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Graham Rahal gives back to the sport that's given him so much

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - SB Nation motorsports editor Jeff Gluck recently attended an IZOD IndyCar Series race for the first time since 2005, when he visited St. Petersburg and compiled a list of differences between NASCAR and IndyCar. One of his conclusions was that IndyCar drivers were a lot more accessible than their NASCAR counterparts - an important selling point for fans hoping to maximize the value of their tickets.

This was especially true for one fan, Josh Thomas, who attended his first IndyCar race last Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park.

Thomas thoroughly enjoyed himself and is sure to return after his first trip to Birmingham. He purchased a paddock pass on a whim and found himself trapped in the rain on Saturday, while walking through the garage. Wandering around, virtually lost, Thomas felt a tug on his shirt collar.

It was a man in a driver's suit ushering him under his team's white and orange tent. The man introduced himself as Graham Rahal and told Thomas that he shouldn't be walking around in the rain.

Thomas had only watched one prior IndyCar race on television -- the 2011 Indianapolis 500 -- and wasn't entirely familiar with the driver roster. Thomas admitted that he was hoping for a Will Power autograph, but only because that was the only driver that he recognized from his first foray into the IndyCar Series.

Rahal spent the next 20 minutes chatting with a fan that he had never met, selling him on the merits of the sport until the storm subsided and Rahal was called back to his car. Thomas asked the driver for an autograph and Rahal happily provided.

This is important because it shows what IndyCar drivers can do to expand the popularity of the sport beyond the confines of competition. Fans want value for their hard-earned cash and spending an extra $50 should result in similar stories.

That's not always possible in the ultra-busy world of NASCAR, where drivers are rarely available outside of their motor homes. This is something that IndyCar can easily do to bridge the gap between themselves and the "competition."

It's also something that Rahal understands and it delivered him a lifelong-fan on Saturday.

"Fans are the biggest part of this sport, and any sport," Rahal said. "They are the people that allow me to make a living doing what I love, and I love to give back to them by getting to know, interact, and spend time with them. It only takes a minute of my day to stop, answer some questions, sign an autograph and make a fan for life, so why not.

Rahal is a guy who clearly "gets it" and he got it from his father -- three-time Series champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner, Bobby Rahal.

"My dad once said enjoy and cherish the time you get to sign autographs and talk with fans," Rahal said. "Because someday they won't be that interested in you anymore."

Thomas eventually caught up with Power, who also posed for a picture and signed an autograph. The Aussie was equally as chatty as his Ganassi rival and suggested that Thomas watch the 1992 Indianapolis 500 -- Power's personal favorite.

For every Josh Thomas story, there are 1,000 made every weekend at IndyCar events all over the country. The sport has a lot going for it right now - beautiful and racy new cars, picturesque circuits, the promise of more ovals and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The recipe for growth is in place and all that is left is time to simmer.