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Rahals, Andrettis ready for family affair at Indy

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Graham Rahal still enjoys a good family dinner. He's just smart enough to know dad can't always foot the bill.

The lanky 21-year-old son and the proud Indianapolis 500-winning father chose something new this year: If they could come up with sponsorship money, they'd spend this May working together in Indianapolis.

"I've said all along that the one thing I didn't want to do was come here and have my family pay for it or, quite frankly, do any racing and have my family pay for it," Graham Rahal said.

Rahal certainly had good intentions, even if it meant changing racing's traditional all-in-the-family concept. Many fathers typically have hired their sons to drive cars, with the list including familiar names such as the Pettys, Earnhardts and Andrettis.

But driving for dad can come with a price. There are endless comparisons, constant questions about similarities and differences and, of course, the perception that dad is providing a helping hand.

One example is 23-year-old Marco Andretti. He won three of his six starts in IndyCars' developmental series in 2005, was barely edged out of an Indy 500 win in 2006, his rookie season, and became the youngest winner of a race in series history later in 2006.

Yet today, he still hears people question whether he'd have a ride without the family history.

"The bummer about driving for your father is that is the perception when in truth he (Michael) probably overcompensates on me the other way by making things tougher on me," Marco Andretti said. "I had other options when I came out as a rookie, but in our business perception is reality and you have to prove people wrong."

That's exactly why the Rahals went separate ways.

Yes, Bobby hired his son for an occasional race, but he didn't want anyone thinking his son was getting a handout.

So Graham took a job with an established Champ Car team, Newman/Haas, and spent the next three seasons trying to make his own name in the racing business. He won the 2008 IndyCar season-opener at St. Petersburg, breaking Andretti's record as the youngest race winner in history at 19 years and 93 days.

He followed that with two poles and five top-five finishes last year — enough to dissuade anyone from thinking he was riding on his father's coattails but not enough to keep his primary sponsor, McDonald's, in the series.

Dad, meanwhile, spent those three years working with his IndyCar team, Rahal Letterman Racing. When the sponsorship money dried up last year, Bobby managed to scrape up enough funding for a one-off program — though it wasn't one of the family's more memorable months.

Bobby's driver, Oriol Servia, dropped out after 98 laps with a mechanical problem, and Graham went out in a crash after completing only 55 of the 200 laps.

Faced with another money crunch this year and the possibility both could be sitting home for the May 30 race, Graham and Bobby joined forces to negotiate a sponsorship deal with Quick Trim.

"I always felt that Graham would come drive for us at some point," Bobby Rahal said. "I just didn't think it would be this quick."

Marco's advice for the Rahals is simple: Keep the business talk at the track and the family talk at the dinner table, something that is sometimes easier said than done.

"I was always grateful of my name because it opens doors," said Larry Foyt, who ran for four-time Indy winner A.J. Foyt. "I had some success and I had times, where I think I got spun out or whatever because of the name I had."

And it's not just the kids who have a hard time dealing with the family stuff.

Michael Andretti has seen the obstacles from both sides, growing up the son of racing icon Mario Andretti, the former world champion and Indy 500 winner, and now as the father of the youngest Andretti hoping to start the 500. Andretti has raced against both his father and his son, and the hardest part, as Michael knows, is getting a kid to focus.

"It's tough because when you're 20 years old, you know 10 times more than your dad," Michael Andretti said, a thought fathers everywhere bemoan. "Marco has definitely gotten much better at listening, finally, but you know I was the same way with my dad. He didn't know anything when I started either."

And it's not just the perception outside the garage.

"When I said we need to get the car ready and you know, we're going to put Graham in the car, I think the reaction by the team was everybody was really excited," Bobby Rahal said. "A split-second later, everybody is going, 'Oh, we better make sure this is a good program, we've got the boss' kid in the car.'"

Not exactly what Graham wanted to hear, but given this year's circumstances he'll take it.

"This is a whole new experience, new adventure that we're — basically, this month is going to be a lot of fun for us," Graham Rahal said. "I know that dad has had a lot of success here. If there's one guy you that you would like to be involved with or someone that you can kind of advantage of all the advice that they can give you, it's him, especially here."