IndyCar Series might be in good hands with young crop of drivers

WEST ALLIS, Wis. -- Anyone hoping that Indy car racing regains the level of popularity it enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s had to be excited by the front row that lined up for the ABC Supply/A.J. Foyt 225 at the Milwaukee Mile on Sunday.

Andretti and Rahal.

Except this wasn't Michael Andretti and Bobby Rahal, who were Indy racing's dominant drivers from 1986 to 1992. The 2008 Milwaukee front row was swept in sensational fashion by their sons -- 19-year-old Graham Rahal, and Marco Andretti, who at 21 is already a grizzled three-year veteran in the IndyCar Series.

"I think it's cool, to say the least," Milwaukee pole winner Andretti said with a grin as he and Rahal talked to the media after qualifying. "It's very special to see how we're able to carry it on."

"It's going to be pretty cool for a lot of fans who have been fans of open-wheel racing for a long time to see these two names back up front and racing against each other," Rahal added.

They're both already race-winners in the IndyCar Series; Andretti won as a rookie at Infineon Raceway in 2006, while Rahal won his very first IndyCar Series start in wet-to-dry conditions earlier this year on the St. Petersburg street course.

They're also both young, American and committed to Indy car racing for the long-term. That's critical at a time when the sport is starved for stars -- especially those flying the stars and stripes.

And Rahal and Andretti are just two of the IndyCar Series' 20-something stars. Indianapolis 500 winner and IRL championship leader Scott Dixon and Will Power are both 27, while Milwaukee winner Ryan Briscoe and Danica Patrick are 26.

Dan Wheldon turns 30 on June 22, and the sport's other established top-line veterans aren't much older -- Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan are both 33.

And there are potential breakout stars like Ed Carpenter (27) and A.J. Foyt IV (24) waiting in the wings.

"Whatever we can do to help," offered Andretti. "The series is looking great from all aspects, not just the two of us. And hopefully it's only going to get better."

Despite being linked to Formula One, Andretti and Rahal both declared their intention to stay in Indy cars for the foreseeable future.

"Unless the top three teams [in F1] come calling, you're not going to have a shot at winning," Rahal said. "And I don't find it attractive to go and fight for 15th place every weekend. We've shown here that any team can come up here and fight. You saw Conquest, a low-budget team, out-qualify one of the Penskes [at Milwaukee]. That doesn't happen in Formula One.

"Being an American, I love living here and I love racing here. And you find that all the Europeans who come over here like racing here better anyway."

Andretti has completed two tests for the Honda F1 team but his interest in following his father and his grandfather Mario to F1 seems to have cooled in the past year or so.

"As long as [the IndyCar Series] grows, this is where we want to be," Marco said. "Unless one of the big three [F1] teams pulls you out of a win at Kentucky, which I doubt is going to happen.

Marco Andretti

We both have a lot of unfinished business. [Graham]'s just getting started, and -- well, so am I, to an extent.
Really from now on I'm just focused on winning races and trying to climb to challenge for the championship.

-- Marco Andretti

"I really think unless the timing is perfect I don't see it [F1] in my future. I'm absolutely happy where I am right now. I have an awesome chance year in and year out of getting two of my ultimate goals -- the [Indy] 500 and the championship."

What made the Andretti/Rahal front row all the more significant is that it came on an oval, and a renowned driver's track at that. Neither has much oval racing experience; Marco has run fewer than 30 oval races in his career and Milwaukee represented Rahal's fourth start on an oval.

"It's a good thing to run with those guys who have won a lot of races in this series and had a lot of success in the past," said Rahal. "That's the way you want to learn. You want to learn from the guys that run up front instead of the guys that run in the back.

"It's a matter of learning as much as we can. Sebastien [Bourdais] called us earlier in the week and said he thought we'd challenge for the pole here. We're all like, 'Yeah right. There's no way.' But the Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing guys have done a good job. We've done our homework, and here we are."

Unfortunately, Rahal and Andretti both crashed out of the Milwaukee race, Andretti inadvertently launching Vitor Meira's car into a graceful aerial swan dive with just four laps to go. They definitely made an impression while they lasted, with Andretti leading the first 40 laps and Rahal looking very racy while running second or third during most of his 119-lap race.

In the end, the message was clear: Indy car racing's future is in good hands.

"We both have a lot of unfinished business," said Andretti. "[Graham]'s just getting started, and -- well, so am I, to an extent. Really from now on I'm just focused on winning races and trying to climb to challenge for the championship."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.