Good news this week for Graham Rahal and JR Hildebrand (below). This talented pair of young American racers has landed quality IndyCar rides for 2011, which is a good thing not only for them but also for Indycar racing as a whole and US race fans too. Rahal will drive for a new Chip Ganassi team with Charlie Kimball as his team-mate, while Hildebrand replaces Dan Wheldon at Panther Racing. Rahal, 21, will lead Ganassi’s new team with sponsorship from Service Central and Hildebrand, 22, takes Wheldon’s seat in Panther’s National Guard car.
Rahal drove for Newman/Haas Racing in 2007-09, scoring his first IndyCar win in the St Petersburg street race in ‘08. Lacking sponsorship, Graham has worked through a patchwork season this past year driving for four different teams. He also spent the year working hard to find a sponsor and landed Service Central, a national tyre distribution and automotive service centre chain. Thanks to this backing Rahal has been able to broker a deal with Ganassi.
“Now the pressure’s on me to succeed,” said Rahal (above), son of CART and Indy winner Bobby. “What I look forward to most is when you’re with a team like Ganassi you don’t have to worry about anything but driving the car and going fast. I’ll be able to focus on having my head as clear as I can when I show up at the race track.
“I just can’t wait. There’s a tremendous amount of experience there. Between Dario [Franchitti] and [Scott] Dixon you’ve got five championships and three Indy 500 wins, and you know that Chip only does things in the best way possible.”
Rahal’s team-mate Kimball, 25, is the son of former Indy and F1 designer Gordon and is sponsored by healthcare company NovoNordisk. Charlie finished fourth in last year’s Indy Lights championship and in 2005 became the first American in 11 years to win a British Formula 3 race.
Ganassi’s new team will be run out of drag racer Don Prudhomme’s shop in nearby Brownsburg. “That’s primarily because we don’t have the room here,” said Chip’s IndyCar/Grand-Am managing director Mike Hull, who stressed it is not a ‘satellite’ team. “Our intention is to run it in the same manner that we run our other race teams and draw from the resources that we have here.”
Hildebrand’s move to Panther comes after he tested successfully for the team last week. He won the 2009 Indy Lights title and ran two IndyCar races last season driving for Dreyer & Reinbold. He also tested a Force India F1 car near the end of last year.
Panther has been looking for an American driver to replace Wheldon, who had driven for the team for two years. The Briton won the Indy 500 with Andretti-Green in 2005 and finished second to Dario Franchitti at Indy this year, but he has been disappointing in road and street races.
Panther team boss John Barnes has been searching for an American who can perform on all types of track and believes he has the right man in Hildebrand. “We knew by lunchtime on the first day of our test that we’d found our next driver,” he said.
These signings are great news for Rahal, Kimball and Hildebrand, but they’re also very good for IndyCar. American open-wheel racing desperately needs some top-class home-grown talent to help draw crowds and media interest. Everyone hopes that with solid teams and sponsorships behind them these three drivers will be able to produce the goods.