AUTO PACKAGE: Time is right for Bobby Rahal to finally give his kid a job

It was important for both father and son that Graham Rahal rise through the racing ranks on his own.

It would have been easy enough for Graham to latch on to Bobby, the three-time open wheel champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner, who as a team owner had a seat he could have a gift-wrapped for his son. But the kid wouldn't have earned the ride.

He has now.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing on Wednesday introduced Graham Rahal as its 2013 IndyCar Series driver, pairing the 23-year-old driver with his father for the first full season of his career. The No. 15 Honda will be sponsored by TBC Retail Group, which has been with Graham Rahal since 2010, and Valvoline will be a major associate sponsor.

"When he first started racing, I thought it was better that he race for other teams and mature under those circumstances and prove himself," Bobby Rahal told The Associated Press. "Because he has, I am not sensitive at all to the idea, 'The old man is giving him a job.' He has earned the right to be at the top and talking about the potential he has as one of the most talented drivers in the series."

Graham Rahal takes over the car driven last season by Takuma Sato. RLL is still working toward fielding a second full-time entry next season, and Rahal said he's looking at a lot of different drivers, but he'd like a deal completed by the end of December. He'd also like to field up to three cars in the Indianapolis 500.

The focus right now is on Graham, who Rahal figured he'd someday hire. Just not at the start of his career, when it was critical for Graham to navigate his career on his own.

Graham started in Champ Car at 18 with Newman Haas Lanigan Racing in 2007, and moved the next season with the team to the IndyCar Series, where he won his series debut at St. Petersburg. Almost five years later, it remains his only career victory.

Graham spent another season with Newman-Haas, then bounced around in 2010, including a one-race stint with his father — a 12th-place finish in the Indianapolis 500. He spent the last two seasons driving for Chip Ganassi on a "B'' team of sorts to perennial title contenders Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon.

His contract up, Graham looked around and found the open seat at his father's team was finally a fit.

"We've always said the biggest thing for me was to develop my own name and try to be my own person," Graham Rahal said. "Much like Dale (Earnhardt) Jr., or really anyone else with a famous father, you are always going to be in his shadow. So you try to make your own name. But with this economy, there is a hell of a lot of potential with us being together."

Graham Rahal points to the marketing and commercial possibilities of the father and son pairing, the promotional opportunities with team principal David Letterman and the business relationships the team can build through team principal Mike Lanigan, who is also the promoter of next season's Houston race. Letterman said he was excited to add the younger Rahal, then quipped that it is "our best chance yet to win the championship, the 500 and 'Dancing with the Stars.'"

Bobby Rahal certainly recognizes the competition upside, and sees a driver who is ready to be the focus of a team. He believes Graham's career numbers — seven podiums in 77 starts — should be better. And, Rahal believes RLL proved last season its cars were far better than the two podiums it got from Sato, who nearly won the Indy 500 until he crashed racing Franchitti on the final lap.

"Graham has certainly proven he can run at the front, and he's won races in various categories and been at the front in IndyCar and should maybe have won races, some through no fault of his own and some through his own fault," Bobby Rahal said. "But he's at a tremendous deficit of experience. You know, Dario is almost 40. Most of the guys doing the regular winning are at minimally 10 years older than Graham. So he's shown he can run up front and he's a good smooth driver who makes very few mistakes."

The trick will be the relationship father and son build on the radio, as Bobby will be Graham's race strategist for the first time. Michael and Marco Andretti tried it for the 2011 season but split a month into the 2012 season when the father-son dynamic was making it too difficult for the driver and race strategist relationship to work.

Graham doesn't think he will have that problem with his father.

"We both get along so well, and more than all that, I trust him. I trust Dad will make the right call," Graham said. "All my life, I've had questions, I've gone to Dad. So this will be nice for me because he's here now. And we are so alike, everyone will tell you he and I are so similar, it's kind of freaky. We are always thinking on the same page, our approach to life and to racing is the same, our outlook, the way we operate. I just don't think there's going to be any problems."

Bobby is more cautious.

"There has to be that respect level where you treat each other on a business level, and you can really degrade that because there are emotional issues in this," he said. "I have to have respect for his views and his opinions and what he's done on the race track, and he's seen what we've done on the race track and we've done as a team. I think there's an equal level of respect right now, and that's crucial. I don't think we would have had this same level of respect three or four years ago, and we're in a sweet spot right now.

"We have to keep it there. And there's a fear of it getting away from there, for me, for me, because this relationship, this partnership is all about Graham winning races. Not me. If Graham wins races, then our team wins races and I do by extension. So I'm going to have to stay on my toes and keep this relationship professional."