harbors appreciation for Sarah Fisher's sacrifices on his behalf. While being a backmarker may not have suited his well-crafted image, it certainly beat what guys like Tomas Scheckter, Paul Tracy and Oriol Servia have been doing this season - participating vicariously from the peanut gallery instead of from behind the wheel of a race car.